Who’s Winning—And Who’s Losing—The War Over 5G

The outbreak and spread of the Coronavirus aroused global doubts about the Chinese government’s credibility and trustworthiness—and no wonder. With the evidence mounting that, even when Beijing and President Xi Jinping knew how deadly the initial outbreak was, they allowed Chinese citizens to travel and spread the virus to other countries, everyone has to ponder the risks of doing business with China—including companies that are only extensions of the Chinese Communist Party’s will.

That includes the telecom giant Huawei. In the middle of Huawei’s push to dominate the future of telecommunications with 5G—with 90-plus countries signed up as partners—the coronavirus outbreak threatened to be a public relations disaster. Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei, however, didn’t let himself get caught on his back foot. Realizing that the future of Huawei’s 5G empire was at stake, he launched a charm offensive to reassure his company’s Western partners. Huawei donated large quantities of medical supplies to countries that are crucial to its 5G strategy, including 6 million medical masks to Canada (never mind that Spain, Turkey and The Netherlands—another recipient of Ren’s largesse—have all complained about the faulty medical equipment they’ve gotten from China).

Now the charm offensive is over. According to the Wall Street Journal, as early as February Ren was telling employees “the company has entered a state of war.” He urged them to “surge forward, killing as you go, to blaze us a trail of blood.” (the language in a transcript of Ren’s remarks was confirmed by two Huawei employees).

Who is Huawei at war with, if only metaphorically? Answer: The United States government and the Trump administration, who are trying to warn allies and others about the dangers of relying on Huawei for their 5G future, given the firm’s record as an alleged cyber and IP thief and its reputed deep ties to Chinese military and spy agencies.

Huawei sees the struggle over 5G as the equivalent of war. We need to start doing the same, because who dominates 5G will dominate the world.

Right now the main battleground is Europe. As I described in a previous column, the clash of telecom armies has been most intense in Britain, where prime minister Boris Johnson’s personal experience with the disease Beijing lied about to the world, has made him wary of handing over Britain’s 5G future to one of Xi’s favorite companies.

Yet the Trump administration’s case for joining its ban on Huawei technology, and for a Huawei-free 5G option, has been growing weaker. On the one hand, COVID has damaged China’s reputation, and with it Huawei’s. But Beijing and Ren hope that the pandemic has done even more damage to that of the U.S. Our prolonged lockdown economy, and the George Floyd-inspired demonstrations and riots in major cities, give Europeans and others a picture of an America in chaos. Who will be the best partner and guide to your future, Ren can ask his potential customers, the U.S. or China?

Germany, it seems, has made its choice. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s cozy relationship with Beijing (compared to her frigid dealings with Trump) is mirrored by Deutsche Telekom’s coziness with Huawei. So has Italy. Other allies, including Canada, still hover uncomfortably on the fence. But if we don’t respond to Huawei’s effective declaration of war, the U.S.-led 5G effort will look more than Dieppe than D-Day—a doomed experiment in establishing a beachhead that only leaves burning landing craft along the strand.

Thus far the US doesn’t have a Ren, or a Patton or MacArthur to lead its 5G campaign. Current officials overseeing our telecom policy are doing what they can. But taking the anti-Huawei 5G case abroad requires clear understanding of both the technology and the geopolitical stakes. It means pressing the U.S. case convincingly on skeptical European and Middle East audiences, not to mention in Latin America where Huawei’s growing influence has been the clearest assault on the Monroe Doctrine since Soviet nuclear weapons turned up in Cuba.

Ren Zhengfei’s “trail of blood” language wasn’t meant literally: but it shows he understands that who dominates 5G will dominate the 21st century.

Do we?

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