By Clay Chandler and Eamon Barrett
February 9, 2019

As David Meyer noted yesterday the Trump administration is preparing to issue an executive order to ban Chinese telecommunications equipment from U.S. mobile networks. According to a report Thursday in Politico, the administration plans to issue the directive later this month ahead the big Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

For the past several months, the U.S. has been leaning on security allies to do likewise. Politico says Trump intends to sign the order, which would invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, to send a clear signal to allies before they make major purchasing decisions for the next generation of telecommunications equipment.

The move would effectively exclude China’s two largest telecoms equipment manufacturers, Huawei Technology and ZTE Corp., from all new U.S. networks supporting 5G mobile connectivity. The move is certain to complicate U.S.-China trade negotiations which, after a burst of optimism following Chinese vice premier Liu He’s visit with Trump in the Oval Office last month, seem to have bogged down again, with Trump ruling out the prospect of a meeting with Xi Jinping before a key March 1 deadline.

The Politico report lends new clarity to the dynamics of America’s multi-front campaign against Huawei, which flared into public view on December 1 when Canadian authorities, responding to an extradition request from the U.S. Justice Department, arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou (who also happens to be the daughter of Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei).

The Justice Department alleges Meng defrauded global banks as part of a larger scheme to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran. More recently, Justice announced two broad indictments against the company, one alleging violations of the Iran sanctions, and the other charging that Huawei stole U.S. technology and even had a bonus plan to reward employees perpetrating that theft. U.S. officials also have warned that, because Huawei is a Chinese company and obliged by law to follow orders of China’s national security services, any equipment sold to the U.S. or its allies poses a security risk.

Former Washington Post Beijing correspondent John Pomfret argues in this excellent analysis that Washington’s stated charges against Huawei are mostly a smokescreen for the real concern: U.S. security officials are scared witless that Huawei’s equipment and technology will become the global standard for 5G—a development that would have huge implications, both military and economic, to the global balance of power.

This is an entirely legitimate fear. And yet, America’s inability to compete with China in 5G is a failing for which it has mostly itself to blame. The technology behind 5G is complicated, but it’s not rocket science. As Pomfret observes, the game turns mostly on network density. A successful 5G network requires lots of small cells on telephone polls and street lamps. China has elevated the construction of those relay networks to the equivalent of the Soviet Sputnik satellite project, outspending the U.S. by $24 billion since 2015, according to a recent report by Deloitte.

In 5G, in other words, the advantage lies not in research genius but political will. The contest favors nations capable of doing a fundamental thing at which China excels and America barely makes an effort: building infrastructure. Charles Duan in the National Interest argues America is forfeiting the war for 5G because it has allowed, even rewarded, its leading mobile technology suppliers for investing far more time and capital in bickering over patents than developing new technologies.

According to the Deloitte report, China’s most recent five-year economic plan earmarks a further $411 billion for 5G-related investment. That’s $37 billion less than what Texas-based writer Richard Parker estimates the U.S. government will have to spend to seize the 700 miles of private land necessary to complete a wall along the border with Mexico. What if the U.S. were spend those billions to build a nation-wide network of 5G towers instead? We could even call them Trump Towers. Which option would leave the nation more secure?

Clay Chandler
@claychandler
clay.chandler@timeinc.com

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