The US warned that Huawei poses a “real risk” to security as Boris Johnson insisted allowing the Chinese firm to be involved in the UK’s 5G network would not damage transatlantic security co-operation.
Secretary of state Mike Pompeo said the firm was “an extension of the Chinese Communist Party” and Washington would “evaluate” the UK’s decision.
Mr Pompeo has arrived in the UK for talks with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and the Prime Minister with the shadow of the Huawei row hanging over them.
But speaking to reporters on the plane to the UK, Mr Pompeo said: “Our view of Huawei has been that putting it in your system creates real risk.
“This is an extension of the Chinese Communist Party with a legal requirement to hand over information to the Chinese Communist Party.”
He added that “American information only should pass through trusted networks, and we’ll make sure we do that” and suggested the UK could “relook” at the decision in the future.
After Mr Raab met Mr Pompeo on Wednesday evening, a brief Foreign Office statement did not reference the Huawei controversy.
A spokesman said: “The Foreign Secretary’s discussions with Secretary Pompeo this evening focused on future opportunities for economic and security co-operation between the UK and US.
“The pair discussed the US’ proposal for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, and the situation in Iran and Yemen, and the Foreign Secretary underlined the need to de-escalate regional tensions.”
The Prime Minister said allowing Huawei to play a limited role in the UK’s 5G infrastructure would not “imperil our relationship” with Donald Trump’s administration as he faced a backlash from both Tory MPs and US Republicans.
The Prime Minister defied the president by giving the green light to the Chinese firm despite US warnings that it could hamper intelligence-sharing with Washington and the other members of the Five Eyes alliance.
Mr Johnson, who spoke to Mr Trump on Tuesday, said the Government’s decision would not damage the “extremely valuable” security co-operation with the Five Eyes alliance which includes the US.
“There is no doubt in their mind that we can do it and we can allow Huawei into some aspects of 5G but not compromise our intelligence-sharing ability with America, Australia, Canada or New Zealand – the so-called Five Eyes.
“I’m very confident we can do that.”
The decision has caused deep unease on the Tory benches, with discussion of a possible rebellion when the matter comes to the Commons, although the Prime Minister can normally rely on a comfortable majority.
The UK’s National Security Council (NSC) agreed on Tuesday to allow “high-risk vendors” to play a limited part in building the 5G network.
At a 90-minute meeting, Defence Secretary Ben Wallace argued against the move, according to The Times, but was said to have been a “lone voice”.
Government assurances about the decision have done little to quell what Damian Green, former de facto deputy prime minister under Theresa May, called “widespread (and) strong unease” on the Tory benches.
Ministers have said they will legislate at the “earliest opportunity” to put the new guidance on telecoms providers into law, opening up the prospect of a potentially damaging backbench revolt.
“One of the things that frankly surprised me was the breadth of opposition to the current stance of the Government on the Conservative back benches,” Mr Green told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“We don’t know yet, when push comes to shove and votes happen, how many people will actually put their heads above the parapet but it is very widespread.”
Mr Trump has refrained from a Twitter outburst on the decision but officials in Washington said they were “disappointed by the UK’s decision”.
“There is no safe option for untrusted vendors to control any part of a 5G network,” an official said.
A series of senior congressional figures spoke out to condemn the move.
Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, said: “Allowing Huawei to build the UK’s 5G networks today is like allowing the KGB to build its telephone network during the Cold War.”
Mr Pompeo’s two-day visit is likely to offer the first real indication of the extent of any damage to the so-called special relationship.
The US administration has consistently argued that giving Huawei a role in 5G could allow the Chinese a “back door” into the telecoms network through which they could carry out espionage or cyber attacks.
The Government has acknowledged Huawei is not a “trusted” supplier but argues that by banning it from the most sensitive elements of the network and restricting its involvement to 35%, it can manage the risks.
The clash comes at a sensitive moment in US-UK relations, just as Mr Johnson is hoping to make rapid progress on a trade deal.
The PM appears to have concluded that honouring his general election pledge to “level up” the “left-behind” areas of the country must be the priority.
Rolling out 5G across the country is regarded as key to improving economic performance and excluding Huawei would mean delays and higher costs.