- Even in the midst of its own national disaster — the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus — China managed to embarrass the Trump administration.
- Last week the UK decided to ignore the Trump administration’s warnings and allow Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build out some of its “non-core” 5G systems. The US has accused Huawei of spying for the Chinese government.
- It’s another example of how Trump’s intimidation diplomacy doesn’t work. Unfortunately, that seems to be the only kind of diplomacy his administration knows to engage in — to everyone’s detriment.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Quietly, as the US media watched senators ask questions about the President Donald Trump’s imbroglio in Ukraine, and tallied the Wuhan coronavirus death toll around the world, China handed the president a major loss, one with national-security implications far outlasting his time in office.
The UK has decided to allow the Chinese telecom company Huawei to build out “non-core” elements of the 5G infrastructure. Huawei is prohibited from providing hardware for any sensitive sites, such as military bases or nuclear facilities, and after that will be limited to on 35% of market share.
Both domestically and internationally, this is an extremely controversial decision. The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has labeled Huawei a “high-risk vendor” that could share information with the Chinese government. And the Trump administration absolutely hates this decision.
For months, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made it clear that the fury of the Trump administration would rain down on its closest ally should Huawei be allowed to build out the pipes of Britain’s communications system. Speaking in London in May, Pompeo claimed embracing Huawei could threaten US-UK intelligence sharing, a key part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance.
Pompeo said that now was not the time for the US and the UK to “go wobbly” in the face of Chinese aggression, he brought up the “Iron Lady” — Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister — and challenged the UK government to consider whether she would countenance China’s behavior.
Unfortunately for Pompeo — and the Trump administration — all of this was in bad taste and bad timing. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government is one of Brexiteer nationalists who easily bristle under the bossiness of other countries. They were “irritated” by Pompeo’s taunting and decided to allow Huawei to build some of its networks.
And so it was that even in the midst of its most face-destroying crisis in nearly two decades — an outbreak that the World Health Organization is calling a global emergency — China still managed to rout Trump.
Flies, vinegar, and honey
This is, of course, not how anyone treats their friends. There is no doubt that allowing Huawei to build these systems at least increases the risk that parts of the UK telecommunications systems could be compromised by the Chinese government. Whether or not limiting Huawei’s participation in the build-out mitigates risk at all “depends,” according to James Andrew Lewis, the director of the Technology Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“What it depends upon is how well the United Kingdom follows up on its plans for secure telecommunications,” he wrote.
Instead of berating the UK, the US could’ve just seen that what it really needed was a hand. Consider the position Johnson’s government is in. Now that his country has left the European Union it will need to prove it has just as dynamic an economy as ever.
The country must battle the perception around the world that without the EU the whole of Britain will become a caricature of the most dilapidated members its aristocracy, a hollowed-out set poor in cash and rich in condescension, the kind whose drafty estates are rented out for fairy-tale weddings.
In other words, we could’ve tried to solve this problem with money. Huawei already has a presence in the UK’s 4G systems, and changing out that infrastructure promised to be costly for UK telecom companies. Instead, the US decided to treat this as a problem to be dealt with the only way it knows how, with bellicosity and brutishness.
There is another way to do this, and it’s the only way that can work in our world as it is. It is the only way that can work among friends. It is the way of cooperation.
“What’s obviously needed is that all Western countries work more closely together to build a framework for telecommunications they want implemented in their infrastructure,” Odd Arne Westad, Yale’s Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs and the author of “The Cold War: A World History,” told Business Insider. “The problem is that, as you know, there is very little [cooperation]. That’s what the US has to take the initiative.”
Last year Westad tried to explain how the US should deal with a rising China in a piece for Foreign Affairs titled “The Sources of Chinese Conduct.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because it mirrors the famous memo written by diplomat George Kennan analyzing Soviet ideology on the eve of the Cold War.
Westad says the West can only counter China with policies that make commercial sense for everyone, even a Britain working with the insecurity that comes with an uncertain future.
“This is what is different with the Cold War,” Westad said. “You could have export or import controls that corresponded to what the Soviets could deliver. That makes no sense in a world where Chinese technology is competitive.”
Either way, what Johnson may have calculated was that Trump and his ilk have a bark far worse than their bite. On Thursday, after the Johnson government’s decision, Pompeo went to the UK and reinforced the importance of Five Eyes alliance. If there will be punishment for Johnson’s departure from Trump, it will not come in this moment.
Whom do you trust?
As the UK downplays the risks associated with trusting the Chinese Communist Party, the Wuhan coronavirus is showing the world how very real those risks are. The CCP — under President Xi Jinping especially — is a government that puts raw political power over all, regardless of the situation.
The Wuhan coronavirus has spread to every region in China, hundreds of people have already died, and many thousands have been infected. The tales from the ground are harrowing. Millions of people are trapped inside cities on lockdown across the country. A veteran journalist writing for China Media Project under the name Da Shiji reported that after Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23, vegetable prices skyrocketed by noon.
Da also chronicles the days and days of inaction that led to the announcement of the outbreak. Chinese officials still operate in a system in which politics takes precedent above all else — including safety. So even as China’s top scientists rushed to find the source of the disease, its politicians stayed silent.
According to Da, as late as January 17, Chinese officials were urging people to visit the territory, and large public events were still happening as planned despite signs of an outbreak.
“There was no attempt to stem the flow of people to Wuhan from all over the country and around the world. During what was the most critical phase for controlling the outbreak, Wuhan was essentially an open city owing to the efforts of local officials to keep a lid on the story.”
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The same stunning state power that makes it possible for the government to bring major cities to standstill is the same one scrubbing the internet of information about the virus. The New York Times reported that “some users started replacing Mr. Xi’s name with ‘Trump.’ As in, ‘I don’t want to go through another minute of this year, my heart is filled with pain, I hope Trump dies.'”
While the Chinese government is showing us that it cannot be trusted to manage a crisis without putting the survival of its authoritarian system above all, the US government is showing us that it cannot competently manage the diplomacy necessary to mitigate the dangers of that system’s rise.
If these are our options for leadership on a bipolar planet, God help us all.
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