Nervousness about Chinese technology has long existed in the United States, fueled by the fear that the Chinese could insert a “back door” into telecom and computing networks that would allow Chinese security services to intercept military, government and corporate communications. And Chinese cyberintrusions of American companies and government entities have occurred repeatedly, including by hackers suspected of working on behalf of China’s Ministry of State Security.
But the concern has taken on more urgency as countries around the world begin deciding which equipment providers will build their 5G networks.
American officials say the old process of looking for “back doors” in equipment and software made by Chinese companies is the wrong approach, as is searching for ties between specific executives and the Chinese government. The bigger issue, they argue, is the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Chinese government, the fading line between independent business and the state and new laws that will give Beijing the power to look into, or maybe even take over, networks that companies like Huawei have helped build and maintain.
“It’s important to remember that Chinese company relationships with the Chinese government aren’t like private sector company relationships with governments in the West,” said William R. Evanina, the director of America’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law requires Chinese companies to support, provide assistance and cooperate in China’s national intelligence work, wherever they operate.”
The White House’s focus on Huawei coincides with the Trump administration’s broader crackdown on China, which has involved sweeping tariffs on Chinese goods, investment restrictions and the indictments of several Chinese nationals accused of hacking and cyberespionage. President Trump has accused China of “ripping off our country” and plotting to grow stronger at America’s expense.
Mr. Trump’s views, combined with a lack of hard evidence implicating Huawei in any espionage, have prompted some countries to question whether America’s campaign is really about national security or if it is aimed at preventing China from gaining a competitive edge.
Administration officials see little distinction in those goals.
“President Trump has identified overcoming this economic problem as critical, not simply to right the balance economically, to make China play by the rules everybody else plays by, but to prevent an imbalance in political/military power in the future as well,” John R. Bolton, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, told The Washington Times on Friday. “The two aspects are very closely tied together in his mind.”