US accuses China of ‘inappropriate retaliation’ over possible Apple ban

Tense relations between United States and China. Concept of conflict and stress

Following reports that China is banning the use of iPhones in government agencies, the US government suggested such behaviour is wrong.

Last week the WSJ reported that China is banning the use of Apple iPhones for government officials at work. At a general press briefing yesterday, which you can see the video recording of below, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby was asked what he thought of the report and what he was going to do about it.

“I don’t want to get ahead of where we are right now,” said Kirby. “We’re watching this with concern. Clearly, it seems to be of a piece of the kinds of aggressive and inappropriate retaliation to U.S. companies that we’ve seen from the PRC in the past. That’s what this appears to be. The truth is, we don’t have perfect visibility on exactly what they’re doing and why. And we certainly would call on them to be more transparent about what they’re seeing and what they’re doing.”

The WSJ story was based on the customary ‘people familiar with the matter’ so it’s easily deniable and that’s exactly what the Chinese government has done. “China did not issue any law, regulation or policy document that bans the purchase and use of cellphones of foreign brands, such as iPhone,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning.

“However, recently we did notice media reports about security issues related to iPhone. The Chinese government attaches great importance to cyber and information security and treats Chinese and foreign companies as equals. We hope all cellphone companies operating in China will strictly abide by China’s laws and regulations…”

‘People familiar with the matter usually’ indicates a controlled leak, either from a company or state organisation. Maybe the WSJ source was a US state official looking to generate a pretext for retaliation or maybe it was a Chinese equivalent seeking to wind up the US some more. Of course the report could also be accurate and the Chinese denial a lie. Who knows?

But it does seem a bit rich for the US to characterise Chinese action against one of its companies in this way when you consider its extensive campaign of sanctions and restrictions against Huawei and other Chinese companies. The original pretext for that activity was security concerns, so China is clearly saying ‘two can play at that game’.

The broader US security agenda revolves around a strategy of protecting its intellectual property from alleged theft that has been dubbed ‘small yard, high fence’ to describe the vigorous defence of a small number of technologies. The justification for this remains questionable, as we discussed in a recent podcast. Furthermore the US risks alienating the rest of the world if it continues to throw its economic weight around in this way, as the Chinese state-affiliated Global Times recently satirised in the cartoon below.


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