The U.S. government is on the warpath against Huawei. For months, the Trump administration has pressured its allies in Europe to exclude the Chinese technology firm from their 5G telecom systems, insisting that Huawei’s products may pose a security threat to Western countries. So far, these warnings have fallen on deaf ears.

Now the campaign against Huawei has reached a new frontier: Latin America. Mexico and Argentina plan to initiate the region’s first 5G networks in 2020; Brazil is expected to follow the next year. As in Europe, the Trump administration is working hard to convince these states not to rely on 5G equipment made in China. But, as in Europe, Washington risks overplaying its hand.

Brazil is a case in point. When Jair Bolsonaro, recently elected president, visited his U.S. counterpart in the White House in March to establish stronger bilateral ties, Donald Trump laid out what he expected from Brazil to make the new friendship last. Brazil, Trump told Bolsonaro, would need to become a trusted ally in limiting Chinese influence in Latin America. Crucial to this effort, the U.S. government warned, would be curbing the spread of Huawei technology in the region’s next-generation 5G networks. The Chinese tech company has already opened an Internet of Things lab in São Paulo state and plans to build a smartphone assembly plant in Brazil later this year.

As in Europe, Washington risks overplaying its hand.

In theory, Washington has found a stalwart in Bolsonaro. The Brazilian president, whose entire foreign policy strategy depends on moving closer to the Trump administration, knows that he stands to lose the advantages of that closeness if he fails to take concrete action against Huawei. The United States could, for example, downgrade intelligence sharing, or bar Brazilian firms from bidding on some U.S. defense contracts, privileges that the United States conferred on Brazil in March when it declared the country a “major non-NATO ally.” Washington could also withdraw its support for Brazil's candidacy to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

Bolsonaro knows, in other words, that a close alliance with the United States is feasible only if Brazil can help Washington achieve specific geopolitical goals. Yet doing so comes at a domestic political cost, which is why most past attempts to forge such an alliance have failed.

Bolsonaro and Trump in the Oval Office, Washington, U.S., March 19, 2019
Kevin Lamarque / REUTERS

The same dynamic is playing out today. Despite enthusiastic pro-Trump rhetoric from the antiglobalist faction in the Brazilian government, domestic politics will most likely prevent Bolsonaro from delivering on Trump’s demands. Brazilian business groups have already begun to defend the country’s deep trade ties to China, rightly pointing out that any hope of containing China and once more turning the United States into Brazil's most important trading partner is little more than unrealistic nostalgia. Working alongside powerful military generals, these business associations are mobilizing to avoid any delays that sidelining Huawei in the region could cause in getting 5G up and running.

Bolsonaro will have the final say. Yet he faces an uphill battle. Vice President Hamilton Mourão dedicated most of a recent interview to hailing China as a key partner, promising that Bolsonaro would resist U.S. pressure to veto investments from Huawei. Mourão, a retired general seen by many analysts as the adult in the room in the Bolsonaro government, argued that “for the time being,” Brazil did not share U.S. fears that Huawei could pass sensitive information to the Chinese government. Washington's warnings about security risks, he added, were just a cudgel in the U.S.-Chinese trade war, a dispute in which Brazil would not take sides.

“While the Chinese talk development, all the U.S. talks about is China. They sound like a jealous ex-boyfriend.”

Mourão’s view of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America is damning but common. Washington’s attempt to frame its aggressive campaign against Huawei as a defense of the rule of law and fair trade practices has not convinced many in the region. Quite the opposite: the topic has become politicized, eclipsing legitimate concerns about the company’s technology theft and possible ties to the Chinese government. The United States did not help its case last December, when Huawei's CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was arrested in Vancouver, and Trump suggested that the United States might use her as a bargaining chip in its trade talks with China. Trump’s comments vindicated those in Latin America who consider Huawei little more than a pawn in the trade war. Today, critics can accuse anyone who raises national security concerns about Huawei of blindly toeing the U.S. line in a geopolitical battle between a rising and a declining hegemon.

A similar dynamic is discernible across the region, suggesting that the United States will not easily keep Huawei out of Latin America. In Europe, concerns about the potential risk of Chinese spying for liberal democracies find genuine public resonance. By contrast, the U.S. undercut its warnings about Chinese meddling in Latin America when leading foreign-policy makers, including National Security Adviser John Bolton, expressed their fondness for the Monroe Doctrine, the principle behind a long and traumatic history of U.S. interventions in the region. Considering that Latin American elites share a deep-seated concern about excessive U.S. influence in the region, but a relatively neutral stance vis-à-vis China, they have generally preferred to stay above the fray as the West’s relationship with China has spiraled into open mistrust on matters of economic policy, technology, and national security.

