Cold War

A Silicon Curtain Descends

Trump escalated America's war against Huawei and China. Biden should beware burgeoning technonationalism.


In a speech delivered almost exactly one year before the 2020 election, Vice President Mike Pence outlined the stakes of a potential tech cold war between the United States and China.

China had "smashed the barriers between civilian and military technological domains," Pence said at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, just around the corner from the White House. "By law and presidential fiat, companies in China—whether private, state-owned, or foreign—must share their technologies with the Chinese military," Pence said. Those technologies, in turn, were being weaponized by the Communist regime in Beijing to hone its authoritarian conduct at home—and, Pence added ominously, were being increasingly exported "to countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East."

Pence went on to say that America did not seek a technological "decoupling" from China. But other parts of that speech—and some of the actions taken by the Trump administration in the months since—conjure images of a silicon curtain descending across the world.

The Trump administration's conflict with China was dominated by a trade war focused on industrial and agricultural goods, and by an unexpected pandemic that appears to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But the most lasting and significant aspect of how President Donald Trump has reshaped the U.S.-China relationship may prove to be the White House's efforts to cut off China's telecom industry from its global supply chains. At the center of that effort lies a single company, Huawei, which has become the boogeyman for Americans fearful of Chinese technological superiority—fears that are unlikely to subside when the Trump era passes.

China hawks and Trumpian nationalists see Huawei as a symbol of the rising threat posed by the Middle Kingdom or as evidence of America's waning technological superiority. Having already banned Huawei equipment from being used in America's next-generation cellphone networks, the Trump administration spent 2020 bullying allied nations to take similar steps. In September and again in November, the conflict escalated when the White House issued orders that effectively banned foreign companies from doing business with Huawei if they also want to do business with American firms.

Both Beijing and Washington are now pursuing what Evan Feigenbaum, vice president for Asian studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, calls "technonationalism." That is, they view private-sector technological developments through the lens of national security. A cellphone isn't just a cellphone; it's a potential weakness that could be exploited by an enemy. The supply chains for semiconductors and other bits of equipment are sprawling and multinational, but governments on both sides of the Pacific are eyeing each other warily and threatening to choke off innovation for fear of losing the so-called "race to 5G."

"Technonationalism everywhere threatens to disrupt flows of technology and talent that have enabled decades of innovation," says Feigenbaum. "If every commercial technology is now viewed as central to national security, it will re-entrench past patterns of technonationalism that many believed to be relics in an era of supposedly 'borderless' innovation."

Put more starkly, the rapid pace of global technological innovation that we have come to take for granted—which has made people all over the world healthier, longer-lived, more productive, and happier—could be brought to a halt by a combination of paranoia and cronyism. It could presage a more dramatic economic disruption that would be a crushing blow for American businesses, and not just those already doing bus-iness in China.

Trump may be on his way out of the Oval Office, but American anxiety about Huawei—and, more broadly, about the nation's status as the world's technological superpower—both predate and almost certainly will outlast him. President-elect Joe Biden has criticized Trump's handling of the trade war with China, but he has also made clear that he plans to adjust Trump's strategies rather than reverse them. Technonationalism could be here to stay.

When Subsidies for Chinese Equipment Backfire

The idea that Huawei tech is a sort of sleeper cell within America's communications infrastructure is one that many in Washington take seriously. "Wherever Huawei poses a national security threat—which we believe is everywhere—that equipment comes out of our system," says Brendan Carr, one of the five commissioners charged with setting policy for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Under orders from Congress, the FCC is currently engaged in what Carr refers to as a "rip-and-replace" process that seeks to excise the Chinese-made equipment from cell towers all over the country. It's the last and most difficult step in a process that kicked off last year when Trump signed an executive order that largely blacklisted Huawei gear from the U.S. (with some exceptions). In November 2019, the FCC followed up by passing a rule prohibiting American cellphone carriers from purchasing Huawei gear if they receive federal subsidies. In February, Congress escalated things with a new law requiring that all cellphone carriers rip out Huawei tech and replace it—and ordering the FCC to come up with $1 billion to help facilitate the process.

