Huawei’s rise as a global tech company is under threat as an increasing number of governments express concern that its technology could be used by Chinese spies.
But the US-led campaign against the Chinese company may do little more than act as a brake on growth, given the dominant position Huawei has already built in fifth generation (5G) wireless technology. It has loyal customers in emerging markets and parts of Europe, and expects to become the world’s top smartphone seller by next year.
“This campaign will only slow Huawei’s business growth in some countries in European and Asia Pacific markets,” said Charlie Dai, an analyst with research firm Forrester based in Beijing. “But I don’t think it’s going to retreat from any market at all in the foreseeable future.”
Huawei’s global dominance has raised alarm bells in the United States, which has accused the company of selling products that the Chinese government could use for spying.
The latest move against the company came on Monday, when the US Justice Department filed criminal charges that accuse Huawei of stealing trade secrets, obstruction of justice, bank fraud and evading US sanctions on Iran. Huawei denies the charges.
“Suspicion of Huawei runs deep and there is a bipartisan, whole of government campaign in Washington to take down this company, not just in the United States, but around the world,” said Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity policy and China digital economy fellow at the New America think tank.
The assault on Huawei’s business reflects the increasingly bitter rivalry between Beijing and Washington over who will control the technologies of the future. There is particular concern about the security of 5G because it will be used to carry vast amounts of data, connecting robots, autonomous vehicles and other sensitive devices.
If the US government decides to escalate the fight still further by preventing Huawei buying US-made parts, as it did with another Chinese tech company ZTE (ZTCOF) last year, it could inflict substantial damage.
“Huawei is less dependent on US suppliers than ZTE, but without access to US technologies, even it will not survive long,” Dan Wang, an analyst at research firm Gavekal wrote in a note to clients Tuesday.
For now, though, the Chinese company remains in a strong position to lead the rollout of 5G networks. Huawei says it has signed 30 contracts for 5G, and is working with more than 50 wireless carriers on commercial tests. It is also one of the top owners of 5G patents.
Huawei has spent decades building a strong presence in scores of markets around the world, helped by reliable hardware and competitive pricing. It is the world’s No. 1 telecommunications equipment maker, despite being effectively shut out of the US market, and last year overtook Apple (AAPL) as the second biggest supplier of smartphones. It expects to overtake Samsung by 2020.
The company denies that its products are a risk to national security. It also maintains that it is a privately owned company with no ties to the Chinese government. Its international reputation, however, is taking a beating.
Huawei prepares for tougher times
Polish authorities detained a Huawei executive this month on allegations of spying for the Chinese government. The company fired the employee shortly after the arrest, saying his actions had brought Huawei into “disrepute.”
In December, Canada arrested Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou at the request of US prosecutors. The United States is seeking her extradition on allegations she helped the company dodge US sanctions on Iran. Meng, the daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, denies any wrongdoing.
In recent months, Australia and New Zealand have restricted Huawei from providing equipment for 5G networks. Germany and Canada are considering similar measures. Top global mobile carrier Vodafone (VOD) is pausing the deployment of Huawei equipment in core networks in Europe while it speaks with authorities and the company.
In the United Kingdom, Huawei is already monitored by a government oversight panel that warned last summer of new risks. The company says it’s working to address them. But the pressure has gone beyond the telecoms industry, with organizations such as Oxford University saying they will stop accepting money from Huawei. Prominent American universities are also distancing themselves from the company’s funding and equipment.
Huawei’s leaders accept that the environment is becoming more hostile.
“In the next few years, the overall situation will not be as optimistic as we imagined. We must prepare for hardships,” Ren said in November. His comments were posted on a company website this month.
Huawei is unlikely to repeat the breakneck growth it experienced over the last 30 years, and will have to “give up some mediocre employees and lower labor costs,” Ren added.
Following the wave of negative headlines, the company is stepping up its PR campaign. Ren, who rarely speaks to the media, gave interviews to two separate groups of reporters in recent weeks.
He said he expects Huawei to bring in $125 billion in revenue this year, an increase of roughly 15% from 2018.
“If we are not allowed to sell our products in certain markets, we would rather scale down a bit,” Ren said. “As long as we can feed our employees, I believe there will always be a future for Huawei.”
Emerging markets and loyal customers
The Chinese company still does brisk business in many emerging markets, which are unlikely to abandon its equipment.
Revenue from Europe, the Middle East and Africa grew by about 5% in 2017 to 164 billion yuan ($25 billion). Growth in the Asia-Pacific region was stronger, with revenue up more than 10%.
Analysts predict customers in those regions will stick with Huawei because of its highly competitive prices and out of a sense of loyalty.
The rollout of 5G wireless networks will be expensive because they require far more base stations than previous generations, according to Kenny Liew, a telecommunications analyst at research firm Fitch Solutions.
Mobile operators “will be keen to slash costs wherever possible, and one way to do so is to opt for cheaper but proven Chinese equipment,” he said.
Wireless carriers in India, which have fought a brutal price war in recent years, are likely to favor Huawei as a cheaper option in light of the financial pressures in the industry, Liew added.
And Huawei’s early commitment to countries such as Nigeria and South Africa has earned it loyalty.
“There are countries in sub-Saharan Africa where Huawei … took a risk to invest when other vendors were wary,” Liew said.
Huawei could also benefit from the opening of China’s market to foreign players such as British carrier BT (BT), which last week became the first foreign telecoms group to obtain a license to sell directly to customers nationwide.
“This move is definitely helpful for Huawei,” said Dai, the Forrester analyst. BT may need Huawei’s help to better serve the local market, and a closer business relationship could help Huawei outside China.
The decision from Beijing came just weeks after BT said it would not buy Huawei equipment for the core of its 5G network and was stripping Huawei equipment from the heart of its 4G network. BT said it would continue to buy the Chinese company’s products for other parts of its networks.
Beyond telecoms equipment, Huawei’s smartphone business is thriving. The company sold more than 200 million devices in 2018, up about 30% from the previous year. The spike in sales helped revenue from Huawei’s consumer business rise to $52 billion — an increase of more than 40%.
Political considerations could help Huawei, too.
Nations that have benefited from Chinese investment will be reluctant to impose bans on Huawei equipment because of potential geopolitical repercussions, according to Liew.
Poland and the Czech Republic are already trying to walk a diplomatic tightrope, balancing security ties with the United States with their need for Chinese investment.
Poland is reportedly trying to smooth over tensions with Beiing after arresting the Huawei executive. Poland is China’s biggest trading partner in the region, according to the World Bank.
Late last year, the Czech Republic’s intelligence agencies issued a public warning about using products from Huawei and its smaller rival ZTE (ZTCOF). The Czech prime minister later had to deny a report that he had told Chinese diplomats the warning didn’t represent the Czech government’s position.
Like Huawei, ZTE denies that its products pose any national security risks.
Chinese officials are also lashing out over the increasing pressure Huawei is facing in Western Europe.
After Vodafone’s announcement Friday, Chinese Ambassador to the European Union Zhang Ming blasted the “slander” and “discrimination” that he said Huawei and other Chinese companies are facing in Europe.
Zhang warned that any attempts to restrict the use of Chinese technology in European 5G projects would risk “serious consequences” for global economic and scientific cooperation, according to an interview published Sunday by the Financial Times.