Boris Johnson’s administration has been urged not to put relations with China on ice after the Asian powerhouse was accused of attempting to persuade influential individuals to support Huawei’s integration into the UK’s 5G network.
A controversial dossier – reportedly compiled with the help of former MI6 spy Christopher Steele – has claimed that high-profile people were targeted to act as “useful idiots” for Beijing.
The Daily Mail reported that the 86-page document said politicians and academics were among those in the UK whose backing China sought to secure.
Following the reports, former chancellor Philip Hammond warned the Government it should not turn its back on China despite “strong differences of opinion on a number of issues”.
The ex-Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Right now, the UK is in the process of loosening its ties with trade partners in Europe in the name of expanding its global reach.
“It seems to me this is not a time to be wanting to weaken our trade links with the world’s second largest economy.”
Mr Hammond’s intervention comes amid intense pressure on Mr Johnson from his own backbenches to halt Huawei’s involvement in the 5G rollout over concerns that it presents a security risk.
Ex-foreign secretary Mr Hammond said he was concerned about an “alarming” outbreak of “anti-Chinese sentiment within the Conservative Party”.
But Tory MP Alicia Kearns, a member of the Commons foreign affairs, said raising concerns over China’s behaviour and “autocratic” government did not equate with being against continued trade with the growing Far East market.
Responding to Mr Hammond on BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme, she said: “Unfortunately, it is just not something I accept.
“There is a lot of concern about China and I think it is very interesting how during the Covid-19 pandemic that awareness and concern has actually filtered through to the general public.
“But when I speak to my colleagues, none of us want to enter into an era of frozen relations with China, that’s just not what we want or are trying to seek to achieve,” added the member of the China Research Group, a band of Tory MPs.
The Prime Minister’s move to allow the company a role set the Government at odds with the US, which had repeatedly warned against the firm amid clashes with China.
The dossier linked to Mr Steele described Huawei as “Beijing’s strategic asset”.
A spokesman for the Chinese telecoms giant described the allegations as “unfounded”, and said they were part of a “long-running US campaign” against the company.
Dr Huiyao Wang, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation and an adviser to the Chinese government, urged ministers not to indulge in a “conspiracy theory” about Huawei.
He told the Today programme: “The UK … should really take a lead on safeguarding the multilateral trading system, including technology usage around the world, rather than going back to conspiracy theory, and really has no hard evidence and no proof to deny a company of the most advanced technology in the world.”
Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said on Monday that US sanctions on Huawei were likely to have a “significant impact” on the firm’s ability to play a role in the UK’s 5G network.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma followed up on those comments by confirming a review was “ongoing” as ministers discuss a National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) report on Huawei.
Speaking to the Today programme on Tuesday, Mr Sharma said: “I don’t want to go into the details of a particular country but you will know that, as a result of the initial sanctions that the US has put in place against Huawei specifically, we are having a look to see what the impact would be on UK networks.
“There is a process ongoing, we will see what that review comes to and we will set out our next steps.”
China’s ambassador to the UK, Liu Xiaoming, had sought to dismiss fears that Huawei’s involvement allows the Chinese state backdoor access into mobile networks and used an online press conference on Monday to warn of “consequences” if Britain wanted to make China a “hostile country”.