Here’s a version of a piece I wrote for IDG Connect recently about the escalating tech trade war between the US and China. While Trump is blowing hot and cold on what to do with ZTE, an even bigger potential problem is looming.
A full-on trade war between the United States and China just got another step closer after Washington opened an investigation into whether Huawei broke US sanctions on Iran. The Department of Justice (DoJ) has already slapped tariffs on $60bn worth of Chinese steel and aluminium, but this turn of events could have arguably more serious repercussions.
On the one hand it could cause panic in US tech boardrooms if China ends up banning sales of electronics components made in the Middle Kingdom. But in the longer term, this could accelerate China’s push towards self-sufficiency, locking out US firms like Qualcomm for good.
A seven-year ban?
The Justice Department investigation is said to have stemmed from a similar probe into whether Shenzhen rival ZTE broke US sanctions by exporting kit with American components in it to Iran. It was found guilty not only of breaking the sanctions, which resulted in an $892m fine, but of breaking the deal’s terms by failing to punish those involved. The resulting seven-year ban on US firms selling to ZTE will severely hamper its growth efforts, especially as it relies on chips and other components from the likes of Qualcomm and Micron Technology.
The probe of Huawei, which is said to have been ongoing since early 2017, could result in a similar punishment if the firm is found guilty of breaking sanctions. Washington has belatedly realised that the US is being supplanted by China as the world’s pre-eminent tech superpower and that has meant increasing roadblocks put in the way of the number one telecoms equipment maker and third-largest smartphone maker in the world. National security concerns have been used to keep Huawei down, first in 2012 when it and ZTE were de facto banned from the US telecoms infrastructure market after a damning congressional report, and more recently when AT&T and Verizon were lent on to drop plans to sell the latest Huawei smartphones, and Best Buy stopped selling its devices.
Like ZTE, Huawei could be severely restricted if it is hit with a US components ban. But is Washington shooting itself in the foot with this heavy-handed approach?
A global problem
First, China and its new leader-for-life Xi Jinping is more than ready and willing to fight back against what it sees as unfair trade practices by the Trump administration. It has already fired back with retaliatory tariffs on US food imports and will do so again if a mooted additional $100bn in tariffs from the US goes through. By the same rationale, could China respond to orders banning sales of US components, by banning the sale of China-made components to US tech firms?
Potentially, believes China-watcher Bill Bishop.
“The US-China technology war may run much hotter than the overall conflict over trade. Xi continues to make clear that China can no longer rely on foreign technology and must go all out to end its reliance on it,” he wrote in his popular Sinocism newsletter. “Technology CEOs the world over with supply chain dependencies in China — so probably all of them — should be increasingly nervous and focused on their firms’ efforts to have viable contingency plans for a US-China technology cold war.”
Beijing-based Forrester principal analyst, Charlie Dai, told me the potential for disruption to US supply chains could be “significant”.
“It’s hard to find effective contingency plans and the only way is to have everyone, especially the US government, to realise the importance of collaboration,” he added.
“In a world where the global supply chain and value ecosystem have already become critical drivers for the business growth of large countries like US and China, any further action like ZTE’s case will hurt the economic relationship between the US and China, which is the last thing that companies and customers want to see.”
In the longer term, this could be the reminder Beijing needs that it must become self-reliant in technology to achieve its “rightful” place at the global number one superpower. This has been a goal of Xi’s for years. In fact, that’s what the controversial Made in China 2025 initiative is all about – reducing reliance on foreign suppliers.
“Heavy dependence on imported core technology is like building our house on top of someone else’s walls: no matter how big and how beautiful it is, it won’t remain standing during a storm,” Xi said as far back as 2016. The Chinese government has already set up a fund which aims to raise up to 200 billion yuan ($31.7bn) to back a range of domestic firms including processor designers and equipment makers. But although chips are the number one target, China’s efforts to become self-sufficient in tech expand to other spheres. It has long been trying to nurture a home-grown rival to Windows, although efforts so far have not been hugely successful.
It’s not just Chinese firms the US must be wary of, according to James Lewis, SVP at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The seven-year ban on US components will only encourage foreign suppliers to rush into the space vacated by US companies,” he said of the ZTE case. “It will reinforce the Chinese government’s desire to replace US suppliers with Chinese companies. And it will lead others to begin to make things they did not make before, causing permanent harm to the market share of US companies.”
