(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. campaign to hamstring China’s Huawei Technologies Co. is gaining fresh impetus as the Trump administration chokes off supplies of vital microchips and Beijing causes dismay on both sides of the Atlantic with its stance on Hong Kong and the coronavirus.
The U.K. is reconsidering its embrace of Huawei while carriers in Denmark and Singapore have chosen other providers for their telecommunications networks. Meanwhile, Germany and France are reassessing the role of the company that the U.S. accuses of theft, sanctions busting and providing an avenue for espionage.
Only months ago, the U.S. was struggling to persuade its allies not to use Huawei’s equipment. But in May, Washington moved to handcuff Huawei to outdated technology by denying it chips made with U.S. techniques. The change could turn Huawei into a permanent laggard, unable to update and maintain cutting-edge 5G networks that will be communications backbones for decades to come.
At the same time, politics have been unkind to Huawei’s ambitions. Officials in Europe and the U.S. have criticized China over its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. And Beijing drew condemnation for preparing national security laws for Hong Kong, a step seen as a threat to the city’s autonomy.
“Two years ago no one worried about buying Huawei - that’s not true any more,” said James Lewis, director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. He sees “some progress,” in swaying other countries to ban Huawei “although well short of a total ban.”
President Donald Trump is boasting of success, saying in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, “Look how tough I’ve been on Huawei. Nobody has been tougher than me.”
The U.S. says Huawei is a threat to security for the fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless systems that are beginning to be deployed around the world. The networks promise speed and ubiquity: a thick forest of always-on links to billions of devices in homes, factories, surgical suites and autonomous vehicles. As more and more devices and networks are connected, vulnerability to hacking or espionage grows apace.
Because Huawei is subject to control by China’s ruling Communist Party, it can be compelled by law to cooperate with the country’s security apparatus, and has been implicated in espionage, according to the State Department. The Pentagon chimed in Wednesday, sticking Huawei on a list of 20 companies it says are owned or controlled by China’s military, opening them up to potential new US. sanctions.
Rob Manfredo, a U.S.-based spokesman for Huawei, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Huawei has denied allegations of spying, saying it would lose customers if it weren’t trustworthy. The Shenzhen-based company says it’s a private business that can’t be directed by Beijing, and that no Chinese law requires private national companies to engage in cyber-espionage.
The Commerce Department’s ban in May of the sale of any silicon made with U.S. know-how was a potentially crippling blow to China’s tech champion. Huawei’s stockpiles of certain self-designed chips essential to telecom equipment will run out by early 2021, people familiar with the matter have said. While Huawei can buy off-the-shelf or commodity mobile chips from a third party like Samsung Electronics Co., it couldn’t possibly get enough and may have to make costly compromises on performance in basic products, they added.
The chip restrictions add “uncertainty and potential costs” that could leave Huawei unable to meet commitments to build and maintain networks, said Robert Williams, executive director of the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. “The trade-offs between cost and security risks may look different now than they once did to the U.K.”
Huawei’s position is sharply contested in Britain.
The U.K. in January barred Huawei from sensitive core network components and high-risk areas like nuclear-power sites, but said the Chinese company could still constitute as much as 35% of networks’ 5G and fiber equipment elsewhere.
That prompted an angry phone call from Trump to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Trump administration has said any country that uses an “untrustworthy” 5G vendor jeopardizes intelligence sharing with the U.S. That would strike at the heart of the traditional “Five Eyes” security alliance linking the U.S. and U.K., along with Australia, Canada, and New Zealand to cooperate on espionage.
The U.K.’s January decision also triggered a rebellion of junior lawmakers in Johnson’s Conservative Party. Since then, Hong Kong and Covid-19 have helped to harden their stance.
U.K. government officials now are seeking ways to phase the company out in as little as three years.
“There’s been a pretty effective relentless American campaign,” said Sam Armstrong, spokesman for the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based policy group that has argued for blocking Huawei from the U.K.’s 5G networks. “The evidence in Parliament and the threats to Five Eyes intelligence-sharing arrangements have all contributed to a sense that this has had a seriously undermining effect on our trans-Atlantic relationship.”