More interesting, however, is the story of how much of that Huawei gear got there in the first place. As it turns out, the federal government spent years subsidizing its purchase as part of an effort to expand cellphone service into the more remote parts of the country, even as other parts of the government warned about the possible risks. Huawei's biggest selling point is that its equipment is cheap—thanks in part to heavy subsidies from the Chinese government. So purchasing it allowed carriers to make their federal subsidies stretch further.

Until the FCC banned the practice last November, cellphone carriers were free to buy Huawei equipment with the federal dollars they receive through the Universal Service Fund—an $8 billion-a-year program intended to bring cellphone service to poor and rural areas. Union Wireless, a small carrier that operates in Wyoming and Montana, for example, has spent more than $34 million on Huawei gear installed in 418 cell towers across a network that covers more than 90,000 square miles, according to FCC filings.

More than half the member companies of the Rural Wireless Association, a trade group that represents Union and other small carriers, have used Huawei tech in some capacity. That means equipment that was purchased, in many cases, using federal subsidies will now be removed at significant cost to both taxpayers and American businesses. Union Wireless told the FCC last year that it would cost $110 million to rebuild its network and replace the Huawei gear. In September, the FCC estimated that it would cost about $1.8 billion to complete the rip-and-replace effort.

Ordering American companies to stop using Huawei equipment—or even to remove what's already in use—is one thing. But in summer 2020, the Trump administration turned its attention to disrupting Huawei's supply chain as well.

Under pressure from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp. (TSMC), the world's largest computer chip manufacturer, announced in May that it would stop fulfilling orders from Huawei. Shortly afterward, TSMC struck a deal to build a heavily subsidized new manufacturing center in Arizona. Previously, TSMC had been a major supplier to both Apple and Huawei, but the company has been effectively forced to pick sides by a combination of carrots and sticks from the U.S. federal government.

In August, the Commerce Department announced further plans to prohibit American companies from doing business with foreign manufacturers that supply semiconductors to Huawei. One of the primary targets of the new rules seems to be the Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China's largest semiconductor manufacturer, which currently uses American-made tools in its manufacturing process.

But banning American companies from selling chip-making equipment to SMIC is a self-inflicted wound. These new export restrictions will "ultimately undermine U.S. national security interests by harming the semiconductor industry in the U.S. and creating substantial uncertainty and disruption in the semiconductor supply chain," Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International, an industry group with more than 2,400 members around the world (including SMCI), warned shortly after the new rules were announced. The Trump administration's policies, the group said, would "fuel a perception that the supply of U.S. technology is unreliable" and would "further incentivize efforts to supplant these U.S. technologies."

Indeed, China has responded to the latest American attempts to target Huawei's supply chain by announcing that it would invest more heavily in developing its own chip-making technology so it would be less dependent on American tools that may be withheld in the future.

Companies that aren't directly involved in the U.S.-China technology trade war are becoming collateral damage. ASML, a Dutch company that is one of the world's only manufacturers of the powerful ultraviolet lithography equipment used to make advanced semiconductors, canceled a planned sale of heavy machinery to SMIC after the U.S. government intervened, Reuters reported in January 2020. Pete Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman who now serves as U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands, told a Dutch newspaper that ASML's technology "doesn't belong in certain places."

Under Trump, the administration's view seemed to be that any company doing business with Huawei—or even doing business with a company that does business with Huawei—is a fair target in an escalating economic and technological conflict. That should raise questions about the appropriateness of using American power against private companies in countries all around the world.

"As we have restricted its access to U.S. technology, Huawei and its affiliates have worked through third parties to harness U.S. technology in a manner that undermines U.S. national security and foreign policy interests," Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in August when the department announced the new rules targeting Huawei's supply chain. "This multi-pronged action demonstrates our continuing commitment to impede Huawei's ability to do so."

Clearly, the Trump administration was willing to take major steps to confront what it perceived as a serious threat posed by Huawei's telecom equipment. But Trump's White House spent four years rejecting establishment views on trade, citing mostly vacuous "national security" arguments.

Ross has overseen a Commerce Department that's declared everything from German-made cars to Canadian aluminum to be a threat to American security. If banning Huawei is simply an extension of those policies, it could safely be ignored, laughed off, and expected to be quickly overturned by the next administration.