One final word of warning to US tech CEOs: if China is looking to close the gap on technology capabilities, be prepared for a new deluge of cyber-espionage attempts focused on stealing IP. Innovation may be the first of Xi’s “five major concepts of development”, but that hasn’t stopped the nation pilfering in epic quantities in the past to gain parity with the West.
“It’s impossible for most countries, if not all, to be self-sufficient in all tech components,” claimed Forrester’s Dai. “One chip relates to many different hardware and software components. It requires continuous investments which are hard to realise in the short-term.”
That may be so, but bet against China at your peril. If any country has the resources and now the determination to do it, it’s the Middle Kingdom.
Donald Trump made some questionable remarks this week that have rightly caused an almighty backlash. But one thing he did that may have more support, is sign an executive memorandum which will most likely lead to a lengthy investigation into alleged widespread Chinese theft of US IP. This is a big deal in Silicon Valley and something that has irked US business in general for years.
The question is, will this latest strategy actually result in any concrete changes on the Chinese side? As you can see from this new IDG Connect piece, I’m not convinced.
Years of theft
There are few things Democrats and Republicans agree on, but one is that China has had things far too long its own way when it comes to trade. The US trade deficit between the countries grew to $310 billion last year, helped by the growing dominance of Chinese businesses. Many of these have been able to accelerate their growth and maturation thanks to IP either stolen by hackers from US counterparts or take via forced joint ventures and tech transfers. Many of them are selling back into the US or their huge domestic market, undercutting American rivals.
Chinese firms don’t have the same restrictions around forced JVs and tech transfers to enter the US market. In fact, the likes of Baidu even have Silicon Valley R&D centres where they’re able to recruit some of the brightest locals, while government-backed VC firms have been funding start-ups to continue the seemingly relentless one-way IP transfer.
There are, of course, more nuances to the dynamic, but you get the point.
So, will this investigation get us anywhere? After all, it will empower the President to take unilateral action including sanctions and trade embargoes. Well, on the one hand, little gain can be made from stopping Chinese IP hackers, as they have stopped outright theft ever since a landmark Obama-Xi deal in 2015, according to FireEye Chief Intelligence Strategist, Christopher Porter.
“If anything, discontinuing straightforward theft of intellectual property for strictly commercial purposes has freed up Chinese actors to focus more on these other targets than ever before, so the risk to companies before and after the Xi Agreement depends heavily on what industry that company is in and what sort of customer data they collect,” he told me via email.
That’s not to say the Chinese aren’t still active in cyberspace, but it’s less around IP theft, which is the focus of this investigation, Porter added.
“We have seen an increase in cyber threat activity that could be Chinese groups collecting competitive business intelligence on US firms selling their products and services globally—several companies that were targets of proposed M&A activity from would-be Chinese parent companies were also victims of Chinese cyber threat activity within the previous year, suggesting that they may have been targeted as part of the M&A process to give the Chinese company a leg-up in negotiations,” he explained.
Which leaves us with JVs and tech transfers, which have provided Chinese companies with vital “know-how” and “know-why” over the years. To my mind, if there’s any area where the US can and should focus its diplomatic and negotiating efforts, it’s here. However, as reports in the past have highlighted, it took China years to construct a gargantuan, highly sophisticated tech transfer apparatus, and it won’t be looking to bin that anytime soon, especially with the Party’s ambitious Made in China 2025 strategy now in full swing.
Neither side will want to become embroiled in a trade war. The US has too many companies which count China as a major market – it’s Apple’s largest outside the US, for example – and Chinese firms are doing very well selling into the US, as that huge trade deficit highlights.
In the end, my suspicion is that this is just another bit of Trump tough talk which will actually produce very little.
“This long-awaited intervention should also probably be viewed in the larger picture of the way the Trump administration operates: in terms of ‘carrot and stick diplomacy’,” Trend Micro European Cyber Security Strategist, Simon Edwards, told me.
“It is also well documented that the US administration is trying to use trade deals to get action on the situation in North Korea; and perhaps this is more of a stick to be used with the accompanying ‘carrot’ of a greater trade deals?”
Time will tell, but it’s unlikely that US tech companies operating in China, and their global customers, will be any better off after this latest test.