Huawei and ZTE pose security threat and ‘cannot be trusted’, US Attorney General William Barr says, backing ban on fund

Jodi Xu Klein

US Attorney General William Barr, insisting that Huawei Technologies and ZTE “cannot be trusted”, has thrown his support behind the US communications regulator’s plan to ban a government fund that lets US rural wireless carriers purchase products and services from the two Chinese telecoms suppliers.

In a November 13 letter sent to Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Barr said the Chinese firms’ “track record, as well as the practices of the Chinese government, demonstrate that Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted”.

Preventing the US$8.5 billion fund from giving the companies an influential role in the building of American 5G infrastructure “will help secure domestic communications networks from Chinese spying”, Barr said, labelling the companies a threat to US national security.

The FCC will vote on the proposed ban on November 22. It also is proposing ways for US carriers to remove and replace existing equipment acquired from Huawei and ZTE.

Barr added that “we should not signal that Huawei and ZTE are anything other than a threat to our collective security, for that is exactly what they, through their actions, have shown themselves to be”.

Huawei and ZTE did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Barr noted that the US government put Huawei on a so-called entity list in May that prohibits the Chinese telecoms giant from buying parts and components from US companies without US government approval.

Driving the move was a fear the company could be forced by the Chinese government to hand over critical data and information that could threaten US national security.

“Because of the geopolitical situation and skepticism about each other’s long-term goals, the tech issue has now been pushed to the top of the agenda,” said Adam Segal, the Ira A. Lipman chair in emerging technologies and national security, at a Council on Foreign Relations event in New York last week.

In May, US President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring US companies from using telecommunications equipment made by companies posing a national security risk.

The Commerce Department, working with other government agencies, was directed to draw up an enforcement plan by October 12. The agency has yet to publish the proposal.

A temporary waiver was issued by the Commerce Department to allow some of the non-sensitive products to be sold. The waiver is set to expire on November 19.

Action over Huawei set to haunt Trump

The Commerce Department plans to extend that waiver by six months, Politico reported on Thursday. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said recently that licences for US companies to sell to Huawei would be coming soon.

Federal prosecutors also charged Huawei with violating a US embargo on Iran, bank fraud, obstruction of justice and trade secret theft. ZTE pleaded guilty in 2017 to illegally sending US goods to Iran and later paid a US$1.4 billion in fine.

Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai has said the FCC “cannot ignore the risk that the Chinese government will seek to exploit network vulnerabilities to engage in espionage, insert malware and viruses, and otherwise compromise our critical communications networks”. Photo: Bloomberg

The FCC’s Pai had said the commission “cannot ignore the risk that the Chinese government will seek to exploit network vulnerabilities to engage in espionage, insert malware and viruses, and otherwise compromise our critical communications networks”.

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The Trump administration has also pressed the governments of other countries not to grant Huawei access to 5G networks, citing similar national security concerns. The Chinese company has denied it poses a security risk.

Several European countries so far have ignored the US’ campaign to exclude Huawei from national 5G networks.

The Trump administration is said to be using its tough stance on Huawei as a bargaining chip in the US’ protracted trade war with China. But observers have suggested the hard line will last well beyond the trade conflict. Photo: DPA

The Trump administration has been said to be using its hard line on Huawei as a bargaining chip in the US’ protracted trade war with China. But observers have suggested the tough stance will last well beyond the trade war.

“The broad concerns over technology competition is not going to stop. A trade deal isn’t going to solve them,” said Amy Celico, principal at Albright Stonebridge Group and a former senior director for China affairs at the Office of the US Trade Representative.

“So this fight [with Huawei] isn’t going to end when the trade war stops.”

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