BY HARMUT MARHOLD
The West, in particular, the US and Europe, regard Huawei as a threat. Why? To which extent? Do they fully share the same stance against the Chinese communication technology giant? The conflict should be interpreted at three different levels, from surface to fundamentals, where US and European interests diverge.
Surface: Huawei is perceived as a threat in security and economy, and China’s presumed technological espionage is considered to be dangerous in both sectors. This is why conflict with Huawei culminated at the end of last year.
The US has fought Huawei activity since 2000, and mainly over security issues. Agreements between US companies and Huawei have been blocked, criticized or aborted by the US government. While both have similar interests, the US has shown more aggressive behavior than Europe.
Europe is more of a victim than a player in this conflict. They fight against US companies like Facebook and Google. The US pressured Europe to align their aggressive defense thus leveling their different stances more than divergent interests would imply.
This is what happens at the surface, and occurs in news-addicted media, but there is an underlying level of strategic competition that goes beyond open conflict. The second level concerns the tectonic plate shifting throughout the life of a superpower. The US tries to prevent China from becoming its equal, and one important superpower sector is advanced technology.
The US and Europe do not share the same interests in this area since Europe is not, and nor does it pretend to be, a superpower. Europe is divided and does not act as one. France and Germany fear Chinese competitors but are not adamant enough to oppose them aggressively like the US. Furthermore, Europe is more knowledgeable when it comes to multilateralism. A similar situation emerged during the 1980s when the US imposed a strict technology embargo on the Soviet Union. US President Ronald Reagan’s SDI (“Star Wars”) program was emblematic of that conflict. The Huawei dispute is a pretext for conflict among superpowers fighting for superiority.
The conflict illustrates a longstanding dilemma: China is on the rise, as other developing countries are returning to a leading position in global affairs. Should both sides, have the same access conditions to their mutual markets – or should there be a structural advantage for developing countries to allow them to catch up until they reach equal development, as compensation for earlier colonial submission. Europeans are allowed to own Chinese companies up to 51 percent in certain sectors and there are also wholly foreign-owned enterprises in China.
But the conflict has an even more fundamental level: The West has developed, over the last several centuries, a philosophy, which, pushed to its extreme, ends up with “The Pricing of Everything,” including ideas. This has not always been the case – and even comparatively recently, some of the most relevant inventions, which are at stake in conflicts like the one with Huawei, were considered to be a common good, open to everybody – the “Hacker Ethic” the rules of behavior of Americans who developed early computer software, denied commercial interests in their ideas. Bill Gates was the first to break with this ethic and was considered an outlaw by his colleagues as he felt that his ideas should remain private, and for sale.
China has a much longer tradition with sharing intellectual ideas. The word “property” does not apply correctly here, because ideas, in Chinese cultural tradition, were not considered individual “property.” A totally different understanding of plagiarism, in the West and East Asia, is further proof of the cultural differences. In the West, a text, written by any author, is considered to be his inalienable property, and must not be used by others unless the author is correctly quoted. However, East Asians consider it a merit to copy the words of an intellectual authority.
This may seem in today’s globalized world, a way to convergence, and in particular, convergence toward Western standards, but one should not forget it was the West who set these standards. There is no doubt that China made its way toward these standards, in a comparatively short time. But both sides often misunderstand each other, since they take their cultural traditions for granted. Europe and the US share similar traditions in this respect, but there is a chance that Europe has a better level of understanding since Europeans are accustomed to understanding others and their otherness, whereas the US has a sense of uniqueness.
The Huawei conflict, at any rate, is a multifaceted and multilevel one, and further proof that open-minded cooperative communication, aimed at mutual understanding, is the necessary condition for conflicts like this one to reach a peaceful and productive solution.
(The author is a professor and director of research and development at the Centre International de Formation Européenne, Nice. [email protected] (Global Times)