Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday challenged US opponents of Britain’s potential decision to let China’s Huawei telecoms giant develop its 5G network to come up with a better choice.
Johnson’s comments came one day after a US delegation arrived in London for a last-gasp push aimed at keeping its ally from signing up the private but controversial Chinese firm.
The United States and Australia have both banned their 5G providers from using Huawei on security grounds.
But UK security officials think the company’s risks can be managed if it is only used for “non-core” elements of the network such as antennae and base stations attached to masts and roofs.
“The British public deserve to have access to the best possible technology. I have talked about infrastructure and technology. We want to put in gigabit broadband for everybody,” said Johnson.
“Now, if people oppose one brand or another, then they have to tell us which is the alternative,” he told BBC television in an interview.
US officials believe Huawei’s employees can be forced to spy for the Beijing authorities under provisions of Chinese law covering operations of state and private organisations.
They also fear that China could simply instruct Huawei to shut down 5G communications of a rival nation in case of war or other conflict.
Britain’s debate about Huawei has dragged on for more than a year.
A final decision has been delayed by former prime minister Theresa May’s resignation in May over the Brexit crisis and subsequent debates over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
The Foreign Office said on Tuesday that a ruling will be issued “in due course”.
Huawei provides the least expensive and most advanced alternative for super-fast data transfers behind technologies such as self-driving cars and remotely operated factory robots.
Johnson must weigh these advantages against the risk of the United States following through on its threat to exclude Britain from intelligence sharing if its signs up Huawei.
A member of the US delegation in London told the FT newspaper that relying on a company from China “would be like putting Russia in charge of anti-doping of world athletes”.
Using Huawei “would be nothing short of madness”, a US official was quoted as saying by The Guardian.
US President “Donald Trump is watching closely,” another delegation member said.
Both Britain and Australia are part of the US-led Five Eyes intelligence sharing alliance.
Fellow member New Zealand named Huawei as one of its three preferred 5G suppliers in November while Canada has yet to make up its mind.
Speculation that Johnson was leaning in favour of employing Huawei was boosted by a rare public intervention from Britain’s MI5 domestic security agency chief Andrew Parker.
He told Sunday’s FT there was “no reason today to think” that Washington would stop sharing intelligence with Britain if it settled on Huawei.
Parker added that security concerns should not always “dominate and dictate” government policies.
His comments and those by Johnson on Tuesday were quickly cheered by Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang.
“We are confident that the UK Government will make a decision based upon evidence, as opposed to unsubstantiated allegations,” Zhang said in a statement.
Huawei “looks forward to supplying the best technologies that help companies like BT and Vodafone fulfil the government’s commitment to make gigabit broadband available to all”, he added.
Johnson pledged in July to provide “full fibre (broadband) for all by 2025”.