The usually publicity-shy Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei has hit back at what he perceives as a politically motivated attack, declaring if “the lights go out in the West, the East will shine”.
Although the US government has sustained the anti-China rhetoric over the last couple of months, with Huawei being the focal point of any aggression, the firm is holding strong. That is the message from Zhengfei, a usually media-adverse individual who is currently being carted around Europe in a show of strength against the White House. The aim for Huawei is to demonstrate transparency, and it does seem to be working in Europe.
“There’s no way the world can crush us,” said Zhengfei, in an interview with the BBC. “The world needs Huawei because we are more advanced. Even if they persuade more countries not to use us temporarily, we could just scale things down a bit. And because the US keeps targeting us and finding fault with us, it has forced us to improve our products and services.
“If the lights go out in the West, the East will shine. And if the North goes dark, there is still the South. America does not represent the world.”
While these comments are unusually aggressive for a man who does not like the limelight, they could prove as the perfect antagonistic weapon against President Trump. Zhengfei is sending a simple message across the Atlantic in this interview; the world is not siding with you in this quest.
Huawei has become a proxy in the overarching conflict between the US and China, though it is certainly faring better now than it did a couple of months back. During the initial exchanges, there was a considerable amount of collateral damage heading Huawei’s direction. Banned from providing equipment in Australia, New Zealand and Japan, plus other omissions in countries such as South Korea, it was an ominous sign. But Europe is seemingly not agreeing with Trump.
In the wider US/China dispute, Europe is a critical battle ground. As a bloc, the European Union is the second largest economy in the world. For both China and the US, winning favour would go a long-way to establishing political and economic dominance over the other. And Europe does not seem to share the same deep-rooted distaste for China as the US is currently harbouring.
Many European economies have established trade relationships with the Chinese, and while there are long-standing partnerships with the US also, none of these countries seem to want to readily shun the Chinese. This is the advantage which Huawei has in Europe, these are not nations which will so easily bow to the outside influence of the US.
In the UK, for instance, China is the 5th largest trade partner, as it is also in Germany. Its down in 7th for France, but still accounts for 4.3% of total trade, as it is in Italy for 3% of the total. For Belgium, China is the third largest partner outside of the European Union, while it is the second largest outside the bloc for the Netherlands. Trade with China is too important for the member states to consider siding with the US in the larger international conflict.
Of course, what you have to bear in mind is the over-arching European Commission supposedly considering ways to ban Chinese companies from contributing to critical infrastructure programmes. US Vice President Mike Pence has been touring Europe to talk up the importance of making a stance against China, and also dropping hints other European nations should ditch the Union, but success with the individual member states is looking far more limited.
With Germany and the UK seemingly favouring an approach which would heighten security protocols but still allow Huawei to operate, the Chinese firm is seemingly winning on the continent. With the US throwing political heavyweights at the nation states, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was another to join the crusade of fear-mongering, the US might soon become quite agitated. Huawei’s resistance might infuriate the Oval Office, but the inability to bend Europe into its own image of perfection might will frustrate.
Europe was supposed to be a political boost for the US ambitions against China. This is of course the bloc which the US saved from the ravages of World War II and also a steadfast set of allies over the last few decades. Whatever the US has done, Europe has generally agreed to. But it seems the brash and aggressive style is not palatable to the conscientious and risk-adverse Europeans.
For Huawei, this is a massive battle. Europe as a whole is the largest market outside of China for Huawei, representing billions of dollars’ worth of business. However, its not just the network infrastructure ambitions at risk her, let’s not forget the consumer business has been making considerable progress across the bloc as well. The fact Huawei is wheeling Zhengfei around demonstrates how important this region is to the company.
President Trump sees himself as one of life’s winners. As the self-proclaimed ‘deal marker’, this is a man who is used to getting his way. With the power of the White House and US economy behind him, this is not an outcome he would have imagined. The stubbornness of the Europeans might force the White House into more drastic action before too long.