China’s behavior during the coronavirus pandemic will help to “sharpen opinion” in the U.K. toward its security ties with Beijing, the chairman of the United Kingdom’s parliamentary defense committee said.
The U.K. government is undergoing a “mindset change” with regard to Beijing “not least because of the attitude, the conduct of China throughout COVID-19,” said Tobias Ellwood, who chairs of the defense committee in the House of Commons, in a video call with POLITICO.
He added that China had been “less than transparent, in denial about how this started in the first place [and] not a country that we should be cozying up to to do long-term security deals with … I do think that the COVID-19 experience, and China’s clandestine conduct here, will help sharpen opinion.”
The comments from the conservative former defense minister echoes sharpening criticism of Beijing from the United States, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo argued over the weekend that the outbreak had originated in a Chinese laboratory. He did not produce proof and U.S. intelligence assessments have not reached such a conclusion.
According to a report in the Telegraph, the White House has launched a review of its intelligence relationship with London in light of the U.K. decision to let Huawei build parts of its 5G network. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“When so much of our economy is now data driven, do you really want to risk having that potential exposure?” — Tobias Ellwood, House of Commons defense committee chair
Ellwood’s committee oversees the work of the Ministry of Defense and has been carrying out an inquiry into telecoms security policy, focused on 5G, since March. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has approved the use of equipment made by Chinese vendor Huawei but restricted the firm’s access to “sensitive core” parts of the network.
Referring to discussions about 5G security, Ellwood said: “The Huawei debate is exposing perhaps a wider, very difficult discussion about our relationship with China, which we today perhaps have been in a little denial about.”
“When so much of our economy is now data driven, do you really want to risk having that potential exposure?” he asked.
Ellwood’s criticism comes amid escalating attacks from U.S. President Donald Trump and his allies, who have accused Beijing of taking too long to alert the international community about the coronavirus outbreak.
Now, European leaders are taking a similar line. Josep Borrell, the EU’s chief diplomat, said in an interview published on Sunday that Europe has been “a little naive” in its relationship with China, but that its approach was becoming more realistic.
“We Europeans support effective multilateralism with the United Nations at the center,” Borrell said, adding China has “a selective multilateralism.”
Ellwood echoed those points.
“China is going to become a superpower but it doesn’t want the responsibility that comes with that role,” he said. “It had the presidency of the [United Nations] Security Council last month, and didn’t call a single meeting on COVID-19 — which is just astonishing,” he added.
‘How did we get here?’
For the past year and until the coronavirus outbreak, telecoms security has dominated the technology debate between European countries, the U.S. and China. Now, the 5G security question is becoming bound up in the broader reassessment of ties with Beijing.
In a wide-ranging review by EU countries (including the U.K. when it was still a member) cybersecurity authorities last year drafted a 5G security “toolbox,” which recommended to national governments that they impose tougher rules on operators, including some that help decrease reliance on Chinese vendors.
“In the West we now lean heavily on the commercial capabilities to provide all the answers,” said Ellwood. But, he added, in China there are massive state support schemes “allowing their companies — not just Huawei and ZTE but also Alibaba, Tencent, China Telecom, all these enormous giants — to leapfrog ahead in their research, their marketing and promotion.”
“The last time we did that in the West on any real scale would be the Apollo program,” he said.
Operators in the U.K. have relied on Huawei’s equipment for their 3G and 4G rollout. The government should be looking at “a transition period of us weaning ourselves off Chinese capability” rather than a hard break, Ellwood said.
“As much as the Americans are wanting us to stay away from the Chinese the bigger question for all of us is: How did we get here?” he said.
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