Boris Johnson is facing the prospect of diplomatic war with Donald Trump that could threaten a future UK-US trade deal over plans to hand Chinese telecoms firm Huawei access to Britain’s 5G phone network.
The US administration has urged allies not to allow the Chinese tech giant to form part of their 5G networks, claiming it would be a threat to national security.
Last year, the US imposed trade restrictions on Huawei over concerns about the company’s security and ties to the Chinese government and now three US senators have taken the unprecedented step of writing to the National Security Council urging ministers not to open the UK’s sensitive new telecoms network to the technology giant.
In a call on Friday evening, Trump is understood to have suggested to Johnson that Britain and America build an alternative to Huawei together, but UK officials believe that would take too long.
The Daily Mirror says Johnson “faces plunging into diplomatic deep freeze” with the US president, but still looks set to give Huawei the green light – perhaps as early as tomorrow.
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Last year, The Sunday Telegraph revealed that Trump’s negotiators had gone as far as to threaten there would be no US-UK trade deal in the wake of Brexit if Britain did not fall into line over China and Huawei.
Speaking in London on Saturday Steve Mnuchin, Trump’s Treasury secretary, launched what The Sunday Times calls “a carrot-and-stick offensive”, branding the Huawei deal a threat to “critical” infrastructure while offering to “dedicate a lot of resources” to a US-UK trade deal this year if Britain falls into line.
US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, is also in the UK this week to lobby the government to abandon Huawei.
Despite this, the Telegraph has reported Trump now “appears to have scaled back” such a threat, after US officials “privately rejected the idea that a free trade agreement between the UK and US is contingent on Johnson blocking Huawei’s access to the 5G network”.
The decision over Huawei is also “set to provoke a furious cabinet row” reports The Times. The paper claims that Priti Patel, the home secretary, and Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, are “on the warpath” amid claims that Whitehall officials have “bounced” Johnson into letting Huawei build “non-core” parts of the network.
One source has compared the situation to the coronavirus sweeping the world: “Huawei is next week’s Chinese virus” they said.