Rejected on Huawei ban, Trump now faces European defiance

Todd Shields and Jordan Fabian

President Donald Trump’s top aides spent more than a year demanding that key allies ban Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation wireless networks – or face consequences including limiting access to U.S. intelligence.

Now that the U.K. and European Union have defied U.S. demands to exclude China’s biggest maker of telecommunications gear from new 5G networks, Trump must decide whether the administration will follow through with its threats.

So far, the Trump team is stopping short of retaliating.

In this file photo dated Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, an Huawei employee talks on a cellphone, as she stands next to a sign at Huawei's campus in Shenzhen in southern China's Guandong Province. The European Union unveiled security guidelines for next generation high-speed wireless networks that stop short of calling for a ban on Huawei, in the latest setback for the U.S. campaign against the Chinese tech company.

“If they’re going to have Huawei in their system, we’ll go to carrier pigeons or use couriers with locked briefcases or something if we have to,” National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said Wednesday. “We’re going to keep working with the Brits, and hopefully, they’ll reconsider.”

The EU on Wednesday released guidelines on how to mitigate risks stemming from the roll-out of next generation telecom networks using equipment from non-democratic states. The decision followed one by the U.K. on Tuesday to allow Huawei components into non-core networks.

The announcements represented a stinging rebuke of the Trump administration’s efforts to lock Huawei out of 5G wireless networks, with U.S. officials saying the company has ties to the Chinese government that could pose an espionage risk.

“Our view of Huawei is putting it in your system creates real risk,” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo told reporters aboard his plane on a previously planned trip to London. “This is an extension of the Chinese Communist Party with a legal requirement to hand over information to the Chinese Community Party.”

“We’ll work with the United Kingdom,” Pompeo said. “We were urging them to make a decision that was different than the one they made and we’ll have a conversation about how to proceed.”

James Lewis, director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, said the U.S. case against Huawei faltered in part because European countries need to maintain trade with China. He doubted it would result in a permanent rupture in relations.

“Maybe we’ll pout for awhile. But it’ll be really hard to give this up,” Lewis said.

Shenzen-based Huawei has consistently denied it poses a security risk, and says it’s independent of China’s ruling Communist Party. It welcomed the EU’s announcement, which it said “enables Huawei to continue participating in Europe’s 5G roll-out.”

Andy Keiser, a former Trump transition official who focused on national security, said he expects the administration to pressure the U.K. to reverse its decision in talks on a free-trade agreement but added that punishment of allies, such as sanctions, are unlikely.

“I would be surprised if there is something punitive but I would also be surprised if they didn’t take the opportunity in next step to gain additional leverage,” said Keiser, a principal at the firm Navigators Global.

The EU action is advisory and not binding like Britain’s decision, said Paul Triolo, who focuses on global technology and cybersecurity at Eurasia Group.

Still, Triolo said, the EU decision raises the bar for security and “represents a win for the U.S. position on the need to raise the level of security scrutiny of 5G supply chains.” The issue “was not even on the radar in Europe until the U.S. campaign began in earnest in late 2018,” Triolo said in an email.

“The U.S. is unlikely to cutoff or curtail intelligence sharing” with London, said Triolo. “The decision could complicate negotiations around a trade deal, but the U.S. will be looking for ways to work with the U.K. across the board on security issues, including the security of next generation mobile telecommunications networks.”

Pompeo said the U.S. “will make sure that when American information passes across a network we are confident that that network is a trusted one. We’ll work with the United Kingdom.”

“It’s a little unclear precisely what they’re going to permit and not permit so we need to take a little bit of time to evaluate that,” Pompeo said. “But our view is we should have western systems with western rules and American information should only pass across a trusted network. We’ll make sure we do that.”