Huawei: The Fulcrum of U.S.-China Tensions

Huawei Expo at the Mobile World Congress 2015

Over the past few months, as the coronavirus continues to ravage the globe, US-China relations have become increasingly tense. What began as a trade war in 2018 has emerged into what many are calling a modern-day Cold War with conflict spreading into fields such as media, defense, technology, and diplomacy. And, as tensions mount, recent issues over the legality of the Chinese tech giant, Huawei, has threatened to expand this conflict, with many other countries caught in the crossfire.

Founded in 1987, Huawei Technologies is one of the largest tech companies in the world. According to Reuters, it’s the world’s number one provider of telecommunications equipment and the second-largest smartphone manufacturer. Yet, despite its global economic presence, the company has faced significant controversy over its ties to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, is a current member of the party and a former military officer. As a result, it has long been suspected that the Chinese government has used Huawei’s equipment to spy on other countries and companies. Huawei has been banned in the US since 2012, and since then President Trump has only tightened restrictions. For a while, it was difficult to convince allied nations to take similar actions, but recent atrocities committed by the Chinese government have started to change their minds. 

In late December, Dr. Li Wenliang of Wuhan tried to warn others about the coronavirus and its ability to spread. However, instead of being praised, he was told by the police to stop spreading false information. In February, Dr. Li passed away from the coronavirus and since then, the virus has only continued to spread across the globe. This instance in and of itself is enough to call into question the leadership of China’s government and the CCP, but things have only gotten worse. In June, China passed a national security law in Hong Kong, which has been criticized for severely limiting freedom of speech. It criminalizes subversion of the Chinese central government and threatens up to life in prison for anyone who advocates for Hong Kong’s independence. Critics view the law as a major impediment upon democratic rights and it has sparked global outrage. Lastly, China and the CCP have faced major scrutiny for its treatments of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. Since 2017, China has been accused of putting over a million Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps”. While China claims this was to prevent separatist violence, recent reports have surfaced accusing the CCP of egregious human rights violations. The Chinese government has been accused of forced-sterilization of Uighur women as well as forbidding fasting during Ramadan, a Muslim holy month, among other horrible acts. While none of these examples are directly related to Huawei, each has served to convince American allies of the threat China poses and has started to convince them to take action against it. 

On July 14th, the UK and Boris Johnson joined Australia and New Zealand in banning Huawei from its 5G network, in an effort to curb any possible Chinese security threat. While it in part comes as a result of US pressure, it was certainly aided by growing sentiments of distaste in light of China’s recent actions. The move is also in part due to US sanctions on Huawei’s microchips which threatened the reliability of the products as it forced the company to outsource to third-parties for manufacturing. Whether this turns out to be a good move by the UK or not, the ban will cost roughly £2 billion and poses a threat of Chinese retaliation. But, regardless, the move has gotten major attention from the global community and could pressure other countries into doing the same.

In January, the European Union recommended either a restriction or exclusion of high-risk 5G retailers, like Huawei, to its 27 member states. Although this didn’t quite meet the all-out ban advocated for by the US, similar to how things unfolded in the UK, China’s recent actions, coupled with pressure from the US, is forcing the EU to reconsider. It’s likely that Germany, the largest EU state in terms of population, will have a major influence on the issue, depending on which stance it takes. Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to decide on the matter in September, and while countries like France have ruled out a total ban, other smaller countries will likely mimic Germany’s approach. If the EU does ban Huawei from its network, however, China has threatened to retaliate against European telecommunication manufacturers Nokia and Ericsson. While this is seen as a worst-case-scenario as of now, an all-out ban on Huawei by the EU may force their hand. 

Ultimately, this all stems from growing distrust of the Chinese government and the CCP. While it’s difficult to definitively prove Huawei poses a security threat, US pressure coupled with a growing wariness of the CCP––largely in part due to recent grievances in Wuhan, Hong Kong, and Xinjiang––have convinced many countries to consider banning Huawei from their 5G networks. The UK’s ban against Huawei, in particular, represents a major victory for the US in its battle against the Chinese Communist Party. What began with the US-China trade war has emerged to encompass many other nations in the process, and, with impending EU action, it’s likely this will only get bigger.