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  • Thierry Spanjaard

Huawei: goal or symptom?

The battle between the US administration and Huawei has been going on for a while but many in the world only started to feel concerned when Google, under pressure of the US government, announced they would stop supporting Huawei handsets. Last week, as reports Wired, the US Department of Commerce added Huawei to a list of companies considered a threat to US national security, meaning it would need permission to acquire US technology. Soon chipmakers like Intel and Broadcom reportedly stopped selling to Huawei, and Google pulled the company's licenses for key mobile applications like Gmail and the Google Play app store.

However, this is just the last episode in a couple years of fights between the Chinese telecoms industry and the US government. Already in April 2018, Trump signed a bill banning government use of Huawei and ZTE tech. Also, under this bill, anyone working with the US government was prohibited from using components from Huawei, ZTE, or a number of other Chinese communications companies. The US government used the weapon of the extraterritorial application of its laws to incriminate Huawei for stealing trade secrets from US-based companies and conspiring to dodge US sanctions on Iran. Meng Wanzhou, Huawei CFO was arrested in Canada on December 1st, 2018.

Especially under their current Trump administration, the US have been using all resources, legitimate as well as illegitimate, to protect their industry. These resources cover the whole spectrum of action means from trade wars, market bans, technology influence, spying means, justice instrumentalization through the extraterritorial application of US laws, language supremacism, etc.

No one has been fooled: blocking Huawei goes way beyond the case of the Chinese telecom leader. Immediate objectives are two-fold: protecting networks from a potential backdoor if it exists, and protecting US industry from a major competitor. However, one may note that spying on communications is not something new to the US: remember UKUSA, Echelon and others world-scale spying programs!

A bit further what is at stake is the control of 5G as the global communication means of the next decade. Let’s remember 5G includes all means of communications, from IoT to television and broadband, including smartphones. In order words, who controls 5G controls all communications worldwide.

Standardization is an essential means of power on the industry. If we look back, 2G and 3G have been standardized by the ETSI (European Standards Telecom Institute), under European influence, and has led to a fast development of the European telecom industry. These were the times of the Nokia, Siemens, Ericsson, Alcatel, etc. With IP-based 4G, we saw the US industry come back into standardization with an objective of regaining influence. 5G standardization is the current standardization battlefield: industrialists and mobile network operators together are battling to implement the first 5G network considering a demonstration is a giant step on the standardization path. A demonstration is also a step on the path to a fully industrialized offer, leading to market dominance. Countries anticipated to launch 5G first include South Korea, China, Japan and the United States: Europe is notoriously absent from this list.

If we step backwards a bit, telecommunications are just a tool for global dominance. The world is increasingly organizing itself in two blocks: US vs. China with the rest of the world, especially Europe, due to lack of common economic and strategic ambition, being relegated to be observers or victims of the fight between supergiants.

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