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Huawei delay brings ZTE déjà vu

Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP via Getty Images

After dramatic U.S. moves to shut Huawei off from suppliers, the Chinese telecom manufacturer received a 90-day reprieve from the Department of Commerce Monday, placing a question mark over the broader anti-Huawei campaign.

Why it matters: A similar previous U.S.-China trade tussle flipped from confrontation to accommodation, leaving experts and lawmakers wondering what the mercurial Trump administration's endgame with Huawei will be.

The big picture: The Huawei case and last year's ZTE conflict seem to share the same outline: A massive Chinese telecom manufacturer accused by the United States of violating sanctions and participating in espionage gets struck with a ban on U.S. technology exports, only to be saved at the last second.

  • Facing a similar set of facts relating to ZTE in the early days of trade negotiations, the Trump administration ultimately removed its export ban, handing a gift to China.
  • The administration's transactional approach — its willingness to exchange national security interests for trade needs— irked Republicans and Democrats alike.

Driving the news: Last week, Huawei was placed on the Department of Commerce's entity list, requiring U.S. firms wishing to sell or license tech to Huawei to get export licenses most assume will be impossible or at least prohibitively burdensome to obtain.

  • However, after issuing the ban, the Department of Commerce quickly offered a 90-day delay on the ban taking effect, allowing Huawei to service Huawei equipment that's already been deployed while owners make other arrangements.
  • Huawei won't close down without U.S. products, but it is not, at current, prepared to manufacture 5G equipment without it.

What's next: "My bet is a ZTE-like resurrection," said James Lewis, senior vice president for the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former tech policy official, via email.

  • Lewis believes the export ban has already achieved its purpose: Countries and companies that had been ready to ignore U.S. warnings and do business with Huawei are now on notice that the U.S. can pull the rug out from under Huawei at any time.
  • "Part of the goal was to warn the Europeans that if they buy Huawei, they’re taking on risk that Huawei may not be able to fulfill 5G contracts," said Lewis, adding, "We could pull the plug any time in the next couple of years and places like Italy would be left high and dry."

Meanwhile: At the same time the Trump administration banned U.S. companies from providing goods to Huawei, it also released an executive order declaring a "state of emergency" banning U.S. networks from using telecommunications equipment deemed to be a risk to national security. Most people in the know assume this was aimed specifically at Huawei.

  • But "states of emergency" can end in a variety of ways — via joint resolution of Congress, Trump (or a future president) deciding the emergency is off, or a president not annually renewing them when they expire.
  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) confirmed to Codebook that he and Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) are working on codifying the "state of emergency" order into law.
  • A different group of Senators proposed other legislation Wednesday to continue policing Chinese equipment in the United States.
  • If either passes, it would make it harder for the Trump team to unilaterally lift the order as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations.