Mike Rake has been advising Huawei since January © Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Mike Rake, the former BT chairman and president of the CBI, has joined Huawei’s UK board as a non-executive director after defending the Chinese company against a political onslaught in recent weeks.

The British business veteran, who advised David Cameron when he was prime minister, has been advising Huawei since January having kept a close relationship with the Chinese company after he worked with the group during his stint at BT.

The appointment of the telecoms veteran comes against a backdrop of increased tension over the UK government’s decision to restrict the amount of Huawei equipment that can be used by Britain’s telecoms companies building 5G and ultrafast broadband networks.

Victor Zhang, Huawei vice-president and head of global government strategy, in an open letter on Monday urged the government not to further restrict its role in the UK’s 5G rollout.

The government resisted pressure from the US to ban the use of Huawei equipment altogether on national security grounds in January. But a rebellion by some Conservative politicians over the issue has reopened the debate over Huawei’s role in Britain’s critical national infrastructure.

Sir Mike, who spent a decade as chairman of BT, warned last month that further restrictions on the use of Huawei could damage the UK in a post-Brexit landscape. 

“Any attempt to further restrict Huawei 5G equipment, or to remove existing 4G equipment will not only incur very significant costs, but prejudice trade relationships with China and will significantly set back the government’s broadband ambitions. This in turn will further damage our competitiveness as an economy, at what is a critical moment,” he said in an open letter. 

Sir Mike said in a statement that his “passion” to provide affordable and reliable communications technology has been underscored by the Covid-19 crisis and drove his decision to join Huawei. “At BT, I saw first-hand how Huawei worked with Britain’s leading operators to roll out broadband, 3G and 4G,” he said. 

BT’s decision to use Huawei as a supplier to its “next generation network” last decade opened up international markets for the Chinese company, which has grown to become the world’s largest supplier of telecoms equipment. That move preceded Sir Mike’s tenure at BT but the company’s £12.5bn acquisition of EE, the mobile operator, strengthened the relationship with the Chinese supplier. 

The UK board of Huawei — which meets four times a year — is structured as a limited liability company. It was established in 2011 with John Browne, the former BP chief executive, joining in 2015 as chairman to stave off corporate governance concerns surrounding Huawei’s relationship to the Chinese state. 

The company will confirm on Tuesday that Sir Mike has joined the Huawei Technologies UK board alongside other British business grandees including Lord Browne and Ken Olisa, the venture capitalist and former Institute of Directors board member. Andrew Cahn, the former head of the UK Trade and Investment, is also a non-executive director of Huawei UK. 

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