UPDATE: In a flip flop decision, and with no explanation, President Donald Trump announced last weekend that US companies would be allowed to sell software and hardware components to Huawei. This reversed the previous ban he instituted against Huawei in May. Trump’s announcement came after a G20 summit meeting in Japan on June 29 where Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping agreed to halt new tariffs and continue trade negotiations.
The goal for tech company and smartphone-maker Huawei to become the top smartphone brand by the end of 2020 has hit a roadblock. Google announced on May 20 that it would be restricting Huawei’s access to its Android operating system (OS) and apps. This announcement came after the United States (US) Trump administration blacklisted the Chinese tech giant. The Daily Vox explains the nature of the US-China trade war and what this means for South African Huawei users.
What exactly are the Google restrictions we’re talking about?
Google said it’s going to block Huawei from using Android apps on its devices, which currently use Google’s Android mobile OS. Huawei adds a “skin” on top of the standard Android user interface, which gives its own flavour to Android.
The ban would mean the Google Play Store, which allows Android users to download apps, would kick Huawei devices out. The phones would not have access to Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps and other apps. Users would also not have access to the latest security updates.
Why such a drastic measure from Google, you ask. Well, it’s all wrapped up in tricky politics. As a US company, Google was just complying with an executive order by the Trump administration.
What does this mean for Huawei users in South Africa?
There’s no need to panic, Huawei users. In a statement, Huawei said in South Africa, it would “continue to serve all our customers and partners with the same focus and dedication as before, and contribute to the ICT sector with vigour.”
The company committed to continue providing security updates and after-sales services to all existing Huawei and Honor products. This covers those that had been sold and that were still in stock globally.
Huawei Vice President of Corporate Communications Glenn Schloss said last week that the devices in people’s hands were “completely unaffected” by US restrictions.
“For owners of Huawei handsets in South Africa it will be business as usual,” Schloss said.
What are the politics of the US ban on Huawei?
Speculation was brewing for months before US President Donald Trump signed the executive order mid-May. It authorised the federal government to block US companies from buying foreign-made telecommunications equipment considered a “national security risk”. Huawei wasn’t mentioned by name, but was referenced.
According to the US government, the Chinese government could force companies like Huawei to install shady equipment to spy on US networks. The US, and other countries, have been suspicious of Huawei’s ties with the Chinese government for years. Huawei’s founder Ren Zhengfei has long been in bed with the Chinese government. Ren worked as an engineer for the People’s Liberation Army, the armed forces of China’s Communist Party, before moving into commercial electronics in 1983.
There are also accusations of theft: the US accused Huawei of stealing cell phone testing technology. “The Congressional Report in 2012 suggested there were shenanigans going on with Huawei,” professor of international relations at Wits University, John Stremlau said. Huawei was accused of “cutting a lot of corners ethically and legally to acquire intellectual property that they could then carry into their rapid growth,” he explained.
The US charged Huawei and chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou with charges including obstruction of justice and theft of technology in January. Meng was also accused of violating US trade sanctions. She was charged with covering up Huawei’s links to a company called Skycom that sold over millions of dollars worth of technology equipment to Iran.
Now what has this got to do with anything? Well, all of this has to be understood against the backdrop of the US-China trade war.
The US-China Trade War
Since July 2018, China and the US have been locked in a trade war which involves the mutual placement of tariffs on products produced by the other country. But this all boils down to power.
“The overriding issue is the US-China competition rivalry and the displacement of the US as the number one power by China,” Stremlau said.
“What we’re seeing between the Trump administration and China right now is kind of a ‘phony war’,” he said in an interview with The Daily Vox. Some say when a major power and a secondary power vie for leadership, but Stremlau doesn’t think so. In the age of nuclear warfare, Stremlau says he thinks and hopes “the real conflict between the US and China will be played out largely in the economic domain”.
The Huawei move can be seen as a kind of warfare in the greater trade war. But it’s dangerous, especially considering how interdependent the two economies are. Again, understanding how to two countries are vying for power has to be understood in terms of their leaders.
Understanding the main players in game
On the one hand there’s Trump who is fighting to stay in power ahead of the 2020 US presidential election. There’s also the problem of his Republican Party which “has become a party of tax cuts and protection for corporate and wealthy interests” Stremlau said. In the US there is a political polarisation and paralysis.
Then there’s China, which Stemlau describes as “a market-based, Leninist, authoritarian state.” Xi Jinping is president for life. Under Xi, China has become more authoritarian. “You’re using Huawei technology, 5G technology to track people more closely, suppress religious and ethnic minorities in China,” he said.
But it’s as if Trump doesn’t pay attention to this, or the economic interdependence between the two. “Trump thinks this is a zero sum game but it’s a positive sum game, it should be a positive sum game,” Stremlau said.
Stremlau says there’s got to be an embedding of this competition in a larger economics security normative context using international institutions like G20 or Paris Accord or the United Nations. This will serve the interests of third parties like Europe, Latin America, and the African Union.
But let’s get back to what it all means for Huawei.
What are the implications for Huawei the company?
Google has said the Google Play Store and the security features which come with Android, will continue to be available on existing Huawei devices. Last week, Huawei was given brief respite from the ban when the US lifted some restrictions for 90 days. So Huawei phones will continue to receive app and security updates in the short term. But in the longer term, it isn’t clear.
The company could develop and release its own OS and apps – like Apple has done – so users won’t need to run Google’s apps. Given the volatile relationship with the US, Huawei is probably already taking these steps.
Author’s note: This article previously stated that a Huawei progression report pointed to accusations of cell phone theft. This has been corrected to cite a US Congressional Report in 2012.