Huawei’s name is often translated in English as “Chinese excellence.” The Trump administration last week embarked on a campaign to rebrand the tech giant, in effect, as a “Chinese threat” and check its expansion in the West.
The Huawei assault may be the Trump administration’s most important long-term strategic decision, because it confronts China’s technological challenge to America head on. The goal is to prevent Huawei from dominating 5G wireless communications, the next phase of the digital revolution, by blocking use of its technology by America and its partners.
President Trump’s action was the digital version of a combat-mobilization order. Because of Huawei’s alleged threat to U.S. national security, he put it on the so-called “entity list,” which forbids U.S. firms from selling technology to it without special permission. The impact was clear Monday when Google announced that it would stop selling updates of its Android operating system for Huawei phones.
The wiring of the global economy is entangled, so the Commerce Department granted a 90-day delay, probably to allow Google to send security patches and other urgent fixes. Commerce, meanwhile, has 150 days to draft rules that would block U.S. companies from buying Huawei equipment, though legal experts predicted that Huawei might successfully challenge that ban in U.S. courts.
It’s a measure of Trump’s erratic deal-making style that the first question for many observers was whether the president was serious about banning Huawei, or whether he was simply applying more pressure to get his stalled trade deal. Trump backed off last year from a similar squeeze against ZTE, another big Chinese telecom company, after a personal plea from President Xi Jinping.
Trump-watchers doubt he’s bluffing this time. He recently told close advisers, “We have to win the 5G fight, period,” according to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who attended the session. “I don’t think we have any choice,” Gingrich told me, because the alternative to checking Huawei is Chinese dominance of digital infrastructure.
“Huawei is the poster child of China Inc.,” argued Christopher Johnson, a former top CIA analyst who’s now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “If this campaign is successful, we’ve demonstrated that Xi’s whole narrative that China has created an alternative to the West is false.”
The danger, Johnson cautioned in an interview, is that if Trump forces European allies to choose between America and China, “You may not like their response.”
Working with allies, never Trump’s strong suit, will be crucial here. Right now, there’s no good alternative to Huawei’s 5G technology. Somehow, the U.S. needs to encourage catch-up work by South Korea’s Samsung, Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson. Bizarrely, the administration didn’t pre-brief allies on its Huawei plan.
U.S. intelligence agencies will applaud Trump’s action. For a decade, they’ve warned that Huawei was creating a global platform for Chinese spying. “These measures were taken in the nick of time, before 5G from Huawei became engrained in our technological society,” argued one former senior CIA operations officer.
But Americans, and Chinese too, should think carefully about what’s ahead. Analysts this past week have talked of a technological “decoupling” and a “digital Iron Curtain” descending on the global economy. That sounds like a description of a world in which everyone would be worse off; a mobilization for a conflict like World War I, which historians now judge was unwise and unnecessary.
“We are stuck in a reactive game of tit for tat,” warns a senior executive of a giant U.S. technology company. He says America must think carefully about “what hybrid international order we are seeking, recognizing that it has to be one where we coexist with China as a major power.” This executive’s concern, shared by others, is that Trump is making decisions with big long-term consequences for short-term political reasons.
“This is the kind of blunt and risky instrument one might employ as the last step on the escalatory ladder,” said former Deputy Secretary of State William Burns in an interview. “I worry that we’ve leaped over other, more targeted tools that could have addressed or mitigated specific concerns with less collateral damage.”
As so often with Trump, the real question is what end-state he seeks with his campaign of maximum pressure. What does success look like? Is it the destruction of Huawei as a 5G competitor or simply a reduction of its market reach? Does Trump want technology coexistence or a restoration of American dominance?
Trump is about building walls. But he should be especially careful about this digital barrier, behind which the U.S. might stand while the rest of the world races forward.
Follow David Ignatius on Twitter @IgnatiusPost.