Despite the storm clouds obscuring its future in the U.K., Huawei committed Thursday to invest $1.2 billion in a research and development center near the English city of Cambridge, drawing criticism from a former leader of the ruling Conservative party. It said the timing was coincidental and the plans had been in the works for years.
The issue is fraught in other European countries, too. The company is losing luster in Europe after winning contracts across the continent, said John Strand, a consultant based in Copenhagen.
“Around Europe, there is a growing focus on the use of Chinese equipment including Huawei,” Strand said in an interview. “When it comes to Hong Kong, it obviously has an impact.”
Strand predicted other countries would follow paths such as those taken by Denmark, where the biggest phone company TDC A/S in March chose Stockholm-based Ericsson AB to build its 5G network, rather that its existing supplier Huawei. Earlier, Energy Minister Lars Christian Lilleholt highlighted security considerations for 5G, without mentioning Huawei.
Such moves would represent a change of momentum for a beleaguered U.S. campaign, said Justin Sherman, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s cyber-statecraft initiative.
“There are many countries that have not done what the U.S. wanted,” including Germany, France and Italy, Sherman said. “There’s legitimate reason to be concerned about Huawei’s position on the 5G networks,” he said.
U.S. diplomats say Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia Oyj build 5G gear and can be alternatives to Huawei. The European providers have struggled to compete with Huawei and ZTE Corp. equipment that’s often cheaper and at least as capable.
“5G systems carry the most private information and intellectual property. It comes down to one question: Who do you trust?” Keith Krach, the U.S. undersecretary of state for economic affairs, said in an interview. “People are realizing that Huawei’s 5G is the backbone of that surveillance state.”
U.S. officials point to progress in persuading allies, citing the European Union’s January adoption of a policy that said companies based in non-democratic countries could be excluded from parts of the network. The EU stopped short of an outright ban on Huawei.
The German government is struggling to settle on rules that would require security certification for vendors in the 5G network. Earlier senior Chinese officials highlighted German car companies – the crown jewel of Europe’s biggest economy – as a potential target for retaliation if Huawei is banned from their markets. China is the biggest single market for Volkswagen AG, BMW AG and Mercedes-Benz maker Daimler AG. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has resisted a blanket ban on Huawei from 5G networks.
France won’t ban any equipment maker from its 5G network, but will seek to protect critical infrastructure, finance minister Bruno Le Maire said earlier this year. With a spectrum auction set for September, carriers including Bouygues SA await a decision from the French cyber security agency Anssi on whether Huawei can be part of their plans. In a tweet earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised France’s leading phone company Orange SA, calling it a “clean” telecom carrier after it picked “trusted” 5G equipment suppliers Nokia and Ericsson in January.
Italy hasn’t moved against Huawei, though it has adopted rules to closely monitor telecommunications equipment suppliers, and scrutinize gear that comes from outside Europe. Italy has pursued a friendly approach with Chinese investors and especially with Huawei, which has poured money into the country, financing research centers, universities and schools.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been stalling a decision on whether to ban Huawei from 5G wireless networks. Tensions between the two countries have been rising since Canadian authorities arrested Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request in late 2018. After her arrest, China put two Canadian citizens in jail, halted billions of dollars in Canadian imports and put two other Canadians on death row. On June 2, two major Canadian wireless companies -- BCE Inc. and Telus Corp. -- said they’d build out their 5G wireless networks with equipment from Ericsson and Nokia.
India has allowed Huawei to participate in trials, but the company’s entry into the country’s 5G commercial network could be blocked as tensions persist following border clashes with China. India is the largest wireless market outside China by number of subscribers, and has been a focus for investment by Huawei.
“The tide is turning against Huawei as citizens around the world are waking up to the danger of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state,” Pompeo said in a statement Wednesday.
(Updates to add reference to U.K. development site in 19th paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to fix the spelling of Huawei in fourth paragraph)
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