WASHINGTON — Top U.S. House Republican defense hawks warned Monday that Boris Johnson would risk a historic rupture in the United Kingdom’s intelligence-sharing or trade relationships with the U.S. if he allows the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei a role in Britain’s super-fast 5G networks.
But the White House offered no public sign of whether it’s prepared to unleash such harsh penalties on the United States’ closest ally — even amid many expectations in London for Johnson to call President Donald Trump’s bluff.
Johnson’s decision comes after a series of efforts by the U.S. to block the Chinese-owned company from gaining a foothold in 5G, amid warnings from national security leaders that Huawei’s involvement could open the door for espionage. The Trump administration has described the issue as crucial to the West’s struggle with Beijing for dominance of the technologies of the future, but has had only limited success in getting U.S. allies to go along.
The latest warnings from Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Jim Banks of Indiana and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin echoed many months of similarly strong rhetoric from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is due in London on Wednesday.
There’s reason to be skeptical of these threats from China hawks in Congress, as Trump’s Pentagon and his Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, have said the U.S. should not punish those who are already doing business with Huawei, a global leader in telecom technology.
The Trump administration’s inconsistent response could allow Huawei to avoid repercussions.
The Trump administration’s inconsistent response could allow Huawei to avoid repercussions if Johnson decides to work with the Chinese company, a person familiar with the company’s thinking told POLITICO on Monday. A move by the United Kingdom to include Huawei equipment in its 5G networks could also give political cover for Canada, Germany and other countries to follow suit, the person said.
The person acknowledged that such a decision could lead to more attacks from the Hill, “potentially even a congressional hearing. That wouldn’t surprise me in the least.”
But the U.K. should not underestimate the risks of refusing to exclude Huawei, the three GOP lawmakers said. They said such a decision would be “short-sighted,” harming the two nations’ intelligence ties as well as prospects for a U.S. trade deal with the U.K. after it leave the European Union.
The U.K. is one of the so-called Five Eyes countries, along with the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand — an alliance whose members share many of their most sensitive intelligence secrets in an attempt to head off emerging threats.
“Our relationship with the U.K. right now is among our very closest, if not the closest in the whole world,” said Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican leader. “I think that if they make the decision that if they’re going to have Huawei in their 5G that we have to recalculate [and] reassess whether or not they can continue to be among the closest of our intel partners.
“We have no choice,” she added. “It’s our own security at risk.”
Cheney and Banks introduced legislation last week to halt intelligence-sharing with countries that permit Huawei to operate their 5G networks. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) offered a similar bill this month, saying the U.S. “shouldn’t be sharing valuable intelligence information with countries that allow an intelligence-gathering arm of the Chinese Communist Party to operate freely within their borders.”
Pompeo has sent similar messages during the past year, including a February 2019 interview with Fox Business in which he said any country that allows Huawei into its “critical information systems” would pay a price: “We won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them. In some cases, there’s risk we won’t even be able to co-locate American resources, an American embassy or an American military outpost.”
“There’s real risk, and we want to make sure they know not only the risk to their own people but their risk of being able to work alongside the United States in keeping the world safe,” Pompeo added at the time.
Trump’s own Defense Department has been opposing tougher Commerce Department restrictions on U.S. companies’ sales to Huawei.
Pompeo upped the pressure on the British on Sunday, tweeting in support of a Conservative member of Parliament who wrote in a Daily Mail op-ed that “Huawei’s 5G sets us on a path that undermines our autonomy and the repercussions could be grave.”
But such warnings have largely been met with skepticism in Britain. Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, told the Financial Times he has “no reason to think” that the U.K.’s intelligence-sharing relationship with the U.S. would suffer if Britain adopted Huawei technology in its 5G network, as POLITICO Europe noted on Monday.
And Trump’s own words have undermined the message at times, including a February 2019 tweet in which he appeared to cast doubt on the strategy of excluding Huawei. “I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies,” he wrote.
Just last week, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s own Defense Department has been opposing tougher Commerce Department restrictions on U.S. companies’ sales to Huawei, for fear that the loss of revenue would harm defense contractors’ ability to invest in research and development. Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged as much in a D.C. appearance on Friday, contending that “we also have to be conscious of sustaining those companies, supply chains and those innovators. … That’s the balance we have to strike.”
At the same time, Esper warned against the myriad threats China poses to U.S. technology and said the military regards Beijing as the United States’ top strategic challenge.
Esper’s comments drew a sharp blowback Monday from Cotton, who joined Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Ben Sasse of Nebraska in requesting a briefing on the Pentagon’s rationale for opposing the restrictions.
“It’s bad enough when capitalists are willing to sell the rope that will be used to hang us, but worse still when our military acts as their lobbyist,” Cotton said.
Besides cutting off intelligence-sharing, Trump has another potentially huge piece of leverage over Johnson: With the U.K. poised to leave the European Union, London needs to negotiate a new trade agreement soon with its biggest trading partner, the United States. And Trump could simply refuse to make a deal.
However, Mnuchin has said repeatedly in recent days that the administration is interested in reaching an agreement with the U.K. this year. He has given no indication that the Huawei issue is a potential impediment.
Trump could also wield his broad powers under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to threaten tariffs on U.K. exports, in the same way he used the law last year to threaten escalating tariffs on Mexican goods because of illegal immigration.
But slapping tariffs on British goods would not be without pain for the United States: Two-way goods trade between the United States and the U.K. totaled about $127 billion in 2018, with the United States enjoying a slight surplus of about $5.5 billion. The United Kingdom is also the top source of foreign investment in the United States, helping to support an estimated 1.2 million jobs, according to the Commerce Department.
Huawei has denied that it represents an espionage threat or is beholden to China’s communist government. It has also staked out a crucial role in telecommunications networks throughout the West, including in much of the U.S. — offering both a supply of relatively inexpensive equipment as well as a source of revenue to chipmakers such as Intel.
The Czech Republic agreed in December 2018 to label Huawei a national security threat.
That has helped create obstacles for the Trump administration’s anti-Huawei crusade, both at home and abroad.
In Europe, the Czech Republic agreed in December 2018 to label Huawei a national security threat, while Denmark chose the Swedish firm Ericsson over Huawei for a nationwide 5G contract. Both countries are members of NATO.
Australia and New Zealand also banned Huawei from their 5G networks in 2018, and Japan “effectively banned” the company from receiving government contracts in 2018, according to news reports at the time — though New Zealand’s government later hedged on whether the door to Huawei was forever shut.
A move by the United Kingdom to rebuff Trump could open the floodgates to other countries feeling free to follow suit, the person familiar with Huawei’s thinking said. The person added that it’s unusual to see the United States being so unpersuasive with its own allies.
“This just seems so unprecedented and so uncharacteristic of U.S. diplomacy and U.S. trade policy,” the person said. “I think it’s largely been a flop.”
At home, meanwhile, Congress passed a government-wide ban on procuring equipment and services from Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese firms in 2018 as part of broader defense legislation. That doesn’t prevent private telecom companies from using Huawei’s equipment, however. And some of those companies have said they would need government assistance to rip out and replace all their Huawei-designed gear — a bill that could come to as much as $2 billion.
Even if Huawei is a cheaper option now, the GOP lawmakers argued Monday, adopting the Chinese technology in 5G networks will cost countries in the long run. And they noted that both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill have called for clamping down on Chinese telecom firms.
“I sense that, in my three years in Congress, the Huawei discussion … is as hot of a topic on Capitol Hill as it’s ever been, with a number of my colleagues taking a growing interest in the concerns that we all share,” Banks said.