LONDON (Reuters) - Britain risks throwing away its long-standing relationship with China if it bans Huawei from its 5G networks at the behest of the United States as part of a global battle for technological supremacy, the UK chairman of the tech group told Reuters.
John Browne, a pre-eminent voice in UK Plc and former head of oil giant BP, said Huawei had become a political football in an escalating trade dispute between the two superpowers, and Britain risked being damaged in the process.
Britain granted the telecoms group a limited role in its 5G network earlier this year, but new U.S. sanctions on chip technology have put its status as a reliable supplier in doubt, and ministers are likely to take a tougher stance.
“There is no diplomacy here,” Browne said during a Reuters Events virtual ‘Build Back Better’ symposium in London. “The UK has had a very long relationship with China and I hope it’s not one that they simply throw away.”
Browne, in his final term as chairman of Huawei UK, said when he joined six years ago, no one could pronounce the company’s name or knew what it did.
“It’s become very, very visible indeed, and it has become a football between the United States and China,” he said.
The United States had seen the ascendancy of China in technologies such as 5G and AI, he said, mirroring the space race in the 1950s when Russia was first to launch a satellite.
“A very similar reaction is occurring now, because it’s always been in the interests of the U.S. to be ascendant in this area, it’s been good for the world as well,” said Browne, a veteran of navigating geopolitical tensions through his time at BP dealing with Russia.
Were Britain to bar Huawei from its 5G networks, the future of the Chinese company in a country where it has invested millions of pounds in research and development would be in doubt.
“They have clearly a lot of business, everything from smartphones through to 3 and 4G as well as this proposed 5G,” he said.
“If there’s no business and they are prevented from doing business I would expect them to make decisions to withdraw.”
Writing by Paul Sandle; Editing by Mark Potter