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Trump would be foolish to disrupt UK-US ties over Huawei

Sky News logo Sky News 01/06/2019
Donald Trump, Theresa May are posing for a picture: Donald Trump is expected to warn Theresa May over the risks of dealing with Huawei this week © Sky Donald Trump is expected to warn Theresa May over the risks of dealing with Huawei this week

by Deborah Haynes, foreign affairs editor

He will talk tough and threaten, but Donald Trump will be making a big mistake if he tries to mess with the intelligence-sharing relationship between the US and the UK.

The president is expected to warn Theresa May this week that he may limit access to American intelligence unless she follows his lead when it comes to the Chinese company Huawei and Britain's 5G mobile network.

:: Huawei: The company and the security risks explained

He does not want Huawei equipment to be in America's next generation mobile network because of concerns about the potential for Chinese spying.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: The US president is about to arrive in the UK for a state visit © Getty The US president is about to arrive in the UK for a state visit

Mr Trump expects America's closest intelligence partners - chief among them the UK - to do the same. If they don't, there could be real-world consequences.

a close up of a sign: Huawei looks set to play a key role in the development of the UK's 5G infrastructure © Sky Huawei looks set to play a key role in the development of the UK's 5G infrastructure

But any limit put by Mr Trump on the flow of US intelligence to the UK as a form of punishment would impact on the quality of the intelligence that flows in the other direction in support of US national security.

The US is clearly the much bigger partner when it comes to intelligence sharing, with Britain more reliant on US input than the other way around.

However, the UK's intelligence agencies - MI6, MI5 and GCHQ - have a range of world-leading and unique capabilities that the US benefits from as well, particularly in certain parts of the world where British spies have better access.

On the technological spying front, Britain can also be more than an equal partner.

For example, the UK, the US and other allies launched a series of secret cyber operations against Islamic State in recent years, including one called Glowing Symphony. They used malware to block access to data, placed fake stories to create confusion and deleted large volumes of material. Britain had a leading role in this effort.

British agencies such as MI6 remain a useful partner for US intelligence teams © Sky British agencies such as MI6 remain a useful partner for US intelligence teams

The relationship between intelligence officers on either side of the Atlantic has been forged over decades of close contact and transcends individual political leaders.

:: Is 5G safe for your health?

But a presidential decree limiting intelligence sharing with Britain would clearly have a significant effect, not just on UK-US ties but also on the wider Five Eyes intelligence community with Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

As things stand, Mr Trump may unwittingly already have chilled the intelligence sharing relationship between the US and the UK, but not over Huawei.

An order he made last month allowing his attorney general to declassify intelligence related to an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election effectively takes away the ability of US intelligence agencies to choose which secrets to share.

This could have the knock-on effect of making America's allies - like Britain - think twice about sharing their most sensitive information with US counterparts for fear that the security of its content - which could for example identify sources - can no longer be guaranteed.

The world is becoming littered with nations that have clashed with Mr Trump and been unilaterally punished or rebuked.

The most recent example is Mexico because of illegal migration, but there is also China on trade, Germany on defence spending and Iran on a faltering nuclear deal.

Could Britain be next on Huawei?

It almost certainly will if whoever succeeds Mrs May decides to ignore Mr Trump's demands and allow the Chinese firm a restricted role in building parts of the 5G network.

That appeared to be the direction of travel for the outgoing prime minister in a discussion at a National Security Council meeting in April that was leaked to The Daily Telegraph.

It's based on a desire to find a middle way that protects the integrity of British mobile networks from Chinese spying, maintains Britain's uniquely valuable relationship with the United States and limits any damage to UK relations with China, an increasingly important trading partner.

Mr Trump issued a veiled threat against such a move even before his state visit started.

"You have other alternatives and we have to be very careful from the standpoint of national security," he told The Sunday Times in an interview published today.

Sky Views is a series of comment pieces by Sky News editors and correspondents, published every morning.

Previously on Sky Views: Adam Bouton - Favourites don't win Tory leadership contests, but Johnson is different

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