President Trump has finally succeeded in building his wall: not the one he keeps demanding on the southwestern border, but a far more complex barrier meant to block China’s national telecommunications champion, Huawei, from operating in the United States and starve it of American technology as it builds networks around the globe.
After a flurry of new government edicts, Huawei, the world’s second-largest cellphone maker after it edged out Apple last year, will soon be entirely cut off from American-made technology. By the end of summer, new Huawei phones will come without Google apps. And American computer chip companies are cutting off supplies that Huawei depends on for building fifth-generation, or 5G, wireless networks.
But the fight is about far more than merely crippling one Chinese telecom giant. Mr. Trump and his aides want to force nations to make an agonizing choice: Which side of a new Berlin Wall do they want to live on?
Washington is portraying this in Cold War terms, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arguing that world leaders will have to choose between an internet that projects “Western values,” including the free, if chaotic, abuse-prone cyberspace Americans have, and one “based on the principles of an authoritarian, Communist regime.”
Yet it is hardly that simple. The jagged divide built across Berlin in the summer of 1961 was nearly impermeable; it stopped virtually all commerce and human contact between the East and West parts of the city — and became a symbol of how two adversary camps sought to isolate each other. But even if Mr. Trump is successful in isolating Huawei, billions of bits of data will flow through undersea fiber-optic lines — many of which its subsidiary Huawei Marine is laying — and through satellites connecting the two competing internet environments.
In public and private statements, American intelligence officials and telecommunications executives and experts have begun to concede that the United States will be operating in a world where Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies most likely control 40 to 60 percent of the networks over which businesses, diplomats, spies and citizens do business.
“You have to presume a dirty network,” Sue Gordon, the deputy director of national intelligence, said recently at a national security conference in Texas. “We are going to have to figure out a way in a 5G world that we’re able to manage the risks in a diverse network that includes technology that we can’t trust.”
Her meaning was clear. Despite the president’s repeated insistence that “America must win,” his own aides are struggling to explain what winning looks like around the world. Is a divided internet a victory? Could it even work?
“We’re just going to have to figure that out,” Ms. Gordon said.
So far, despite threats from the United States that any allies that side with Huawei and China will be cut off from American intelligence, many are trying desperately to straddle the wall.
Among the United States’ closest allies, only Australia has banned Huawei from building its new networks; Japan has effectively done the same. Britain and Germany, two of the most powerful members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, are hedging. Their politicians fear the job losses that would result as well as Chinese retaliation, and they believe there are elements of the network that Huawei could build without endangering national security.
Under that plan, Nokia, Ericsson or other Western telecom firms would build the “core” of the network, the software-heavy switching systems that govern how machines and humans will talk to one another. Huawei would be relegated to the more peripheral parts of the networks, like the cellular tower systems that communicate with phones and other devices.
Germany has resisted the Trump administration’s entreaties. German officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss their internal debates, say they wonder what would happen if they sided with the United States, which helped rebuild their country after World War II and keeps it under the American nuclear umbrella. Would Beijing threaten the joint ventures that produce roughly a million BMW and Mercedes-Benz automobiles in China? And in Singapore, where American ships pull in for fueling and maintenance on their way to the disputed areas of the South China Sea, officials say privately that there is no way they will ban Huawei.
This may explain why Mr. Pompeo, who has led the charge, has sounded more strident in recent days, describing the decisions made by nations that will build their networks over the next 12 to 18 months as a question not only of national security but of ideological struggle.
“The company is deeply tied not only to China but to the Chinese Communist Party, and that connectivity, the existence of those connections, puts American information that crosses the networks at risk,” Mr. Pompeo said last week in an interview with CNBC.
“We need a single place where information can be exchanged,” he told one of the interviewers, “but it has to be a system that has Western values embedded in it, with rule of law, property right protections, transparency, openness. It can’t be a system that is based on the principles of an authoritarian, Communist regime.”
But intelligence officials give a somewhat different explanation of their concerns. They are far less worried about China’s stealing data that moves across American networks than they are about the possibility that, in times of conflict, the Chinese authorities would order Huawei or other Chinese telecom firms to shut the networks down.
Their thinking is that much of the most sensitive information that moves across those networks — including military communications and financial data — is already encrypted. And unencrypted data is already at risk: About a decade ago, Chinese hackers stole the plans for the F-35 fighter jet, and in 2014, the security clearance information of over 22 million Americans was taken from the Office of Personnel Management.
So at the core of the American concern is that over time, China’s domination of the switching systems and the undersea cables that carry data will present a huge vulnerability that most Americans never think about. Rob Joyce, a former White House cybersecurity coordinator who once led the unit in the National Security Agency that breaks into foreign computer systems, distinguished between the threats posed by President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and President Xi Jinping’s China.
“Russia is a hurricane” threatening to disrupt American power grids or communications systems, Mr. Joyce said at a conference held in March by The Cipher Brief, an online intelligence newsletter. “China is climate science,” gradually altering the environment in its favor by building the networks on which the world depends, he added.
Huawei has argued that all of this is fear mongering. In a series of carefully managed interviews with Chinese reporters and some American news outlets, the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, has insisted that he would refuse any Chinese government effort to peer into American communications or shut down networks. American officials counter that under Chinese law, Mr. Ren would have no choice but to comply.
But his interviews point to a greater danger in the crackdown that Mr. Trump has never acknowledged: Halting the flow of American technology to China, or even only threatening to do so, is bound to speed up China’s move toward technological independence.
The country is already four years into the Made in China 2025 movement, a government policy to make domestic manufacturers dominant in critical high-technology fields like semiconductor manufacturing, 5G technology, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. (China consumes 60 percent of the world’s supply of semiconductors but makes only 13 percent, a recent Council on Foreign Relations report notes.)
Made in China 2025 was based in part on a fear that this day would come — that the United States, feeling vulnerable, would threaten to cut off Chinese competitors.
Mr. Ren, in an interview with Chinese reporters last week, made clear that he had begun stockpiling key components, and accelerated the process after his daughter was arrested in December in Canada on American charges that Huawei had violated sanctions on Iran.
“We have prepared,” he said, adding, “What the U.S. will do to us is out of our control.” But he made the case that any disruptions to Huawei would be temporary.
“Even if there is an insufficient supply from our partners, we will face no problems,” Mr. Ren said. “This is because we can manufacture all the high-end chips we need ourselves. In the ‘peaceful period,’ we adopted a ‘1 plus 1’ policy: Half of our chips come from U.S. companies and half from Huawei.”
Some of that may be bluster. But Mr. Ren’s larger point is correct, many who study the issue say.
“We’re not thinking about the way that this will boomerang when we are dealing with a China that is much more self-reliant, much larger and much less dependent on the U.S.,” said Ali Wyne, a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. “We need to be careful what we wish for.”
That is exactly the fear of the Europeans, especially middle-size nations that value their trading relationships with Beijing as much as they value their military alliances with the United States. Increasingly doubtful that America would go to their aid in times of crisis, they are keeping a foot in both camps. And even NATO allies, like Italy and Poland, doubt the United States would carry out its threat to cut them off.
“What they are saying to Washington,” Mr. Wyne said, is “no, thank you, we won’t make a choice.”