Huawei Heads South

The Battle Over 5G Comes to Latin America

An Huawei employee in Shenzhen, China March 2019 Tyrone Siu / REUTERS

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

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