We've Always Been In a Cold War With China

Unfortunately, the U.S. government's conflict with Huawei predates the Trump administration and is likely to continue into the Biden era. Evaluating the seriousness of the potential threat posed by Huawei requires that we examine that yearslong, bipartisan consensus that the Chinese tech firm might be up to no good. But it also requires turning a skeptical eye to some of the assumptions underlying the case against Huawei—and an understanding of the possible costs if the United States continues on its current course of intermittent escalation of a tech cold war.

First, the case against Huawei.

"We have evidence that Huawei has the capability secretly to access sensitive and personal information in systems it maintains and sells around the world," U.S. National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien told The Wall Street Journal in an explosive report published in February. Intelligence officials told the Journal they believe Huawei has had those capabilities for more than a decade—and indeed, there is evidence that Huawei technicians have worked with governments in Uganda and Zambia to spy on political opponents.

Complaints from U.S. intelligence officials about foreign governments spying on cellphones should come with a disclaimer: America does this too. Amid the trove of information about the National Security Agency (NSA) that whistleblower Edward Snowden brought to light in 2013 was evidence that America's intelligence agencies had hacked into Huawei's own systems. Snowden also revealed that the NSA had intercepted shipments of telecom equipment bound for foreign countries and inserted their own secret "back doors." As far back as the 1940s, when the CIA and West German intelligence founded a Swiss-based communications equipment firm named Crypto AG to sneak bugs into tech used by foreign countries, the U.S. has always tried to be on the cutting edge of technological espionage.

Furthermore, whatever vulnerabilities might exist within Huawei gear have to be understood in the context of how poorly secured most mobile networks are to begin with. Even when there's no Huawei equipment in the mix, cellphones remain vulnerable to foreign governments and individual rogue actors who want to steal information.

Still, these fears of so-called back doors into Huawei equipment manifest in many different ways. China hawks point to a 2012 House Intelligence Committee report that warned that Huawei (along with fellow Chinese tech giant ZTE) "could undermine core U.S. national security interests" if its equipment was incorporated into America's telecom networks. Secret back doors built into Huawei gear could, in theory, allow China to launch cyberattacks against American infrastructure—targeting everything from financial systems to public utilities, all of which will be increasingly online as the world transitions to 5G, the next generation of wireless technology.

Carr, the FCC commissioner, recalls a recent trip to Montana where he realized there was Huawei gear in the cell towers located directly above some of America's buried nuclear silos. He wonders whether China could gain an intelligence advantage from even something as simple as tracking the location of people in and around those nuclear bases as they come and go, phones pinging away. In a crisis, could a key hack or system outage delay an American military response?

Others worry about cyber-espionage on a grand scale.

"For years this has been a mechanism where you just kind of hoover up information and hope that you're able to use it one day," says Klon Kitchen, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who views Huawei as an extension of the Chinese government—part of "Beijing's explicit 'civil-military fusion' strategy, where government and industry work together."

In either case, much of the anti-Huawei sentiment is rooted in the company's history—and its founder's ties to the Chinese military.

Huawei entered the global telecom marketplace in 1998 by pitching itself to poor, rural markets across Asia that hadn't gained wireless connectivity from American or European carriers. By 2005, the company was also building telecom infrastructure for France and Russia. Founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei, a veteran of the Chinese military, was named one of Time magazine's most influential people the same year. In the time since, Huawei effectively cornered the Chinese market for smartphones and tablets, which exploded in popularity as the country underwent a period of economic growth and a massive expansion of its middle class.

The first skirmish in the U.S.-Huawei conflict took place in 2007 when, according to Wired, FBI agents interviewed Ren during a visit to New York City. The issue was Huawei's work in Iran, which the FBI felt may violate international sanctions imposed by the United States. This charge would reemerge later.

Over the next decade, tensions mounted. A $2.2 billion deal that would have seen Huawei purchase 3Com, an American company that manufactured anti-hacking software used by the U.S. military, was blocked by the Bush administration in 2008. "The concern in Washington was that the Chinese company would be able to alter the electronic equipment and computer software sold to the military in a way that could make it less than 100 percent effective," The New York Times reported at the time.

