US allies buck Trump on Huawei

US allies buck Trump on Huawei
© Getty

The Trump administration's push to get U.S. allies to block Chinese firm Huawei from their next-generation wireless networks is facing skepticism from political and industry leaders in Europe.

At a major global industry conference this week in Barcelona, many are pushing back on U.S. claims that Huawei poses a national security threat. Industry players instead argue that a blanket ban on the Chinese telecom's hardware would set 5G deployments back years and inject more uncertainty into the rollouts.


Nick Read, the CEO of the British telecom giant Vodafone, told reporters at the Mobile World Congress on Monday that swapping out Huawei equipment that’s already in European networks would be a massive undertaking that “structurally disadvantages” the continent amid a global race to roll out the networks. Read said the U.S. should present evidence that Huawei poses an unacceptable risk.

“We need to have a fact-based risk-assessed review,” he told reporters at the event, according to Reuters. “People are saying things at the moment that are not grounded, I’m not saying that is the case for the U.S. because I have not met them directly myself so I have not seen what evidence they have, but they clearly need to present that evidence to the right bodies throughout Europe.”

Vodafone has worked with Huawei in developing the next-generation wireless networks known as 5G, but it is still awaiting a UK intelligence report for the final word on whether the Chinese business will be permitted in their infrastructure.

Last week, one of the UK’s top cybersecurity officials said that any threat that Huawei poses could be managed. And German officials are reportedly leaning towards allowing the company to participate in their country’s 5G buildout.

The Trump administration has emphasized 5G as essential to the U.S. economy and national security. Proponents say that the new capabilities, which are still years away from being fully realized, will deliver much faster mobile download speeds that will unlock a technological revolution.

But the pushback from U.S. allies comes as Trump himself has signaled that he's open to a softer stance on Huawei, potentially undercutting his administration's efforts.

The president suggested last week amid a new round of trade talks with Chinese government officials that the U.S. would consider dropping charges against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Canada in December at the request of the Trump administration. Meng is facing extradition on charges of violating trade sanctions against Iran.

And after months of rumors that Trump would sign an executive order banning the use of Huawei's products from the nation’s wireless infrastructure, he appeared to back away from that last week.

“I want to have competition with China,” the president told reporters in the Oval Office on Friday. “Fair competition. I don't want to block out anybody if we can help it. Now if there's going to be a security reason or something, then we have no choice, but that is one of the things we'll be discussing today. We want to have open competition. We've always done very well in open competition.”

Huawei has become the world’s largest supplier of telecommunications equipment because it offers low prices that competitors have a hard time competing with, and the president has warned that U.S. providers need to catch up.

“The U.S. is lagging behind,” Huawei chairman Guo Ping said in Barcelona Monday. “His message is clear and correct,” Guo added of Trump.

Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and a staunch Trump ally, said in a phone interview with The Hill on Friday that Huawei’s growth will give China “extraordinary access to information and an extraordinary ability to manipulate it.”

“They’re a national security threat in the long run because what they want to do is go out to countries all over the world and offer them government-subsidized cut-rate deals and end up with Huawei providing all of the telecommunications capabilities,” Gingrich said.

The former Georgia Republican added that if Huawei had access to the world’s 5G networks, China would be able to amass troves of data that would give its intelligence services a huge advantage over the West’s.

But that’s proving to be a hard sell to many in Europe.

Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete, the CEO of Spain’s Telefonica, told Bloomberg “there is no proof of any wrongdoing in any part of our networks” and that the U.S. should offer evidence showing that Huawei is a risk.

“For the time being there is a lot of noise, and we would really like to become factual on that issue,” Alvarez-Pallate said.

As for the U.S. market, it’s still unclear whether Trump will sign the executive order keeping companies like Huawei out. Doug Dawson, a consultant for small telecommunications carriers, though, says that after years of warnings from lawmakers and intelligence officials, domestic companies have mostly avoided using Huawei parts out of fear they could soon be outlawed.

“They've been trying to break into the market with low prices,” Dawson told The Hill. “At this point, you'd never buy it new because you couldn't support it.

“Whether they actually have a backdoor, I don't know how any of us would know that,” he added.