Huawei was a wake-up call. The UK must act quickly to tackle China’s next tech offensive.

The UK woke up to the threat Huawei posed to our sensitive systems and critical national infrastructure, albeit slowly and in response to US sanctions. A new government must act swiftly to address the risks posed by Chinese cellular (IoT) modules - a new area of technology that is already proving a far greater threat. The Coalition’s Chair, Baroness Natalie Evans reflects on the lessons we can learn from Huawei and how a new government should address this latest challenge.

The UK Government was behind the curve when it came to banning the Chinese tech giant Huawei from 5G public networks. But when the decision was eventually made following pressure from Washington, it was necessary action to protect the UK telecoms network and critical national infrastructure.

Now China is adopting a similar strategy to target a new area of technology – one that few have heard of but that potentially poses a far greater challenge to free and open countries. The UK must take it seriously and speed up its response.  

The new China Tech threat

Chinese-made cellular (Internet of Things) modules (CIMs) are a new area of technology the People’s Republic of China is determined to establish dominance in. These vital components are at the heart of ‘smart’ connected devices and embedded in our everyday lives, even if we don’t realise it. They enable new technologies to interact, collect data and interfere with systems remotely and are vital to everyday items from electric vehicles, smart meters, routers and domestic appliances. They can also be found in the biggest logistics and manufacturing systems and processes. 

Take Chinese connected vehicles which may begin to dominate western markets. Through the use of the CIM, they could be immobilised from Beijing, paralysing London traffic or government and defence vehicles. There is also a serious threat from data collection. Knowing the location or plotting the movements of every government or defence vehicle for instance represents a major security threat.

History repeating itself

Having only approved Huawei’s role in supplying parts of the new 5G network six months earlier, the UK government rapidly changed course in response to heightened political concern. The Chinese vendor was banned from building the UK’s 5G network and telecom companies were ordered to remove all Huawei equipment, starting with areas critical to national security.   

The lack of clarity on Huawei is emblematic of the UK’s wider response to China – inadequate, short-term and running to catch upThis time the government must act sooner to develop policies and address strategic challenges to protect key UK’s assets from Chinese interference or disruption.

Already, the Biden Administration has taken action to investigate the security risks from Chinese connected vehicles and issued an executive order to strengthen cybersecurity against Chinese CIMs in American ports’ infrastructure.

The UK has remained largely silent on any such similar plans.

How should the UK respond?

Whichever political party takes office on 4 July, it will do so in an immensely challenging foreign policy environment, with China increasingly flexing its muscles.

Labour has promised a full audit of UK-China relations within their first six months of forming a government with the aim to develop a consistent and robust approach to China that prioritises national security and democratic integrity. This will be important work, not least to establish the extent of Chinese CIMs across Whitehall. However, any probe by whichever party is in power must go further to be effective. Any audit must be expanded to include critical national infrastructure, health services, military, defence and other sensitive areas.

Political parties must also look to use new powers passed by this government to restrict Chinese CIMs from government procurement lists. Chinese CIM manufacturers Quectel, Fibocom and MeiG should be as familiar names as Huawei, Hikvision and TikTok.

And we must not forget the vital role industry has to play in the UK’s China strategy. Chinese CIMs are becoming increasingly ubiquitous throughout products and across industries so businesses must be given clarity on the direction of travel. Businesses must be engaged with early and comprehensively by government in the decisions about restricting their future use.

The threat of Chinese CIMs is potentially more far reaching than Huawei’s risks to our telecommunications. China poses the biggest security threat to the West over the next decade and the UK must respond robustly working with our allies.

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