President Donald Trump arrives in Britain next week on an official state visit, and will have the chance to ratchet up the pressure on the UK government to block the participation of Huawei in its 5G telecoms network.
The UK is a key US ally, with the two nations bonded by a so-called "special relationship", so how the diplomatic shenanigans unfold could have profound implications for wider security issues, especially as the visit comes during a particularly sensitive and historical moment in British political history.
President Trump will be visiting the UK on the days between June 3-5. On June 3, he will be welcomed by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, who will honour her guest with a lavish state banquet in the evening. On June 4, Prime Minister Theresa May will hold a breakfast meeting with Trump, and conduct a joint press conference. On June 5, Trump will participate in celebrations to mark the D Day landing of Allied forces in 1944, now 75 years on since that historic day during the final stages of World War Two.
Trump is likely to forcefully press his position on Huawei behind the scenes - and is likely to sound out other potential Conservative Party leaders, an ever-lengthening list of would-be prime ministers now that Theresa May is on her way out of office.
As the war of words between Beijing and Washington intensifies, many countries are trying to steer a path that lies somewhere between the world’s two largest economies, a balancing act rather akin to crossing a diplomatic tightrope so as not to alienate either power. But given Britain's exceptionally close intelligence sharing links with the US, jointly operating many facilities across the globe, the UK is in a difficult position with regard to the decision whether or not to involve Huawei in its 5G network.
May’s successor faces the monumental task of trying to renegotiate the deal to take the UK out of the European Union (EU), or even force Brexit under a no-deal scenario. But finding the right path to tread between the two superpowers will also be high on the agenda.
Theresa May announced last week that she will formally step down on June 7, but will stay on as caretaker prime minister until a new Conservative Party leader is found. MPs will take a series of votes until they narrow the choice down to two candidates. These names will be then be voted on by rank and file Conservative Party members. The parliamentary phase is expected to be over by late June, followed by a short period for the two finalists to campaign for votes. The new leader of the Conservative Party will automatically become the next prime minister.
The diplomatic and commercial pressure from both the US and China over Huawei’s participation in the UK 5G network is likely to increase in the coming weeks. China has upped the ante by characterizing it as a test of whether the UK remains open for international business, while the US side has elevated the decision to a critical national security issue.
The standoff comes at a particularly difficult time for the UK as it looks ahead to the post-Brexit era (assuming that Brexit is not blocked). Britain, still the world’s fifth-largest economy, wants to negotiate a quick free trade agreement with the US, but also craves access to the Chinese market - and Chinese backing for big infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail and nuclear power stations.
On May 23, a Chinese diplomat warned of “quite substantial” consequences if Huawei is blocked from helping to build the 5G internet network. This followed an executive order signed by President Trump, which did not directly name Huawei, but threatened severe consequences for any companies doing business with companies that are deemed to threaten US national security.
Interviewed on BBC radio, Chen Wen, China’s chargé d’affaires in London, said that banning the firm could prompt her country’s investors to scale back support for the UK. “Is the UK still open? Is the UK still extending a welcoming arm to other Chinese investors?” she asked.
She went on to accuse the Americans of inciting “hysteria” about the global rise of Chinese firms.
For his part, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has accused Huawei of lying about its links with China’s government. In a May 23 interview with CNBC, Pompeo said that “Huawei is deeply tied not only to China but to the Chinese Communist Party,” adding that the existence of those connections “puts American information that crosses those networks at risk".
Adding to the febrile atmosphere, China has highlighted the strategic importance of its deposits of rare earth metals, a group which includes scandium, terbium, cerium and neodymium. There are 17 rare-earth elements in the periodic table in total, and many of these elements have become extremely important in hi-tech manufacturing.
Japan is known to feel particularly vulnerable to China’s near-monopoly of these inputs for electronic components and has been actively seeking alternative supplies away from Chinese sources.
Perhaps with these vulnerabilities in mind, Chinese TV news broadcast footage of President Xi Jinping on a so-called inspection tour of Jiangxi Province on May 20, visiting a factory where he learned about the production process and operation of the JL Mag Rare-Earth Co Ltd, as well as the development of the rare earth industry in the city of Ganzhou.