Huawei, a leading Chinese multinational tech company, has emerged as a central target of Trump’s trade war with China, with US companies now requiring federal approval before selling to the tech giant. This arrives as 5G technology, an ultra-fast upgrade in the telecommunications industry, is set to be unveiled to the global sphere. With key players such as ARM, Google and Microsoft cutting ties with Huawei, the company risks potentially devastating setbacks as Beijing’s $100 billion ‘national champion’. One must ask, why has Trump extended his trade sanctions to the main supplier of network infrastructure?
The primary issue circulates around Huawei’s installation of cell towers and cell phones, the hardware essential to our daily connectivity. Despite there being little hard evidence that Huawei’s cell towers are transmitting information to the Chinese government, US intelligence agencies maintain that there remains a strong risk Chinese surveillance is being conducted through malware within the network. This concern seems to be founded on the 2017 Chinese law requiring Huawei to cooperate with China’s government intelligence agencies. The fear that Huawei’s growing global influence through the spread of phones, routers, and equipment may compromise potentially sensitive intelligence has become a major national security issue for the US and its allies, particularly with China’s history of targeting cell networks for espionage operations.
Are these justifiable concerns? Huawei has been suspected of sanctions violations and the theft of intellectual property, acting on the orders of the Chinese government, since 2016. Its founder was a former military officer for the Chinese government, and the chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in 2018 by Canadian authorities in response to a US extradition order for allegedly violating sanctions with Iran. Concerns that Huawei is a commercial extension of the communist state’s interests was confirmed by China’s protective attitude and retaliatory arrest of Canadian nationals. Huawei certainly appears to be more than just a matter of commerce for the Chinese government.
The concerns that the US and its allies harbour appear of greater seriousness than just the transmission of stolen information, and as such, the imposition of these trade sanctions before the full unveiling of the 5G network is a significant move by Trump’s administration. 5G telecommunications technology goes beyond increased connectivity and efficiency; it heralds a new age of modern economics and warfare in which huge volumes of data can be exchanged seamlessly and easily. This increased technological capability opens up a multitude of opportunities for the development and proliferation of military hardware and autonomous weaponry. As such, there are fears that Huawei has been shaped as a technological innovator of Chinese espionage and military development.
Neither the US or its allies have been able to provide any concrete evidence of Huawei technology transmitting sensitive material to China. Although the White House’s frenetic use of its emergency powers to blacklist the company was listed as an issue of national security, the public sphere has not been granted any insight into the process. Whether enacted for genuine security issues or to merely create an economic rupture within China, there needs to be greater political transparency. Many Chinese companies continue to trade in the US, and with the globe becoming increasingly fractured across technological ‘spheres of influence’, a global contest over technology is best quelled by legitimate moves towards transparency. With real security interests at risk, the question remains as to how far each country is willing to go, and whether this gridlock will culminate in another Cold War.