Is Huawei a Pawn in the Trade War?

The Politics of the Global Tech Race

A woman outside a Huawei shop in Beijing, China, December 2018 Thomas Peter/REUTERS

It’s not been a great few weeks for Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant and one of Beijing’s “national champion” tech firms. On December 1, Canadian authorities in Vancouver arrested the company’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, at the behest of the United States. On January 11, news broke that Polish officials had arrested a Huawei employee on espionage charges. On January 28, the U.S. Justice Department unveiled indictments accusing the company of systematically violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and stealing trade secrets from its U.S. business partner T-Mobile. 

The arrest of Meng came just as Washington and Beijing reached a 90-day truce to halt their recent tit-for-tat escalation of tariffs while trade talks continued. This timing—and U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that he could use Meng as a bargaining chip in the negotiations—prompted an outcry from Chinese officials, who painted her arrest as a cynical power play. The response from Beijing was swift: almost immediately after Meng was picked up in Vancouver, China detained two Canadians in what was widely seen as a retaliatory measure. A few weeks later, a third Canadian was sentenced to death for drug smuggling at a perfunctory court proceeding that was ordered shortly after Meng’s arrest.

Despite Trump’s reckless tweeting, it’s highly unlikely that Meng’s arrest was timed to give Washington additional leverage over Beijing. She was arrested on charges of fraud connected to sanctions violations, and the U.S. criminal investigation of Huawei began long before the current round of U.S.-Chinese trade talks. Meng is not a hostage; her detention was a legitimate act of law enforcement.

There is, however, a less transactional and more fundamental connection between the heightened scrutiny of Huawei and Washington’s trade war against Beijing: both stem from the growing tensions and mistrust between Western states and China in matters of technology, economic policy, and national security. Both are driven, in part, by the fear that the

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