What's really behind the US's Huawei ban?

Despite the rhetoric, the anti-China ban has more to do with economic concerns than fears of espionage.

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At the end of 2018, the US passed a bill preventing the federal government and its agencies from doing business with the Chinese technology giant, Huawei. In 2019, the company, along with several dozen subsidiaries and affiliates, was added to the US’s “entity list”, severely restricting US companies’ ability to do business with one of the world’s largest telecommunications equipment firms. In response, American tech companies severed their links to the multinational, including Microsoft, Google and Intel.

“It’s a national security concern,” US President Donald Trump told reporters last month. “Huawei is a big concern of our military, our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei.” The “concern” Trump had was over the ability of the Chinese corporation – with ties to the Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army – to use its control over telecommunications infrastructure to intercept data from individuals, corporations and government. As well as potentially facilitating intellectual property theft and cyber espionage, Chinese integration into Western projects for new critical national cyber infrastructure would give China the upper hand in any potential cyber war.

But Trump also revealed something else in the same press conference: “We’re not doing business with Huawei. We’re going to do our own business. You know the old fashioned way? We’ll do it right from within the United States, which is what I’ve been saying for a long time… Speaking of tariffs, there are no tariffs if you want to build or make these products in the United States. There are no tariffs whatsoever.” The new restrictions on Huawei products did not involve tariffs on their import, but instead restricted them regardless of where they were made. The laws did, however, coincide with the trade war between the US and its new superpower rival in the East.

Were the moves against Huawei about preventing a major threat to the nation’s cyber security, and maintaining advantage in a future cyber war? Or were they about Trumpian efforts to reshore manufacturing jobs back to the United States? “Huawei is something that’s very dangerous...from a security standpoint, from a military standpoint it’s very dangerous,” he told reporters in May, before telling them that it was possible that Huawei “would be included in some kind of a trade deal”. His commitment to anti-Huawei measures has ebbed as negotiations with the People’s Republic have progressed, suggesting that the company is less a cyber security concern, and more a pawn in a continuing trade war.

Huawei’s phone sales continue to rise whilst Apple’s market share falls, and it now sells the second most mobile units after Samsung. Trump’s efforts to “make America great again” depend partly on stemming China’s inexorable rise. Ironically, his efforts to do so might actually result in the opposite. Restricting Huawei’s access to American goods could act as the catalyst for China to accelerate its own production of high technology, and move away from its former role as the world’s factory for cheap, low-quality goods. The Communist Party’s “Made in China 2025” plan intends to do just that.

Jonny Ball is a Special Projects Writer for Spotlight and the New Statesman

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