The first effort at excluding Huawei from the United States was taken by the Obama administration, which in 2014 banned the company from bidding on government contracts. That administration also filed nine separate cases at the World Trade Organization (WTO) accusing China of unfairly subsidizing several key industries and engaging in other practices outlawed by the WTO. Trump had little regard for those official channels meant to settle disputes, but a Biden administration is likely to swing back toward a more measured approach—though circumstances have certainly changed since 2014.

As the Obama administration passed into the Trump administration, the Justice Department was building a case against Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer and Ren Zhengfei's daughter, after it learned that Huawei was secretly providing telecom equipment to Iran in circumvention of sanctions.

In December 2018, Meng was detained by customs agents in Canada at the behest of the U.S. government. After lengthy delays involving a variety of complex legal issues, her extradition hearing finally began in January 2020; no decision has been made yet, and the 48-year-old executive remains in Canadian custody. In February, Meng was separately charged in absentia by U.S. prosecutors who accused her of participating in a "decades-long" scheme to steal American companies' intellectual property. Meng "believes that she's a pawn in a global game of chess," a Huawei spokesperson told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in December 2020.

Through it all, Huawei continued to grow. By the end of the decade, the company boasted telecom equipment operating in 170 countries around the world, serving about 40 percent of the world's cellphone-using population. In 2019, Huawei sold 238 million smartphones globally, surpassing Apple as the world's second-largest phone vendor and trailing only Samsung, which sold 296 million phones last year. That Huawei accomplished those feats while facing intense political and economic pressure from the United States, where its phones are almost nonexistent, is even more impressive.

A high-level view of the decade-plus that the United States has been locked in combat against Huawei—running through multiple presidential administrations that otherwise had very diverse approaches to China—does leave the impression of a technological cold war. America has pursued a strategy of containment, has fought proxy wars, and even targeted its adversary's leaders—using tactics like Meng's arrest, thankfully, instead of Cold War–style assassinations. When those strategies failed to stop Huawei's expansion, the conflict escalated into a more dangerous phase, with no clear end in sight.

"Imagine letting the KGB run the American phone network in, say, 1980, and you can see what is at stake here," wrote George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen in a column for Bloomberg. In Cowen's view, the real point of the U.S.-China trade war—though perhaps not the point Trump had in mind when he launched it—was to establish America's willingness to push back in meaningful ways against China's growing might. And that might is arguably best embodied by Huawei.

If the stakes are truly that high, then there could be a strong argument for aggressive government action against Huawei—one that is convincing even to people, like Cowen, who are generally somewhat skeptical of federal power.

But it isn't clear that the stakes are that high, in large part because the federal government hasn't been as transparent as it could be about the specifics of the Huawei threat. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence—Ren's ties to Beijing, leaked details of classified reports, and the rest—but no smoking gun.

Dan Ikenson, director of trade policy studies for the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, has been closely following the Huawei issue since the Obama years. He stresses that it would be imprudent to dismiss the potential security issues surrounding Huawei and the broader implications for freedom as China increasingly challenges American technological supremacy. But it would be helpful, he says, if the federal government were more transparent about the exact nature of these threats.

Indeed, there are a lot of unknowns. Can China use Huawei equipment as a launching pad for cyberattacks against America and its allies? If so, there's been no evidence of it. And while there are obvious reasons to be skeptical about the corporate independence of any company based in China and run by a former Chinese military officer, even a single instance of China pressuring Huawei to sabotage a foreign adversary would likely cost China much more than it would gain. Overnight, Huawei would be blacklisted globally.

Accurately assessing the prudence of the countermeasures the Trump administration has taken against Huawei is, for now, impossible, says Ikenson. "We don't have the tools to measure the costs and benefits," he says.

The Price of a Hard Line Against China

The case against Huawei lacks crucial details. Its American critics have been able to paint a scary picture, but it's a picture that remains murky at best. That's one reason to be skeptical about the portrayal of Huawei as a grave national security threat. Another is that the aggressive stance against the company favored by America's China hawks comes with clear costs the hawks would rather ignore.

Despite what Pence promised in 2019, the blacklisting of Huawei and the expansion of American power to apply pressure to companies doing business with the Chinese tech firm should raise real alarms about a potentially catastrophic decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. That's an outcome that would make the world poorer while increasing the chances of armed conflict. It is a future reality that policy makers should be keen to avoid.

