BARCELONA – A large delegation of U.S. officials is heading to Spain this weekend for the world’s largest telecommunications trade show, planning to ratchet up a monthslong offensive against Huawei Technologies Co. that has produced mixed results.
U.S. officials typically visit the show, Barcelona’s Mobile World Congress, to meet foreign counterparts and industry executives and to check out the latest technology. This year, though, the mission is different.
The Trump administration is running a full-court press, particularly in Europe, to narrow Huawei’s lead in supplying the world’s cellular-communications infrastructure. American diplomats have been pressing allied governments, as well as their countries’ wireless and internet providers, to dump the Chinese company – saying the world’s largest provider of telecom gear could be forced by Beijing to spy on or disable their networks.
No U.S. company can compete with Huawei’s offerings, but the U.S. has encouraged foreign countries to shop instead at Finland’s Nokia Corp. and Ericsson AB of Sweden, the only major alternatives.
The American delegation plans to meet mostly with governments, but also foreign wireless carriers to warn them about the long-term risks of using Huawei products, according to a State Department official.
“The stakes are high,” the official said. “We’re really pushing it.”
The U.S. has focused on European countries because they are closest to launching 5G, the superfast, next-generation wireless-network technology, the official said. U.S. officials say it will create a new universe of internet-connected objects, such as factory parts and health devices, that could be hacked.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo turned up on Thursday Washington’s rhetoric, warning that European allies that use Huawei for critical infrastructure might find themselves excluded from information sharing with the U.S.
“There’s a risk where we won’t be able to co-locate American resources, an American embassy or an American military outpost,” he told Fox Business Network.
The U.S. effort has met with a tepid response. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that Germany, a big Huawei market, is leaning against banning Huawei gear in the build-out of its 5G networks.
Also this week, British cybersecurity leaders indicated they would settle on a middle ground between Huawei and the U.S. UK cybersecurity officials reiterated national-security worries about Chinese gear, but also said they thought they could mitigate the risk by restricting some equipment.
Many European carriers are full-throated Huawei supporters, citing the company’s advanced offerings and its often favorable pricing.
At a media event this week in London, Huawei held a four-way video call with executives at three major British wireless carriers demonstrating new 5G technology. “Thank you all for your support,” Ryan Ding, the head of Huawei’s telecom-equipment business, said at the end of the call.
Huawei was among the topics when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met with her Australian counterpart in Auckland on Friday. The two countries – both members of the so-called Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance with the U.S., Canada and the UK – have barred the company from their 5G networks. But after the meeting Ardern said her government would decide for itself whether to lift the ban, despite Pompeo’s warning.
“We of course make our own decisions based on our own national interests and our own independent foreign policy,” she told reporters.
Huawei is facing off with the American entourage on familiar territory. Huawei has dominated recent editions of the trade show, this year officially renamed MWC Barcelona. The Chinese company occupies the biggest booth and blankets the vast exposition halls with its lotus logo, which for several years has adorned the nametag lanyards worn by the roughly 100,000 show attendees.
At pre-conference events and interviews this week, company executives are rebutting U.S. allegations that Huawei would do Beijing’s bidding, but they’re also portraying the company as irreplaceable in today’s technological ecosystem.
“Maybe you can produce 5G, but Huawei’s products, performance will be much better than others,” Peng Song, head of marketing and sales for the company’s telecom-equipment business, said during the Huawei event in London this week.
Huawei showed off cellular-antenna hardware that it said was 50% smaller and 23% lighter than previous models, making them much easier to install than equipment from rivals.
For years, Huawei delivered low-key responses to U.S. warnings. The company says it would never spy or sabotage on behalf of Beijing because doing so would ruin its reputation and cost it customers. More recently, the Shenzhen-based company has switched from defense to offense. The shift comes after U.S. authorities charged the company with stealing trade secrets and violating sanctions on Iran. The company denies wrongdoing.
“The world cannot leave us because we are more advanced,” the company’s reclusive chief executive, Ren Zhengfei, said in a British Broadcasting Corp. interview this week. He said there is “no way the U.S. can crush us.”
Ren, a former Chinese army engineer, took that message to the U.S. later in the week, saying in a CBS interview that the company would defy any request from Beijing to spy. On Thursday, Huawei also said it would hire 200 new employees and increase research and development spending in Canada, where it is a dominant supplier of wireless telecom gear.