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

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Published the Fri Sep 02, 2022 10:15 am
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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
John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser
“We were keen to work with the US to counter [China’s strategic] ambitions,” Martin recalled. “The problem was, on our side, we didn’t think Huawei’s limited involvement in UK 5G was the most important thing in a much wider strategic challenge — whereas the US were only interested in that part of the problem, for reasons we couldn’t fathom.”
A British intelligence official who was at the meeting said: “Pottinger just shouted and was entirely uninterested in the UK’s analysis. The message was, ‘We don’t want you to do this, you have no idea how evil China is’. It was five hours of shouting with a prepared, angry and weirdly non-threatening script. We tried to offer a policy discussion but Pottinger didn’t care. We even said that we didn’t contest the analysis of the Chinese threat and explained our technicalities, but the US officials weren’t interested in that. Pottinger was continuously and repeatedly obnoxious.”
Martin had anticipated a debate with the visitors — if not the shouting. The Trump administration had expressed its disapproval of the British plan after details, which should not have been made public for almost another year, were leaked to The Daily Telegraph two weeks earlier by Theresa May’s then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson. He was sacked , despite repeatedly denying being the leaker. He was among a small but vocal group of Conservative MPs who vehemently opposed any involvement from Huawei in the creation of Britain’s 5G network.