Although products from companies like Apple and Samsung are nearly ubiquitous in America today, the technology firm most on the minds of U.S. authorities these days is the China-based conglomerate Huawei. Huawei has some unique attributes. The company is the world’s third largest producer of smartphones and the global leader in the telecom equipment market. It maintains that it is employee-owned, and that it has never been asked to conduct Chinese government-endorsed spy campaigns. But despite Huawei’s vehement denials, American officials have expressed concerns that the company could be co-opted by Chinese authorities and used to conduct state-sponsored sabotage and surveillance.
Recent acts of the U.S. government are consistent with these concerns. In December 2017, President Trump signed a bill that banned the use of Huawei equipment in American nuclear weapons. Further, U.S. legislators have pushed to prohibit the government from using Huawei technology at all. Perhaps most notably, the Justice Department recently brought charges against Huawei and the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou. In its indictment, the Justice Department specifically cited “years long efforts by the Chinese firm to steal American industrial secrets, obstruct a criminal investigation and evade economic sanctions against Iran.” The founder of Huawei (and father of Meng Wanzhou) Ren Zhengfei has referred to the charges against the company and the arrest of his daughter as “politically motivated.”
But Huawei threatens not only the political relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, but also relations between the U.S. and some of its traditional allies. America is growing increasingly concerned about the possibility that countries will use Huawei to build their fifth-generation cellular networks, known as 5G. In particular, the Trump administration has requested that the British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt ban Huawei from doing so. Similarly, American officials have warned German authorities that allowing Huawei to construct Germany’s 5G network would pose a direct threat to NATO. Moreover, in a sign of its willingness to flex American diplomatic muscle, the Trump Administration has signaled to Polish officials that continued U.S. military presence in Poland may depend on whether Poland agrees to contract with Huawei to produce its 5G network.
It is not clear, however, if America’s cajoling will be successful. In early February, Huawei announced that it would add nearly 200 employees to its workforce in Canada. The company had already signaled its commitment to expanding in Canada in 2018, when it made a $136 million investment over the course of the year. The U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, responded by warning, “If a country adopts [Huawei technology] and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them.”
It is possible that American officials are correct in their assessment that America and China are locked in a technological arms race, with Huawei posing a sizeable threat to the security of NATO member-states. It could also be the case, however, that these concerns are overblown. Regardless, the controversy surrounding Huawei reminds us that technological advances do not exist in a vacuum, free from the geopolitical concerns that attach to other policy issues. Indeed, the future of 5G technology can do more than revolutionize our cellular networks; it may upend traditional alliances and fundamentally alter the prevailing wisdom on international relations.*
*Luke Barbour is an articles editor on the Michigan Technology Law Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.