White House prepares executive order for Donald Trump restricting Chinese telecoms firms over national security fears

  • Sources say the measure has not yet been presented to Trump and does not name specific firms
  • But it would give US commerce officials greater oversight of deals involving firms linked to adversarial countries, including China
Topic | US-China relations

Bloomberg

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In this file photo taken on July 19, 2018, US President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the East Room of the White House. Photo: AFP

The Trump administration is preparing an executive order that could significantly restrict Chinese state-owned telecommunications companies from operating in the US over national security concerns, according to people familiar with the matter.

The order, which has not yet been presented to the president, would not mention companies such as Huawei Technologies or ZTE Corp by name and would not outright ban US sales by the firms.

But it would give greater authority to the US Commerce Department to review products and purchases by companies connected to adversarial countries, including China, one of the people said.

Huawei is pushing to take a global leadership position in 5G, but many American officials suspect the company’s products could be used by Beijing to spy on Western governments and companies. Both Huawei and ZTE have also been targeted by the US for alleged schemes to dodge American sanctions on Iran.

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Huawei executives have denied that the company is controlled by China’s government or that it is involved in espionage.

Rumours have abounded that the Trump administration would target Chinese telecom companies with an executive order to ban their US sales. Reuters reported in December that Trump would consider an order declaring a national emergency related to the firms.

Ren Zhengfei, founder and chief executive officer of Huawei Technologies, stands for a photograph following an interview at the company's headquarters in Shenzhen, China, on Tuesday. Photo: Bloomberg

Some US companies are preparing for a possible executive order by the Trump administration in the next few weeks that could inflict serious harm on Huawei, perhaps making it impossible for the company to operate, according to James Mulvenon, a China specialist formerly for the Rand Corp who now works for defence-contractor SOS International of Reston, Virginia.

“The maximal version is that they would have a death sentence for Huawei like they threatened to do to ZTE,” the Chinese network-equipment supplier that President Trump spared last year from a threatened cut-off from crucial US parts. “The minimal version is that Huawei will be banned from sales in the US.”

Visitors pass in front of the ZTE Corp booth at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in this February 26, 2018, file photo. Photo: Reuters

An order could be presented to Trump as soon as next month, according to one person familiar with the discussions who asked not to be identified. The order the person outlined would give the Commerce Department discretion to decide which companies and which products to scrutinise.

The preparation of the order comes against the backdrop of Trump’s trade war with Beijing. But national security, not economic concerns, are driving the discussion, the person said.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council wouldn’t confirm whether an order is in the works.

“The United States is working across government and with our allies and like-minded partners to mitigate risk in the deployment of 5G and other communications infrastructure,” the spokesman, Garrett Marquis, said in a statement. “Communications networks form the backbone of our society and underpin every aspect of modern life. The United States will ensure that our networks are secure and reliable.”

US-China relations
Huawei
ZTE
Donald Trump
US-China trade war
US-China trade war: All stories
China technology
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