US wants to halt Huawei’s global advance, but is it too late?
Huawei’s rise as a global tech company is under threat as an increasing number of governments express concern that its technology could be used by Chinese spies.
But the US-led campaign against the Chinese company may do little more than act as a brake on growth, given the dominant position Huawei has already built in fifth generation (5G) wireless technology. It has loyal customers in emerging markets and parts of Europe, and expects to become the world’s top smartphone seller by next year.
“This campaign will only slow Huawei’s business growth in some countries in European and Asia Pacific markets,” said Charlie Dai, an analyst with research firm Forrester based in Beijing. “But I don’t think it’s going to retreat from any market at all in the foreseeable future.”
Huawei’s global dominance has raised alarm bells in the United States, which has accused the company of selling products that the Chinese government could use for spying.
The latest move against the company came on Monday, when the US Justice Department filed criminal charges that accuse Huawei of stealing trade secrets, obstruction of justice, bank fraud and evading US sanctions on Iran. Huawei denies the charges.
“Suspicion of Huawei runs deep and there is a bipartisan, whole of government campaign in Washington to take down this company, not just in the United States, but around the world,” said Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity policy and China digital economy fellow at the New America think tank.
The assault on Huawei’s business reflects the increasingly bitter rivalry between Beijing and Washington over who will control the technologies of the future. There is particular concern about the security of 5G because it will be used to carry vast amounts of data, connecting robots, autonomous vehicles and other sensitive devices.
If the US government decides to escalate the fight still further by preventing Huawei buying US-made parts, as it did with another Chinese tech company ZTE last year, it could inflict substantial damage.
“Huawei is less dependent on US suppliers than ZTE, but without access to US technologies, even it will not survive long,” Dan Wang, an analyst at research firm Gavekal wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.
For now, though, the Chinese company remains in a strong position to lead the rollout of 5G networks. Huawei says it has signed 30 contracts for 5G, and is working with more than 50 wireless carriers on commercial tests. It is also one of the top owners of 5G patents.
Huawei has spent decades building a strong presence in scores of markets around the world, helped by reliable hardware and competitive pricing. It is the world’s No. 1 telecommunications equipment maker, despite being effectively shut out of the US market, and last year overtook Apple (AAPL) as the second biggest supplier of smartphones. It expects to overtake Samsung by 2020.
The company denies that its products are a risk to national security. It also maintains that it is a privately owned company with no ties to the Chinese government. Its international reputation, however, is taking a beating.
Huawei prepares for tougher times
Polish authorities detained a Huawei executive this month on allegations of spying for the Chinese government. The company fired the employee shortly after the arrest, saying his actions had brought Huawei into “disrepute.”
In December, Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of US prosecutors. The United States is seeking her extradition on allegations she helped the company dodge US sanctions on Iran. Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, denies any wrongdoing.
In recent months, Australia and New Zealand have restricted Huawei from providing equipment for 5G networks. Germany and Canada are considering similar measures. Top global mobile carrier Vodafone is pausing the deployment of Huawei equipment in core networks in Europe while it speaks with authorities and the company.
In the United Kingdom, Huawei is already monitored by a government oversight panel that warned last summer of new risks. The company says it’s working to address them. But the pressure has gone beyond the telecoms industry, with organizations such as Oxford University saying they will stop accepting money from Huawei. Prominent American universities are also distancing themselves from the company’s funding and equipment.
Huawei’s leaders accept that the environment is becoming more hostile.