Several days before US President Donald Trump's long-delayed state visit, 5G finally landed in the UK. Last week, the BBC held the country's first live 5G broadcast with Huawei equipment, although it got off to a bumpy start because the SIM card used for the trial ran out of data.
Now, the UK faces a choice: align with the US to crack down on China's telecoms giant Huawei, or cooperate with Huawei over commercial 5G services. No matter which choice the UK makes, its moves will have a demonstration effect for US allies. Trump's state visit comes at a sensitive moment as tensions rise between the US and China over Huawei. If Trump cannot persuade London to support his brutal crackdown on Huawei, it is going to be very hard to persuade other US allies.
Trump's biggest difficulty is that the US has not yet mastered the most advanced 5G technology. It means US companies cannot provide more cost-effective devices as an alternative for the UK if the latter follows Washington's advice to ban Huawei from its 5G network. A crackdown on Huawei will only leave the UK lagging behind in 5G development. This is what the US wants to see, but it goes against the UK's interests.
The UK's biggest mobile operator EE launched 5G wireless in May in six UK cities. EE was quoted by Reuters as saying that its 5G network would rely on equipment made by Huawei, at least for the first few years. The BBC's broadcast has proved the operator's words. It's very difficult to separate Huawei from the UK's 5G development.
Huawei is not only a world leader in developing 5G technology but also an important player in the global 5G industrial chain. The company procures components from a large number of suppliers in Asia, Europe and North America. A ban on Huawei equipment means a ban on the whole industrial chain. The UK won't be able to build such a complete industrial chain overnight, so a crackdown on Huawei equipment will delay the UK's 5G development.
China's status in the global 5G industrial chain cannot be easily undermined. As of March, Chinese companies accounted for 34 percent of worldwide applications for major patents related to 5G technology, the Nikkei Asian Review reported, citing data from Germany-based IPlytics. Even if the UK government decides to block Huawei's role in the UK's 5G development, the policy will be hard to implement and will backfire.
5G technology has been touted as a major breakthrough that will lay a foundation for the development of the digital economy. If the US wants to persuade the UK to reject Huawei when it comes to advanced technology, Washington will have to offer something of sufficient value in exchange.The author is a reporter with the Global Times. [email protected]