By Lee Cohen
The U.S. Department of Justice on Feb. 13 filed new charges against Chinese telecom giant Huawei, accusing it, among other things, of stealing U.S. trade secrets and assisting the Iranian government to spy on protesters as well as illegally doing business with North Korea.
Specific charges include racketeering, theft of trade secrets and lying to investigators about these allegations.
The accusations include stealing “source code for internet routers, command line interface (a structure of textual commands used to communicate with routers) and operating system manuals” from six unnamed U.S. companies, assumed to include Cisco and Motorola.
These new charges build on former U.S. indictments accusing the company of violations of Iran sanctions in assisting the Iranian government to spy on anti-government protesters.
In January of 2019, the DOJ filed criminal charges against Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou, including bank fraud, obstruction of justice and theft of technology.
Following the first round of indictments, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross made clear the Trump administration’s stance:” For years, Chinese firms have broken our export laws and undermined sanctions, often using US financial systems to facilitate their illegal activities.”
Regarding Iran, the new charges state specifically, “Huawei’s business in Iran did violate laws and regulations, including sanction-related requirements, and included the provision of goods and services to the Iranian government, including surveillance technology used to monitor, identify and detain protestors during anti-government demonstrations in Teheran, Iran, in or about 2009,”
Huawei responded to the legal proceedings by stating: “This new indictment is part of the Justice Department’s attempt to irrevocably damage Huawei’s reputation and its business for reasons related to competition rather than law enforcement.”
Huawei is said to be ahead of other global providers such as Ericsson and Nokia in 5G technology in product offering, scale, and pricing. Its technology is already extensively in place in networks throughout the world including in those of America’s strongest allies, such as Great Britain which has chosen it based upon performance and cost issues. But Huawei is such a priority to the Trump administration that it is threatening to hold back on its much-trumpeted UK trade agreement if the UK does not dial back its dependence on Huawei’s 5G equipment.
The U.S. pressure on Huawei has strained Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, triumphant at having delivered Brexit on Jan. 31. Chief among Johnson’s 2019 campaign promises was not only to leave the European Union, but to chart a new course for a “global Britain” unconstrained by EU trade rules.
Johnson has given approval for Huawei to provide 35 percent of his nation’s 5G infrastructure, stressing its application in “non-core” parts of the network.
Not only the Trump administration but members of the Prime Minister’s government and parliament have also expressed security concerns. Parliamentarian Ian Duncan Smith wrote in The Telegraph: “I believe that the best course for the Government, given that it has inherited the existing involvement of Huawei, is to plan to clear the firm out of our systems as quickly as possible. Defence of the realm is the Government’s number one priority, and this includes cyberspace. There can be no room in our systems for companies such as Huawei.”
A robust U.S.-UK trade agreement, which President Donald Trump has signaled his support for on many occasions, is very much part of Johnson’s priorities in realizing his campaign goals. But he is between a rock and a hard place regarding Huawei due to its compelling price structure and lack of competent alternatives. So far Johnson has stood his ground.
International officials met on Friday in Munich at a security conference where U.S. participants again raised the issue. Robert Blair, special representative for international telecommunications policy, said the United Kingdom would have to take a “hard look” at its decision to use Huawei equipment, but asserted that “there will be no erosion in our overall intelligence sharing.”
The DOJ filing can be viewed here
Lee Cohen is a fellow of the Danube Institute. He was an adviser on Europe to the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee and founded the Congressional United Kingdom Caucus.