The UK-China Huawei dispute is now only part of a wider struggle ranging over the coronavirus pandemic, trade, the national security law imposed on Hong Kong, human rights in China and maritime security in the South China Sea.
There seems little in principle holding the newly assertive China back save the strategic concern that it is being forced to engage on too many fronts at once. China appears to be willing to trade sanctions with the US and its allies in a bid to defend its commercial, maritime and political interests, but it is not yet clear how it will respond if state-owned Huawei loses its grip on the European telecoms market due to overwhelming American pressure, following the UK’s decision to strip Huawei out of Britain’s 5G phone networks by 2027.
In the last 48 hours China has imposed sanctions on senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, US representative Chris Smith, and ambassador at large for international religious freedom, Sam Brownback. Beijing says the action was taken in response to US sanctions against Chinese officials over the treatment of minority Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang.
It has also imposed sanctions on Lockheed Martin for involvement in the latest US arms sale to Taiwan, which China views as part of its territory. The US weapons maker is the main contractor for a $620m (£494m) upgrade package for Taiwan’s Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which the US government approved last week.
China has also condemned a Japanese defence review that accuses China of relentlessly trying to alter the status quo in the South China Sea.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China had lodged a complaint over the review. “Japan’s defence white paper is full of biases and false information,” he told a daily briefing. “It is trying to do all it can to hype up the so-called China threat.”
Similarly a statement from the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, on Monday drew China’s ire for rejecting China’s disputed claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea. Pompeo said the claims were “completely unlawful”, citing a 2016 ruling.
Beijing countered that “the US has repeatedly sent large fleets of sophisticated military planes and ships to the South China Sea … The US is the troublemaker and destroyer of regional peace and stability.”
But Britain will be worrying if China will take reprisals against the UK over easing out Huawei, especially if the decision leads to a stampede of similar exclusions on security grounds across Europe.
China has already given a taste to Australia of how its displeasure can be expressed. Sanctions were imposed days after Canberra proposed the World Health Organization conduct an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus epidemic in Wuhan. An enemy state actor, the Australian government revealed, also launched a cyber attack on Australian state.
Taking on Australia is relatively simple for China. In 2018, exports to China accounted for more than 32% of Australia’s total, twice as much as its second-largest trading partner. China buys a full two-thirds of Australian barley shipments, worth about $1bn US annually. It also buys 24% of Australian beef, worth almost $2bn.
The UK is not similarly dependent on China, but it was noticeable that the UK government did not wish to take ownership of the decision to ease out Huawei. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, repeatedly told MPs on Tuesday that the decision had been forced on the UK by new US sanctions announced by its commerce department on 15 May banning the use of US-manufactured microchips in Huawei equipment – making it no longer as safe for the UK to use Huawei in 5G. He made no mention of the Chinese security clampdown on Hong Kong.
The sanctions explanation, offered without any condemnation of the US interference in UK national sovereignty, has a threefold purpose. It allows ministers to avoid admitting they have been rolled over by their backbenchers, frees the UK Foreign Office from the charge of misjudging the Chinese strategic threat when it reached its original decision in January, and may reduce UK culpability in the eyes of the Chinese. Dowden made much of the modern and mature relationship the UK seeks with China.
Beijing may seek to punish Britain to discourage other European governments from following the UK example, or it could wait to see if only the British take such a sweeping view of the impact of new US sanctions. It will be another test of post-Brexit European solidarity.
So far the head of France’s cybersecurity authority has ruled out a total ban on Huawei, and Germany’s Deutsche Telekom, Huawei’s largest customer in Europe, has argued firmly against any blanket ban on individual vendors.
A lot will depend on the view Germany takes. If Berlin decides to give the go-ahead for Huawei to play a significant role in its 5G network, even if only in “non-core” areas, other smaller, less influential countries may follow.