The major actions taken this year to target Huawei's supply chains have their root in a May 2019 executive order signed by Trump that gave Secretary Ross the authority to "determine that particular countries or persons are foreign adversaries for the purposes of this order." It also authorized Ross to unilaterally decide which "particular technologies or particular participants in the market" would be subject to the new restrictions.

The order was issued to ban Huawei hardware from being deployed in the United States, but its broad language creates a legal regime that could be used—as it now has been, in the case of Dutch-based ASML—to reach beyond America's own borders. It is, in short, a vast expansion of federal authority into the market for communications technology in the name of national security.

Similarly, the Trump administration's diplomatic row with Great Britain earlier this year demonstrates the extent to which Washington's war against Huawei has expanded beyond America's borders—as well as some of the limitations to that approach.

In January, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that the United Kingdom would allow telecom providers to use the cheaper Huawei gear in their networks as part of an overall strategy for 5G phone service. That did not sit well with America, which was by then in the process of eliminating Huawei from its own networks.

At the time, Johnson said the country would not let Huawei equipment be used in sensitive parts of the network and that Britain would keep military and intelligence channels secure. But the very nature of 5G networks makes such assurances difficult to implement. In addition to promising faster speeds and better connectivity, the major feature of 5G networks is their decentralization—a blurring of old-school distinctions between the "edge" of the network (devices and the equipment they communicate within in cell towers, for example) and the "core" of the network (servers and other data-processing gear). While that's a boon for many aspects of the new networks, it creates new opportunities for security weaknesses to be exploited.

The issue boiled over during a January phone call between the two leaders—one unnamed official told the Financial Times that Trump was "apoplectic"—and Johnson's government reversed its position on Huawei soon after. (Officially, Britain says the reversal had nothing to do with America's opposition.)

"What the U.S. government is asking of our trading partners, our allies, the American public, and developing countries who rely on Huawei as a source of low-cost telecom equipment," Ikenson says, "is to believe that the risks associated with Huawei are serious enough to offset the benefits that come from fast, cheap mobile internet service."

That equation might play differently in different places, too. It's one thing to say that residents of relatively wealthy places like the U.K. or Germany should have to pony up for more expensive equipment in response to America's national security concerns. But how can the U.S. make that same pitch to Eastern Europe—or Africa, where Chinese investment in 5G could be an economic boost that lifts millions of people out of poverty?

"You can't expect allies to willingly become casualties in a unilateral trade war," says Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a think tank that advocates for a humbler American foreign policy. The technonationalism that has defined the Trump administration's approach to Huawei, he says, is rooted in an outdated understanding of the relationship between technology and security.

Even though the development of new technology has always been seen through the lens of national security, most of those developments in the 20th century occurred within government and military structures. Telecom technology is the purview of private sector companies, which have constructed vast supply chains to manufacture equipment with little regard for national borders. Undoing all of that isn't as simple as leaning on an allied nation's leaders.

"It's almost a schizophrenic policy," Weinstein says, referring to Trump's attempt to stuff globe-spanning telecom supply chains onto a technonationalist policy that says anything supplied to or imported from a potential adversary should be treated as a threat. "I don't know how you get there without massive disruptions."

Those disruptions would come with significant costs, even if they can be limited to the telecom sphere. The Congressional Research Service (CRS), a think tank housed inside Congress, estimates that the development of 5G infrastructure and 5G-enabled products will generate $12.3 trillion in global economic activity by 2035. National governments intent on chopping up the supply chains for which that economic growth depends will, for starters, deprive the market of economies of scale and necessarily reduce expected growth.

The losses of potential future gains could be quite significant, but the calculus gets worse. The American and Chinese technology sectors are closely linked. Despite what Pence argues, there's no way to effectively disentangle tech from the rest of the U.S.-China trade relationship.

If non-cooperation on technology becomes the strategic norm, Ikenson wonders if the world's two largest economies will be able to continue trading other goods at all. A full-fledged economic decoupling would be a major shock for the global economy, disrupting or rerouting more than $500 billion in annual trade flows between the two countries.

