Could Trump Win the War on Huawei—and Is TikTok Next?

The US doesn’t necessarily deny its own surveillance ambitions, and while the US is careful to never be this blunt diplomatically, its argument around 5G security effectively boils down to this: Someone is going to be lurking inside the next generation of the globe’s wireless networks, wouldn’t you rather it be western intelligence agencies, which are beholden to democratic legal systems and respect human rights and political speech, than Chinese security forces, which carry out ethnic cleansing, crush political speech, and crisscross the globe to disappear troubling dissidents?

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This is not a conflict that will be over anytime soon, nor is Huawei likely to be the only Chinese company in US sights. The Huawei struggle is itself a sequel to a 2018 fight by the Trump administration against ZTE, which was similarly confusing and which President Trump’s own actions complicated and confused. The first year of the Huawei battle in 2019 also saw chaotic and sometimes ill-conceived steps, as the Trump administration’s targeting of Huawei often seemed to take a shoot-from-the-hip, “ready, fire, aim,” approach. For example, its revelation a year ago that Huawei would be added to the “entity list” came with little detail or nuance and left US companies like Google, whose Android operating system has historically powered Huawei’s smartphones, reeling from conflicting messages.

By contrast, this year, the US steps have seemed more refined and precise; the Commerce Department, for instance, issued rules clarifying that US companies could participate in international technical rules- and standard-setting bodies, alongside Huawei, without violating the restriction on business.

Some of the renewed strength of the campaign comes as the Trump administration has also made clear just how deeply it is willing to commit to reinvigorating Western innovation; both the Huawei fight and the Covid-19 pandemic have cast a harsh light on US industrial supply chains and encouraged the administration to invest in critical technologies and manufacturing at home. In a major victory for the Trump administration, one of Taiwan’s leading semiconductor manufacturers announced this spring that it would open a new factory in Arizona.

Such moves are part of the Trump administration’s strong signaling that it is willing to fight fire with fire—intervening in an almost Chinese-style economic approach on both the supply side and the demand side to wean the West from Chinese tech like Huawei.

Therein lies a certain irony to this latest chapter and proposed moves: One of the major failed assumptions of the last two decades of Western engagement with China was that as China grew, it would become more like the West—strengthening the rule of law, ensuring protections for intellectual property, and engaging productively in multilateral international organizations. Instead, China simply has grown more geopolitically rambunctious and more authoritarian. Now, to combat this China, the Trump administration seems open to making the west more like China.

Indeed, after years of complaining that Huawei’s growth from a small rural telecom company to a global powerhouse has been fueled by unfair government subsidies, the US is starting to offer similar aid. Keith Krach, a US undersecretary of state for economic growth, energy, and the environment, told reporters on a June 25 conference call that the US was willing to help fund the purchase non-Huawei components for the networks of other countries. “There’s lots of financing tools and those kinds of things that I think many countries like us are willing to help provide, because we recognize this danger,” he said. “If countries are choosing their 5G systems, this is definitely the time to do a rip-and-replace transition.”

On the other side of the equation, the Trump administration seems potentially interested in the Chinese model of government funding to empower innovation and effectively create state-owned enterprises in critical technology fields. Leaders like Bill Barr have suggested publicly that the US and Western countries should make direct investments and even take potential ownership stakes in critical “trusted” companies like Nokia and Ericsson that provide alternatives to Huawei’s 5G technologies.