5G wars: the US plot to make Britain ditch Huawei

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Published the Wed Aug 31, 2022 9:41 am
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GCHQ was confident it could work safely with the Chinese tech firm. An American official thought otherwise — and, in a Cabinet Office meeting, shouted about it for five hours
Donald Trump’s arrival in Washington in 2017 had quickly united the Five Eyes spy network against the misinformation emerging from the White House. The assurances given by US agencies to their counterparts in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand proved that the preservation of intelligence-sharing should be safeguarded from politics.
It was a laudable effort — until the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) sided with White House officials on matters relating to Huawei, the Chinese tech firm with links to the Chinese Communist Party. Britain was determined to engage with Huawei based on a recommendation made by Ciaran Martin, whose team at GCHQ had made detailed intelligence and technology assessments.
A White House delegation arrived in London in May 2019 on a policy-disruption mission. Their brief was to oppose a British plan that would allow Huawei limited access to help build the country’s next-generation 5G cellular data network.
Within minutes of the delegation’s arrival at the Cabinet Office, Martin and other senior officials, including the deputy national security adviser, Madeleine Alessandri, were effectively shouted at by one of their guests for five hours.
That guest was Matthew Pottinger, a former US Marines intelligence officer parachuted into the White House in early 2017 to become the National Security Council’s director on Asia. He was known for his distrust of China’s authoritarian regime, a sentiment shaped during his previous life as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing, where he had been subjected to surveillance and physically attacked by the authorities.
Pottinger’s influence on US policy towards China was immediate on taking up his role. He was described by Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, as “one of the most significant people in the entire US government”. One year into his role, Pottinger had played a key role in the White House’s decision to impose tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods. Trump had already declared that “trade wars are good, and easy to win” when he had decided to punish China over, as he saw it, the American jobs being lost to its cheaper workforce. Beijing retaliated with its own tariffs on US products.
While Pottinger and Martin were both in their mid-forties and equally influential in their respective governments, that was pretty much where the similarities ended.
John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser