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U.S. falters at Huawei diplomacy

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Photo: Paco Freire/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Last week, Germany and the U.K., 2 key U.S. allies, shrugged at Washington's call to ban Huawei 5G products from their networks.

The big picture: Neither country particularly wants to be spied on. But the U.S. has apparently failed to make a strong enough case to its partners that Huawei can't be trusted.

Background: The U.S. argues that Huawei likely sabotages its products to allow China to spy on the data they transfer. At a minimum, the U.S. says, Chinese law requires a company like Huawei to aid its home country if the government demands.

  • The U.S., Japan and Australia have each banned Huawei products — either outright or functionally — from being used as they build out national 5G networks.
  • The U.K.'s cybersecurity authority and Germany both suggested that there may be ways to mitigate the risk to Huawei products without banning them.
  • Huawei denies any espionage or wrongdoing.

The allies' rejection is a black eye for the U.S. in global efforts to thwart a threat, particularly if the U.K. doesn't follow the U.S. lead. The U.K. is perhaps the closest U.S. intelligence ally.

What went wrong: In part, neither Germany nor the U.K. might have been the most receptive audience for the American message.

  • The U.K. has facilities to reverse engineer Huawei products to check if they have been sabotaged. Most experts agree that the U.K.'s position is likely closer to the United States' than media reports have let on — and Britain's failure to ban Huawei doesn't rule out other British action against Huawei.
  • Both Britain and Germany want to preserve their access to the Chinese market.

Yes, but: That doesn't mean the U.S. has played its hand particularly well.

  • The U.S. may have undermined itself by waging aggressive, America-first diplomacy against traditional partners.
  • "It doesn’t help that we have eroded our soft power," said Christopher Painter, the State Department's top cyber diplomat from 2011 to 2017.
  • "The administration is in a time warp. They think it's 1983 and everyone will do what we say," said Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. "We can't keep beating up on Europe and thinking they won't react."

Inconsistent U.S. stances on China have not helped, either. Getting others to take Chinese threats seriously is harder for the Trump administration after it suggested that just about anything related to China could be used as a bargaining chip in trade negotiations — from the allegations of espionage by ZTE, another major Chinese manufacturer, to the arrest of Huawei's CFO for fairly significant crimes.

  • "Trump undercutting the U.S. interest in ZTE makes a lot of people wonder if he'll undercut on Huawei," Manning added.
  • And on Friday, Trump even tweeted that he wanted the U.S. to win on 5G (and the as yet nonexistent 6G) through competition, rather than blocking competitors from the market.
  • Many onlookers took that to mean his stance on Huawei was softening, even as Vice President Pence lobbied against Huawei at a Munich security conference.
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