WASHINGTON — Over the past several weeks, the U.S. government has launched a seemingly unprecedented campaign to block the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies from competing in the global rollout of next-generation 5G mobile networking technology, claiming that the company is effectively an arm of the Chinese intelligence services.
In an effort that has included top-level officials from the departments of State, Justice, Defense, Homeland Security, and Commerce, as well as the president himself, the Trump administration has taken steps to curtail Huawei’s ability to operate within the U.S. It has also mounted an extraordinary effort to convince U.S. allies to bar the firm from operating on their soil.
Huawei has long been viewed with suspicion and distrust in many corners of the global economy. The company has a documented history of industrial espionage, and its competitiveness on the global stage has been boosted by massive subsidies from the government in Beijing. Still, the scope of the U.S. government’s current offensive against the company is remarkable.
“Huawei has been accused of many things for a very long time. This is nothing new. What is unique is the extent of the pressure campaign,” said Michael Murphree, assistant professor of International Business at the University of South Carolina’s Darla Moore School of Business. “In the grand scheme of international technology competition, this is certainly a very strong effort against a specific firm.”
The push to keep Huawei from playing a major role in the rollout of 5G comes at a time when the U.S. and China are in talks to end a costly trade war that the U.S. launched last year with the imposition of tariffs against hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of Chinese exports. In another unprecedented move, President Donald Trump has even tied at least one of the government’s actions against Huawei — a federal indictment in which the company’s chief financial officer has been named — as a potential bargaining chip in trade discussions.
A corporate spokesman for Huawei declined to comment on the Trump Administration’s aggressive tactics.
The case against Huawei
U.S. officials cite a number of reasons to treat Huawei with extreme suspicion, some of them well-documented, others less so.
Top of the list is a National Intelligence law passed in China in 2017 that gives government intelligence services broad and open-ended powers to demand the cooperation of businesses operating in China in intelligence gathering efforts. U.S. policymakers argue that this presents an unambiguous threat to national security.
“In America we can’t even get Apple to crack open an iPhone for the FBI,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio said in a March 13 appearance on Fox Business Network. “In China, Huawei has to give the Chinese anything they ask for.” He added, “They should not be in business in America.”
And while Huawei has strongly denied that it operates as an arm of the Chinese intelligence services, at least two recent international espionage cases have come uncomfortably close to the firm.
In January, the Polish government arrested a Huawei executive on charges of spying for China. The company itself has not been charged in the case, and Huawei announced that the employee, a sales manager, had been fired.
Early last year, the French newspaper Le Monde Afrique reported that over the course of several years, the computer systems in the Chinese-financed headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa were secretly transmitting data toservers in Shanghai every night, and that listening devices had been discovered implanted in the building. It was later revealed that the primary supplier of information and communications technology to the project had been Huawei.
No proof has ever been put forward that Huawei was involved in the data theft, and African Union officials have declined to go on the record confirming that the information transfers ever occurred.
One of the most frequent concerns expressed by U.S. officials about Huawei is the least substantiated: the idea that the company could install secret “backdoor” access to communications equipment that would give the Chinese government ready access to sensitive communications, or even enable Beijing to shut down communications in another country at will.
It’s a claim that Ren Zhengfei, Huawei’s 74-year-old founder and president, has personally ridiculed. The government would never make that request, and Huawei would never comply, he told the BBC recently. “Our sales revenues are now hundreds of billions of dollars. We are not going to risk the disgust of our country and our customers all over the world because of something like that. We will lose all our business. I’m not going to take that risk.”
The public battle over Huawei’s image
The sheer number of fronts on which the U.S. federal government is currently engaging with Huawei, sometimes very aggressively, is notable.
The most high-profile of these is a federal indictment of the company naming its Chief Financial Officer, Meng Wanzhou, in an alleged scheme to deceive U.S. officials in order to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran. Meng was arrested in Canada at the request of U.S. prosecutors, and the Justice Department is seeking her extradition in order to have her face trial in New York. At the same time, a second federal indictment accusing the company of stealing trade secrets, was unsealed in the state of Washington.
It is the Meng case that President Trump has suggested he might use as leverage in ongoing trade talks. Speaking to reporters at the White House last month, he said, “We’re going to be discussing all of that during the course of the next couple of weeks. We’ll be talking to the U.S. attorneys. We’ll be talking to the attorney general. We’ll be making that decision. Right now, it’s not something we’ve discussed.”
There have also been active efforts to dissuade other countries from doing business with Huawei.
Last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned U.S. allies that if they use Huawei telecommunications equipment in their critical infrastructure, they will lose access to some intelligence collected by the United States “If a country adopts this and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox Business Network.
On March 8, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany sent a letter to the German minister for economic affairs, reiterating the U.S. government’s concern about the potential for backdoors in Huawei systems and the threat of tampering during complex software updates. He said that U.S. intelligence sharing would be significantly scaled back if Germany uses Huawei products in its new telecommunications systems.
In February, the U.S. government sent a large delegation to MWC Barcelona, the telecommunications industry’s biggest trade show, where they publicly excoriated the company as “duplicitous and deceitful.” The U.S. delegation included officials from the departments of State, Commerce, and Defense, as well as Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Also there were officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development, who made it clear that foreign aid dollars from the U.S. will not be available to help fund purchases from Chinese telecom firms.
In addition, a law signed by President Trump last year bars the federal government from buying equipment from Huawei and smaller Chinese telecom company ZTE. Trump has additionally floated the possibility of an executive order that would block Huawei from any participation at all in U.S 5G networks.
Huawei is fighting back, filing a lawsuit this month that claims it was unfairly banned from U.S. government computer networks. Deng Cheng, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the lawsuit may be aimed at determining what information the U.S. government is using to make its case.
“There is information that the intelligence community may have that isn’t necessarily going to be made public,” he said. “What is admissible in court is not always the same as the information that is actually available. So I’m not really sure how this court case will even be adjudicated.”
Huawei’s lawsuit is likely also partly aimed at improving the firm’s reputation at a time when it is under siege by American officials.
The risk of pushback from China
At a time when the United States relations with even its closest traditional allies is under strain, Washington’s seemingly unilateral demand that a major global supplier be effectively shut out of an enormous marketplace is an audacious request.
For one thing, it is complicated by the fact that for countries and companies anxious to take advantage of 5G wireless technology, there may not be a ready substitute for the Chinese firm.
This seems to be reflected in recent reports that U.S. allies, in Europe, India, the United Arab Emirates and elsewhere, are showing real resistance to U.S, demands. A report in the New York Times late Sunday said that in Europe, the general sense is that any risk posed by Huawei is manageable through monitoring and selective use of the company’s products. The story noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s response to the U.S. was a terse message that Germans would be “defining our standards for ourselves.”
And of course, there is always the possibility — even the likelihood — of Chinese retaliation against countries that accede to the United States’ requests. And in China, where the media is largely controlled by the Communist Party, and access to international news services is sharply limited, that retaliation would likely have widespread public support.
“The very strong perception is that Huawei is a great Chinese company that has done extraordinary things to move to the global frontier, in some respects to the head of the pack, and it is being unfairly treated and held back by the United States for specious reasons,” said Lester Ross, the partner-in-charge of the Beijing office of U.S. law firm Wilmer Hale.