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US/Huawei saga enters the realm of ‘who knows what going on?’

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The US Commerce Department has held a press conference to announce some companies can now trade with Huawei, but no-one knows who, how, what or where.

Speaking at the annual department conference in Washington, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has said US companies can now start trading with Huawei, assuming they have had a license approved by his department, which is unlikely to happen, while little guidance has been offered to the criteria on how decisions will be made.

The only clue which we have so far is a reference to ‘national security’. Huawei and its affiliates remain on the ‘Entity List’, though US firms are allowed to do business if it doesn’t compromise national security. What that actually means is anyone’s guess.

The move from the US Commerce Department follows comments from President Donald Trump at the G20 Summit in Japan. In order to get trade talks back on track, Chinese President Xi Jinping insisted the aggression towards Huawei be ended. This seems to be somewhat of a compromise with a nod to the likely domestic opposition the White House will face.

Immediately after Trump signalled his intentions to let Huawei off the hook, two of the President’s biggest opponents, from opposite sides of the aisle, voiced their disapproval. Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has Presidential ambitions, and Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer, who consistently undermines the President, both suggested they were going to be hurdles in the pursuit of Huawei relief.

For the moment, the language is still very negative. US suppliers can apply to work with Huawei, but applications will be looked at with refusal at the front of mind. There will have to be proof such business would not compromise security, though it is highly likely the vast majority will be turned down.

“To implement the president’s G20 summit directive two weeks ago, Commerce will issue licenses where there is no threat to US national security,” said Ross during the conference.

“Within those confines, we will try to make sure that we don’t just transfer revenue from the US to foreign firms.”

This seems to be an attempt to keep all parties involved happy. In China, it might look like the White House is trying to relieve pressure on Huawei, while in Congress, Trump seems to be attempting to give the impression he is protecting national security. However, it does paint an incredibly confusing picture.

Ross’ statements seem to ignore the fact that supply chains are now globalised, and it is almost impossible to do business without working beyond domestic shores. Few firms will have any concrete understanding to where they stand either.

For those who have lobbied against the ban, its difficult to see whether this is a win or not. Yes, it is somewhat of a concession, but it might not mean anything ultimately. If the US Commerce Department is going to be stubborn, few suppliers might receive the golden ticket to do business with Huawei. Only time will tell whether this is anything more than ego stroking from Ross.

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