WASHINGTON ― Key House Republicans have introduced a bill that would bar U.S. intelligence sharing with countries that allow telecom giant Huawei in their next-generation wireless networks.
The Jan. 27 bill would potentially downgrade America’s “special relationship” with the U.K., which is reportedly expected to grant Huawei some access to its nascent 5G network. Such a move by London would be a loss for the Trump administration, which has aggressively campaigned against the company, arguing Chinese governments links to the firm mean it poses an espionage threat. (Huawei denies the allegations.)
“I think that if they make that decision that they have Huawei in their 5G, then we have to recalculate and reassess whether or not they can continue to be among our closest intel partners,” Rep. Liz Cheney, one of the bill’s sponsors and the No. 3 Republican in the House, told reporters Monday.
“I would urge the administration to go through and look at that. I think it would fundamentally alter the relationship we have with the U.K.,” if the U.K. adopts Huawei in its 5G network.
As Washington works to maintain America’s technological edge against China, it has been wrestling with just how to shape the role that Huawei is playing in developing 5G networks worldwide. Several China critics on Monday ― Cheney, Jim Banks, R-Ind., and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis. ― met with reporters to argue the lure of cheap telecom equipment, subsidized by the Chinese government, is not worth the risk of Beijing gaining access to the vast amounts of data that would travel over nations’ new networks.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to decide as soon as this week whether to abide public and private warnings from President Donald Trump and other American officials. Johnson has, according to the Financial Times, been looking at imposing a market share cap on Huawei, which would allow it to provide non-core telecom gear, like the antennas and base stations seen on rooftops.
In Germany, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Berlin’s top security official, was quoted Jan. 25 as saying Germany must be protected against espionage and sabotage, but estimated that shutting out Chinese providers could delay building the new network by five to 10 years.
“I don’t see that we can set up a 5G network in Germany in the short term without participation by Huawei,” Seehofer told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The Trump administration itself is struggling to decide how far to go with its restrictions on Huawei, which is already on a U.S. export blacklist. The Defense Department objected to a proposed change to Commerce Department regulations aimed at making it more difficult for U.S. firms to sell to Huawei from overseas facilities, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., complained in a Jan. 24 letter to Defense Secretary March Esper, demanding a briefing and arguing the rule change would have rightfully, “effectively disrupted the supply chain of the Chinese Communist Party’s tech puppet.”
Cheney and Banks proposed their legislation as a companion to a Senate bill Cotton introduced Jan. 8. While the new House bill adds some weight to repeated public threats from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the administration would curtail intelligence and military cooperation with countries that allow in Huawei, it’s unclear how far either chamber’s bill will go.
“We’re getting a growing number of interested colleagues signing onto it just because we’re giving the administration leverage with this legislation,” Banks said, “to send a signal to our allies that they’re making a grave mistake in compromising their data and potentially our national security and related intelligence data, if they choose Huawei.”
Though Banks, the lead sponsor of the House bill, predicted Monday it would attract bipartisan support, even some key Republicans were unprepared to take such a hard line against the U.K., a member of the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence network ― which also includes the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
“Let’s wait until they make the decision and see what the decision is,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said Monday of lead British officials. “Our intelligence sharing, not only with Great Britain, but the ‘Five Eyes,’ and a handful of others is really critical. They’re dovetailed together, and they’re really important.”
In the Senate, a separate legislative proposal would dedicate $1 billion to spur the development of Western-based alternatives to Chinese telecom equipment. It’s sponsored by Rubio, as well as Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., and Ranking Member Mark Warner, D-Va.; Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and John Cornyn, R-Tex.
“We’ve been saying, ‘Don’t buy Huawei,’ but we haven’t been offering a broad-based Western-financed alternative,” Warner said Monday.
Warner hinted he would not favor a change in the intelligence relationship with the U.K.: “I think the British are our longest, best ally and a great, great partner. I don’t think I’m going to make those kinds of threats."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.