In not following America’s lead, these allies have set precedents for how countries caught between the superpowers could act in the future. They have also signaled that international relations today are too intertwined, and Chinese power too magnetic, for them to enlist in a U.S.-led coalition and usher in a Cold War–style bifurcated world. If the United States is intent on reconstructing that world, it will likely find itself largely isolated. If the United States wishes to not be isolated, it will have to develop compelling alternatives for allies to stick with it instead of China.
The countermovement against a U.S.-China cold war gained strength in late January, when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom would allow the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to provide equipment for Britain’s next-generation 5G mobile network.
This was a slap in the face to the U.S. officials who had spent months lobbying their British counterparts to ban Huawei because of alleged security risks associated with its connections to the Chinese government. The Trump administration reportedly went so far as to share classified intelligence with the United Kingdom indicating that Huawei could potentially spy on and disrupt foreign networks—a claim Huawei denies.
Ultimately, the U.K. chose to split the difference between China and the United States. The British government said it would keep Huawei technology out of the most sensitive parts of the country’s new 5G network, but it won’t follow the United States, Australia, and Japan in outright prohibiting the provider.
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But the fact that the U.K., which famously enjoys a “special relationship” with the United States, went with that option—with intelligence sharing and trade talks with Washington on the line after Brexit, no less—emboldened other allies. The European Union and France swiftly disclosed similar plans, and Germany looks poised to do the same. Other conflicted allies, such as India and South Korea, are undoubtedly watching the cascade.
For these countries, the benefits of partnering with Huawei—the dominant player in the global 5G market, and also the cheapest because of Chinese government subsidies—are obvious while the costs are more opaque, if no less real. As Johnson put it, “If people oppose one brand or another then they have to tell us what is the alternative, right?”
U.S. Attorney General William Barr has recognized this weakness in America’s message to allies, proposing that the U.S. government quickly offer a “market-ready alternative” to Huawei by taking a controlling ownership stake in Huawei’s European competitors Nokia or Ericsson.
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But Barr also acknowledged that the Trump administration’s grievances with Huawei are about more than security risks—amounting to a battle over which superpower will dominate the backbone of the future digital economy, with trillions of dollars in new opportunities in play. This is true, but it’s also an admission that is likely to strengthen allies’ suspicions that the United States’ position is really about maintaining America’s technological leadership, not securing partners.