Our way or the Huawei: will China retaliate over 5G tech ban?

Chinese state media warns of ‘painful’ response to UK’s ‘ill-founded’ decision

Huawei logo
Chinese state media warns of ‘painful’ response to UK’s ‘ill-founded’ decision  
(Image credit: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP /AFP via Getty Images)

The UK can expect “public and painful” retaliation for banning Huawei from the country’s 5G networks, Chinese state media is warning.

The Chinese Communist Party-backed Global Times said that Beijing could not “passively watch” as Boris Johnson vetoes the use of equipment supplied by the tech company in the UK infrastructure - a decision that state-run press agency Xinhua condemned as “ill-founded”.

What was said?

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The prime minister announced yesterday that Britain’s mobile network operators will not be allowed to buy new Huawei 5G equipment after 31 December and that all carriers must remove all existing Huawei 5G kit by the end of 2027.

The Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese government, said in an editorial today that Beijing had to strike back over the ban.

“It is necessary for China to retaliate against the UK, otherwise would we not be seen as easy to bully. Such retaliation should be public and painful for the UK,” the newspaper said.

What would retaliation look like?

The Global Times did not outline what this retaliation might entail, but “ongoing diplomatic spats with British allies including the US, Australia and Canada reveal a wide-ranging playbook”, says The Telegraph.

Beijing “often turns to economic pressure, betting that capitalist Western societies will think twice about forgoing access to lucrative opportunities with the world’s second-largest economy”, the newspaper reports.

In May, China imposed an 80%, five-year tariff on Australian barley, along with new taxes on Australian beef. Import licences for Canada’s two largest canola exporters have also been suspended by China.

The UK, meanwhile, could face a range of different “punishments”.

Beijing may seek to take a tougher line on post-Brexit trade talks that “could escalate into a full-blown, tit-for-tat trade war, with major British exports, such as automobiles, getting caught in the middle”, The Telegraph suggests.

Alternatively, the authorities could try to make life difficult for British citizens studying, living and working in China, who “could find themselves facing trumped-up accusations”.

President Xi Jinping’s government could also subject the UK to diplomatic pressure by ramping up China’s opposition to British proposals in international organisations including the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization.

Will China follow through on its threat?

Despite the fierce rhetoric, Chinese officials “appear to be making an effort not to escalate UK-China tensions”, The Guardian reports.

“It is not necessary to turn this into a China-UK confrontation,” the Global Times said. “The UK is not the US, nor Australia, nor Canada. It is a relative ‘weak link’ in the Five Eyes. In the long run, the UK has no reason to turn against China, with the Hong Kong issue fading out.”

In an apparent bid to avoid a direct confrontation with the UK, Chinese representatives have largely blamed the Huawei ban on US pressure, an accusation that Donald Trump has made no effort to refute.

“We convinced many countries - many countries - and I did this myself, for the most part, not to use Huawei because we think it’s an unsafe security risk. It’s a big security risk,” the US president said at a press conference on Tuesday.

Given Downing Street’s seven-year timetable for mobile network operators to strip out Huawei technology, some Chinese commentators have suggested that the UK government has left plenty of time for a change of heart, or that a different US administration might roll back its objections to Huawei - meaning no retaliation would be required.

The editor of the Global Times, Hu Xijin, tweeted: “UK can only completely remove Huawei by 2027, which indicates it’s difficult to leave Huawei. But there could be change before and after that.”

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.