With Vice President Joe Biden headed to South Korea later this week, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration is complaining to Seoul about its decision to award a major contract to the Chinese telecom giant Huawei. The pressure on South Korea comes in part after a letter to top Obama officials from two key U.S. Senators, which TIME has obtained.
As TIME explained in a feature on Huawei earlier this year, many U.S. intelligence officials suspect that the company—whose founder once served in China’s People’s Liberation Army—helps to facilitate Beijing’s global cyber-espionage. In this case, the concern is over South Korea’s selection of Huawei to develop the country’s next-generation broadband network, as explained by Democratic Senators Robert Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee in their November 27 letter to three Obama cabinet chiefs, which you can read here:
The South Korea flap—which Biden is likely to raise in private, and to be asked about in public, when he arrives in Seoul—is only the latest installment in an ongoing U.S. campaign against the world’s biggest telecommunications company. Last year, a House Intelligence Committee report on Huawei warned U.S. companies against doing business with the Chinese firm, due to the “heightened threat of cyber espionage and predatory disruption or destruction of U.S. networks if telecommunications networks are built by companies with known ties to the Chinese state.” (Huawei denounced the report as politically-driven “China-bashing,” and denied the charges.) American protests recently also helped convince Australia to exclude Huawei from bidding on contracts to develop that country’s broadband network.
In a rare interview last month, the company’s founder showed his frustration, telling French journalists that the company had “decided to exit the U.S. market” rather than allow itself to become an obstacle to U.S.-China relations. (A company spokesman’s subsequent comments suggest that “exit” might be an overstatement.)
Meanwhile, the company expands apace throughout Asia and into Africa, where Ethiopia recently awarded Huawei — along with ZTE, China’s second largest telecom provider, which is partly owned by the state — a two-year, $1.6 billion contract. Huawei now has 18 offices on the continent where, as Foreign Policy recently noted, U.S. officials the Chinese telecom “could be wiring the continent for surveillance.”
One thing to remember when you read current and former government officials making accusations at Huawei: the company’s business rivals stand to benefit from the political pressure. That doesn’t mean the accusations are false. And no one should be naive about China’s cyber-espionage activities. (Nor America’s, of course.) But it’s always worth asking: “Cui bono?“