President Donald Trump’s anti-Huawei crusade is gaining traction at home, even as he struggles to persuade U.S. allies to block the Chinese telecommunications giant from their wireless networks.
Congress last month cleared spending up to $1 billion to help small wireless carriers eliminate Huawei gear from their existing networks, easing one economic obstacle to lessening the company’s presence in the U.S. market. And the Senate voted Wednesday to push the administration to firm up a domestic and international 5G security strategy, which could include helping U.S. or European companies catch up to Huawei in the race to develop next-generation wireless technologies.
Those moves are on top of other recent efforts to tighten the screws on Huawei, including the Justice Department’s filing of racketeering and conspiracy charges against the company in February. And they bolster security hawks’ hopes that Washington may finally craft a more coherent approach to countering a company that the administration has labeled a surveillance threat.
Trump has been less successful in pressing that case with reluctant allies, most notably when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson opted to allow Huawei to build part of the United Kingdom’s 5G networks.
The domestic actions “confirm U.S. determination to provide a global alternative to Huawei and Chinese-led 5G technologies,” Timothy Health, senior international defense researcher for the RAND Corp., told POLITICO, adding that they also “show the anxiety Washington feels about China’s technological prowess.”
“These moves will encourage those countries that have sided with the U.S. against Huawei, such as Japan and Australia,” Heath said, suggesting they could help tilt some European countries still considering how to assess Huawei.
The domestic wins also provide a source of rare bipartisan unity for Washington, after the toxic polarization surrounding Trump’s impeachment trial.
“Politics back home is about as screwed up as I’ve ever seen it,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) remarked in Munich during February’s security conference. “What do we agree on? That Huawei technology is a threat to the United States and, we really think, to world order.”
The company denies being an arm of China’s authoritarian government, saying it has become a pawn in Trump’s broader trade war with Beijing. But the president has gotten rare backup from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who endorsed the administration’s concerns about Huawei while speaking last month at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
“While some people say that it’s cheaper to do Huawei, well yeah,” she said, deriding what she viewed as autocracy at hand. “It’s a People’s Liberation Army-developed initiative using reversed engineering from Western technology.”
The Trump administration has previously struggled to outline how the U.S. should confront Huawei, with the Commerce Department and Pentagon seeming to differ on how aggressively to crack down on trade with the company in recent months. And in early February, Attorney General William Barr floated the unusual idea of buying a stake in European 5G suppliers Nokia and Ericsson and dismissed the promise of software-based 5G “virtualization” as “pie in the sky.”
But now the administration seems to be coalescing around a set of ideas for countering Huawei domestically – and despite Barr’s scoffing, a central plank involves finding software alternatives to Huawei’s 5G hardware.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow, an advocate of that approach, is planning a 5G summit on the concept on April 1, convening wireless giants like AT&T alongside tech companies like Qualcomm, just as FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is putting together a similar forum at his agency on March 26.
The push already has prominent bipartisan buy-in. Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel urged action along the same lines since last fall, and a bipartisan mix of U.S. senators is floating legislation to put money behind these ideas. The Senate Commerce panel dug into the concept last week in a hearing, featuring testimony from 5G players like Nokia, Ericsson and Intel.
Lawmakers are also putting money into the effort to oust Huawei: At the end of February, Congress unanimously advanced legislation that would provide up to $1 billion to help small U.S. carriers rid their networks of gear from Huawei and fellow Chinese company ZTE. Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said last week that he expects Trump to sign the measure “in just a few days” and with “great fanfare.”
Huawei had warned that the legislation could force it to lay off more of its already diminished U.S. workforce.
That’s just one of several recent setbacks for the company. In February, a federal judge ruled that Huawei lacks the grounds to sue the U.S. government over a law restricting its ability to work with federal agencies and their contractors, a decision that could spell trouble for Huawei’s other legal fights in the U.S., such as a recent lawsuit against the FCC. And the Pentagon is reversing its opposition to a proposed Commerce Department crackdown that would make it harder for U.S. companies to sell to Huawei.
But Trump still faces a tough challenge: Convincing other countries that Huawei represents a threat.
Canadian leaders have yet to announce whether they will bar Huawei from its 5G networks, as the U.S. demands, but they have said they are reviewing the U.K.’s decision to allow the company a partial role. The German government remains split on the issue, though a decision is expected in the near future.
House Energy and Commerce ranking member Greg Walden (R-Ore.), who said he raised the issue last year with German officials, recently told POLITICO he’s pessimistic about the outcome.
“I think they’re going to go down the same path [as the U.K.], and that’s a dangerous path from our perspective here in the U.S.,” Walden said.
And doubts about its Huawei strategy still hound the Trump administration, which has been beset by turnover and infighting on the best approach. It also has lacked a permanent leader for 10 months as of Monday at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a key advisory agency to Trump.
Trump recently tapped Robert Blair, a West Wing security adviser, to help with coordinating global 5G efforts. Blair told POLTIICO his goal on Trump’s 5G security mission is to “give it a little extra horsepower, reestablish this is a priority for the president.”
The White House is also managing to achieve something of a partnership with Congress on the legislation calling for a coherent 5G strategy. The House passed the bill 413-3 in January, leading to weeks of talks before the Senate unanimously cleared its own version on Wednesday.
The White House negotiated changes with Senate sponsor John Cornyn (R-Texas), including efforts to ensure that Trump’s National Economic Council has a seat at the 5G strategy table. Cornyn told POLITICO he’d been in direct conversation with Kudlow about the legislation, which now heads back to the House.
“I think we’re in a pretty good place,” Cornyn said in an interview.
Nailing down a U.S. strategy “is increasingly important given recent developments related to 5G security in Europe,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who sponsored the House version. “Our bill would help build a comprehensive strategy not just to protect U.S. consumers and companies from potential threats — but also to protect the security of our key allies and their citizens.”
And a bipartisan group of senators led by No. 2 Republican John Thune appeared to offer Trump further support this month, filing legislation aimed at making 5G security a central component of negotiating trade deals with other countries.
The U.S., meanwhile, is barreling toward the 2020 presidential election, meaning the entire U.S. attitude toward Huawei, 5G and China could turn on its head as soon as January.
So far, at least, the shrinking Democratic field appears united. Several contenders said they would keep China away from U.S. critical infrastructure, not naming 5G specifically. Democratic frontrunners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders both have projected skepticism about China on the campaign trail, with Biden saying the U.S. needs to get tough on the country and Sanders emphasizing what he considers busted trade policies.
RAND’s Heath said he suspects that the broader geopolitical realities will mean consistent U.S. policies toward Huawei regardless of the outcome of the election.
The United States’ recent actions “signal that Huawei’s period of near unchallenged success as a 5G leader may be contested in coming years,” Heath said. Still, he predicted that they would “do little in the near term to blunt China’s success in expanding its market share in the developing world.”
Trump’s allies said the stakes are high for the U.S to succeed. The longer Huawei’s influence goes unchecked, the more difficult it will be to rein it in down the road, said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, an informal adviser to Trump.
“Huawei just keeps growing, keeps signing more contracts and keeps acquiring a bigger customer base, which allows them then to interface with Chinese apps like TikTok,” Gingrich said. “Which means that pretty soon, the scale of information they’ll have and the scale of their supply chain will make it very hard to compete with them.”