Huawei’s planned $1B UK R&D facility prompts U.S. warning

Huawei is planning to invest more than $1 billion in an R&D facility in England. (Huawei)

The U.S. is urging the U.K. to carefully assess long-term impacts of giving China’s Huawei access to sensitive information, after a local council in England approved the first phase of a more than $1 billion Huawei project to build a new R&D facility in the country.

Huawei announced the approval Thursday and said it plans to invest around $1.2 billion during phase one for the center in Sawston, a village in the English countryside of Cambridgeshire. The site is meant to eventually serve as Huawei’s international headquarters for its optoelectronics business, where it will research, develop, and produce semiconductor technology focused on optoelectronics used in fiber optic broadband networks.

In a statement to Fierce Wireless, a U.S. State Department spokesperson said it had seen reports the U.K. intends to allow Huawei to build an R&D center in England and urged all countries, especially allies and partners like the U.K., to carefully evaluate the long-term impact of granting “untrusted companies like Huawei access to sensitive information.”

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“We believe countries need to be able to trust that partners will not threaten national security, privacy, intellectual property, or human rights.  Trust cannot exist where a company such as Huawei is subject to an authoritarian government, like the PRC [People’s Republic of China], that lacks an independent judiciary or rule of law that would effectively prohibit the misuse of data,” the State Department spokesperson said.

RELATED: Huawei’s future in U.K. 5G networks in question again

The Financial Times first reported that a local council approved the plan (PDF) nine to one despite lobbying from U.S. officials against the plant over security concerns. The report said senior U.S. officials contacted Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the Commons foreign affairs committee in Britain, with concerns that U.S. chips might be tested by Huawei at the facility.

“The Chinese Communist Party acquires technology and intellectual property through licit and illicit means, through collaboration and through deception, and by investment, joint research, and outright theft,” the State Department spokesperson said, adding that the U.S. is “deeply concerned about the serious risk” this strategy poses to U.S national security, as well as to “the security of advanced technology producing countries like the United Kingdom.”

Huawei did not respond to Fierce request for comment.

RELATED: Industry Voices — Paolini: Protecting the US, or isolating it? The long-term effects of US policies on Huawei

Earlier this year, against amidst an ongoing campaign by the U.S. for countries worldwide to ban the use of Huawei gear in communications networks, the U.K. decided to give the telecom vendor a limited role. It excluded “high-risk vendors” including Huawei, from core networks, but allowed Huawei to supply parts of the radio access network (RAN) with a hard 35% cap on its presence.

However, Huawei’s participation is in question again. In May the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), part of the GCHQ security and intelligence office, launched a new review to assess the impact U.S. sanctions against Huawei might have on Britain’s telecom networks.

The U.S. has warned Huawei could be used by the Chinese government for state-backed spying or disruption through its presence in communications networks. Huawei has denied such claims.

The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, reported Thursday that U.S. officials and policy makers have discussed ways the federal government can back the private sector in order to compete against Huawei globally.

U.S. officials, including at the FCC, have already shown increased interest in open RAN technology, which could help create a more diverse set of vendors. Ideas reportedly also include prodding large U.S. tech companies like Cisco to buy Ericsson or Nokia, or the government providing tax breaks to the Swedish and Finnish vendors – who are Huawei’s two main competitors in the telecom space.

RELATED: FCC’s Pai bullish on open RAN, virtualization

Huawei VP Victor Zhang told the Financial Times he doesn’t think there’s a strong link between the planned R&D center and Huawei supporting U.K. operators’ networks like Vodafone or BT – so Huawei is committed to the new R&D facility no matter what happens with the U.K.’s NCSC review.

The first phase of Huawei’s U.K. project involves building roughly 540,000-square-foot facilities across nine acres of land, directly creating around 400 local jobs, according to Huawei. Huawei started work on the initiative in 2017 and acquired a 500-acre site in South Cambridgeshire, as well as 50 acres of brownfield land.

“Through close collaboration with research institutes, universities, and local industry, we want to advance optical communications technology for the industry as a whole, while doing our part to support the UK's broader Industrial Strategy,” said Zhang in a statement. “Ultimately, we want to help enshrine the UK's leading position in optoelectronics and promote UK tech on a global scale."

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