The Trump administration has focused on semiconductor manufacturing. But it is an industry that illustrates how deeply intertwined the U.S. and China already are. The CRS reports that 91 percent of the semiconductors used in Chinese-based tech manufacturing are produced abroad, while China's own suppliers account for just 10 percent of domestic needs.

So while America and the rest of the world rely on China for much of its tech manufacturing, China is dependent on the rest of the world for crucial components. Indeed, the Chinese government views this shortfall as its own national security concern, and has invested heavily in ramping up semiconductor production at home.

As if there aren't enough worrying geopolitical concerns at play, the nexus for the semiconductor cold war is Taiwan, the island territory that China still regards as its own, though it is effectively independent. More than 70 percent of the semiconductors that power the world's supply of smartphones are either made in Taiwan or rely on components produced there. Trade, technology, and international diplomacy can't be put in separate silos.

The deal struck between the Trump administration and TSMC will result in more chips being manufactured in America. But the $12 billion plant scheduled to be built in Arizona won't open until 2024 and will produce only a fraction of what TSMC produces in Taiwan.

China's own attempts to ramp up semiconductor production will take years to be realized. If the current technonationalist trajectory on both sides of the Pacific continues, expect the U.S. and China to continue playing this game of chicken, with much of the rest of the world caught in the crosshairs.

A Serious Competitor?

"I view China as a competitor. A serious competitor," Biden told CNN during a town hall event in September. "That's why I think we have to strengthen our relationships and our alliances in Asia."

That was one noteworthy example of how Biden's tone has shifted over the last year. In 2019, he was criticized after apparently dismissing the Chinese threat at a campaign event in Iowa. "China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man," he'd said, awkwardly trying to frame Trump's anti-China politics as overblown. By the time the general election rolled around, Biden was critiquing Trump's execution of China policy but no longer making the case that Trump was entirely wrong.

The Trump administration chose to be brash and aggressive in confronting China. That paid domestic political dividends, but at the expense of driving a wedge deeper between the world's two largest economies.

A Biden administration is also likely to recognize the political benefits of demagoguing against China, even as it tries to apply a softer touch and more measured approach to Beijing. Notably, Biden has refused to commit to walking back Trump's tariffs on Chinese-made goods and has said that he supports the Obama-era prohibition on giving government contracts to tech companies with ties to the Chinese government. He's been noncommittal on other key issues, such as the question of whether he'd continue Trump's blacklisting of firms that do business with Huawei.

"The issues that remain between the U.S. and China's commercial relationship don't change with [the] change of administration," Greg Gilligan, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, a Beijing-based trade association for companies that operate in both countries, told CNBC in an interview six days after the 2020 election. "There's pressure on both sides to remain fairly hawkish, simply because domestic politics don't allow for yielding the hawkish ground to someone else."

In the end, Trump's approach, which might be described as "go it alone but bully everyone else into coming too," leaves much to be desired. It focused America's attention on China, a true authoritarian regime. But it also jeopardized valuable relationships and threatened to tear down international institutions that could have been used to his benefit.

If U.S. policy is going to be that American telecom networks and networks operating in allied nations must not contain Huawei gear, then that comes with huge costs for the global economy, for American semiconductor manufacturing, and for America's diplomatic power.

Mitigating the risks posed by foreign technologies requires both transparency and diplomacy. Transparency so American policy makers and America's allies around the globe can be confident that a trade war against Huawei is driven by legitimate national security concerns rather than nationalist cronyism on behalf of American companies. And diplomacy so that the real threats of an increasingly powerful Communist regime in Beijing can be countered effectively. Unfortunately, at a time when strong allies would be particularly helpful, America has traded away its ability to win friends and influence people for an "America First" approach that's ill-equipped to address high-tech 21st century problems.

Trump amplified that debate in new ways, but it will be left to Biden to settle it—or at least to turn the volume down a bit. When you take two steps back from the supposed national security threats posed by Huawei, much of the anxiety appears to be driven not by the actual capabilities of Chinese technology but rather by worries about America's place in the world. The debate over Huawei is really a debate about American technological superiority—or rather, about how America should respond to a changing world in which its technological superiority is no longer guaranteed.

"A technonationalist view of the world and the reality of global supply chains are simply incompatible," says Weinstein. "That's the root of the tension."