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Allies balk at Trump administration bid to block Chinese firm from cutting-edge telecom markets

Allies balk at Trump administration bid to block Chinese firm from cutting-edge telecom markets
The U.S. push to ban Huawei has become a global dispute publicly urging NATO allies to spurn the company. Above, company founder Ren Zhengfei. (Qilai Shen / Bloomberg)

Britain and Germany are balking at the Trump administration’s call for a ban on equipment from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, threatening a global U.S. campaign to thwart China’s involvement in future mobile networks.

Both countries are expected to limit Huawei and other Chinese companies from providing core components including routers. But other types of Chinese equipment for next-generation, high-speed communications could still be installed on British and German networks, officials and analysts say.

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The U.S. push to ban Huawei has provoked a global dispute in recent weeks, with senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo, publicly urging NATO allies in Europe to exclude the company and warning that the United States might limit its military presence in countries that did not do so.

Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, has responded in a flurry of interviews by denying that the company would go along with any Chinese government effort to steal data from foreign customers and their communication networks — as the Trump administration suggests.

Excluding China from fifth-generation, or 5G, networks is crucial, U.S. officials argue, because the technology will be much faster than current systems and extend wireless communications into self-driving cars, industrial production and other areas of commerce and everyday life.

If countries use Huawei equipment, “we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Pompeo said Thursday during an interview with Fox Business Network.

U.S. officials deny that their push to block Huawei, based in Shenzhen, China, on national security grounds is related to creating leverage in U.S.-China trade talks, which resumed Thursday in Washington.

President Trump said Thursday that he wants the U.S. to beat other countries in installing next-generation wireless networks. However, his remarks on Twitter left unclear whether he was referring to blocking Huawei.

"I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible. It is far more powerful, faster, and smarter than the current standard. American companies must step up their efforts, or get left behind," Trump wrote in a tweet.

But he added that he wanted “the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies. We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology.”

The White House has been discussing an executive order that would formally bar Chinese companies from selling equipment for use in future U.S. telecommunications networks, officials and industry lobbyists say. The order has not been issued, raising questions about whether Trump views it as leverage over Beijing in the trade talks.

The United States has moved on multiple fronts against Huawei over the last year. The campaign has included criminal prosecutions and high-level pressure on other governments to ban Huawei systems and equipment, which are widely used in Europe and Africa.

Australia and New Zealand have barred Huawei from their 5G networks. Canada is considering doing so. All three countries, along with the United States and Britain, are members of the “Five Eyes,” an alliance for sharing intelligence with one another.

What Germany and Britain do is likely to weigh heavily on other European nations also wrestling with U.S. claims that using the company’s equipment would make their telecommunications vulnerable to cyberespionage and data breaches by the Chinese government.

Although the United States years ago effectively shut out China from America’s networks, Huawei has had a big presence in Europe’s mobile communications infrastructure and is now the largest telecom equipment manufacturer in the world. Banning Chinese companies in future projects would almost certainly delay their rollout of 5G and increase European telecom operators’ costs.

The German government “will not directly ban foreign manufacturers, specifically Chinese manufacturers,” said Jan-Peter Kleinhans, an IT security expert at Stiftung Neue Verantwortung, a tech policy think tank in Berlin that has been in contact with German ministries and academics on the matter.

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Germany will come up with stricter security requirements for telecom operators, such as certification for suppliers' equipment and manufacturing processes, he said. Kleinhans added that Germany is under the gun to make its regulations clear by next month when it plans a 5G auction.

“The key element for Germany is not ruining the relationship with its largest trading partner, China,” said Jankel Oertel, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, referring to Berlin’s consideration of how to treat Huawei and ZTE, another technology company at odds with the United States.

Oertel criticized the Trump administration’s approach, saying, “While it expects European partners to fall in line, the U.S. government has failed to explain its concerns to the European audience in sufficient detail.”

Analysts say Britain is preparing to take a similar approach to Huawei as intelligence officials there have suggested that it could manage the risk from using Chinese equipment. Britain’s BT Group said in December that it was removing Huawei equipment from the core of its mobile network and would not use it in future networks.

Britain “has arguably the toughest and most rigorous oversight regime in the world for Huawei,” Ciaran Martin, head of the National Cyber Security Center, an arm of Britain’s intelligence services, said in a speech in Brussels on Wednesday. “Based on our hard-headed assessment of risk … we are putting in place our own plans for helping our operators manage these risks.”

Only a few companies produce essential 5G equipment, such as small-cell radio units or base stations, Kleinhans said. Rival suppliers include Ericsson and Nokia, both European, and South Korea's Samsung, but no U.S. manufacturer.

In December, Canada arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, daughter of company founder Ren, at the request of the U.S. Justice Department on charges that she helped Huawei evade sanctions on Iran.

U.S. authorities have started extradition proceedings against Meng, who is also deputy chairwoman of the board at Huawei. She has denied any wrongdoing; a hearing is set for March 6. Apparently in retaliation, Chinese authorities seized two Canadians in China, including a former diplomat.

Vice President Mike Pence, speaking last week at the the Munich Security Conference in Germany, cited Huawei specifically as a threat and urged U.S. military allies to avoid using Chinese telecom equipment firms.

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“We must protect our critical telecom infrastructure, and America is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or our national security systems,” he said.

But Alex Younger, chief of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, told reporters at the Munich event that banning Huawei completely was not an option. “I think it is a more complicated issue than in or out,” he said, according to Reuters.

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