Trump wound up saying he would ease restrictions on Huawei while fielding questions at a press conference. White House National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow subsequently told media that Huawei will remain on the U.S.’s Entity List, which allows the Commerce Department to restrict sales, but that some temporary licenses will likely be granted.
Trump’s May 15 ban restricting U.S. companies from selling to Huawei kicked into overdrive a long-standing Chinese plan to rid itself of U.S. technology. The nation still needs American chips, and with even a limited resumption of access, China can plug some gaps while proceeding to develop its own rival technology. Huawei now has even more incentive to push ahead with its own chip development.
The U.S. move move also helps strengthen the Chinese company’s position that it’s being used as trade leverage. According to a transcript posted online, Trump said:
“U.S. companies can sell their equipment to Huawei. I’m talking about equipment where there is no great national emergency problem with it.
“Huawei is a complicated situation. We agreed to leave that — we’re leaving Huawei toward the end. We’re going to see. We’ll see where we go with the trade agreement.”
This is a direct acknowledgment that his administration banned sales of at least some items that had no security implications, and that the company is merely a political target. It’s also a long way from the “potentially catastrophic effects” of selling U.S. technology to Chinese companies that he outlined in his May executive order.
In just a few minutes, the president said what Huawei’s PR team in Shenzhen has spent months trying to tell the world. This kind of flip-flop highlights to Beijing just how unstable Washington’s security policy is right now.
Trump isn’t alone in conflating the trade war with technology. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, noted that “Huawei is one of few potent levers we have to make China play fair on trade.”
At least Florida Republican Marco Rubio seems to understand that Trump’s policy pliability undermines U.S. credibility.
No matter what happens in the realm of trade, a digital iron curtain – which separates the world into two distinct technological spheres of influence – will continue to be drawn.
And no trade truce is going to end that long cold war.
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Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
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