As a result, Beijing's focus on the region’s economic development has so far proved more attractive than Washington's attempts to depict Chinese mobile technology as a national and geopolitical security threat. In Brazil, where the NSA spied on former President Dilma Rousseff and her cabinet, leading Rousseff to cancel a formal state visit to Washington in 2013, U.S. warnings about Chinese spying ring hollow—not least because Rousseff’s demand for a formal apology from President Barack Obama went unmet. Elsewhere in the region, too, U.S. anti-China rhetoric comes at a cost. “While the Chinese talk development, all the U.S. talks about is China,” one Central American diplomat told me. “They sound like a jealous ex-boyfriend.”

Brazil's Vice President Hamilton Mourão in Brasilia, May 2019
Brazil's Vice President Hamilton Mourão in Brasilia, May 2019
Adriano Machado / REUTERS

On a visit to Chile in April, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo publicly attacked China and warned of Huawei's activities. The Chinese ambassador in Santiago fired back, accusing Pompeo of having “lost his mind” and denying that Huawei had any links to the Chinese government. Eduardo Frei, Chile's special envoy to the Asia-Pacific and former president, also blasted Pompeo's comments, adding that "Chile should not be pressured by anyone." Soon after the Pompeo’s visit, the Chilean president traveled to China to attend the 2019 Belt and Road Summit, where he also met with Huawei executives. Chile would like Huawei to open a plant on its soil. Peru has also expressed interest.

In Latin America, China's lack of soft power and visibility in everyday life may, paradoxically, be its strength. Beijing’s under-the-radar approach has helped it avoid the Sinophobia that has accompanied its deepening trade ties with some African and Asian countries. Many in Latin America still see China as a useful partner to help offset excessive U.S. influence—even though Beijing’s influence in Brazil and Chile by now far outweighs Washington’s. The United States inevitably evokes love or hate—sometimes both. But when it comes to China, many Latin Americans are simply indifferent. At most, they think of it as an abstract entity. Even the anti-China factions that have emerged within right-wing governments like Bolsonaro’s will only slowly change this perception.

For now, most Latin American telecom operators are focused on expanding existing 4G networks, and the region will account for only around five percent of global 5G connections by 2025. Still, the race to bring the next generation of telecom to Latin America will matter far beyond the region. After all, the more 5G markets Huawei captures in the developing world, the better it will be able to become a globally dominant standard-setter.

Privately, Latin American policymakers express bewilderment at the United States’ obsession with Huawei. The Chinese company’s smartphone sales in the region grew by over 50 percent last year. Taking on the Chinese technology giant would not only mean opting for a more expensive competitor; it would endanger jobs and ties to a crucial trading partner. Given the difficulty and expense of updating digital infrastructure to 5G, Latin American governments will find it politically tricky to justify paying more in the name of security against a threat that sounds both abstract and speculative.

In Latin America, China's lack of soft power and visibility in everyday life is its strength.

For Latin America, remaining on good terms with China is the more immediate concern. The industries that truly depend on 5G, such as autonomous cars or drones, “smart” cities, and artificial intelligence, will not spread in Latin America before the mid-2020s. At that point, most of today's policymakers will have left office. But Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Brasília in November 2019, and there he is expected to invite all of Latin America to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Many governments in the region consider Xi’s offer a historic opportunity for their economic development. “It is a mutual benefit,” Mourão, the Brazilian vice-president, said, echoing Chinese “win-win” rhetoric. “China wants our products; we need trains, ports, and highways that facilitate the transport of these products.”

If Bolsonaro, perhaps the most pro-U.S. leader in Latin American history, struggles to steer his country away from China, the Trump administration’s quest to stop Huawei from leading the 5G rollout in the region faces long odds. As the U.S.-Chinese rivalry intensifies, Latin American governments will no doubt avoid siding with China outright. There is, after all, a lot to gain from maintaining cordial ties with both sides. But, as technological spheres of influence go, China is well positioned to take over what was once the United States’ backyard.

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  • OLIVER STUENKEL is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Brazil.
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