Google is quietly assuming the role of Huawei emissary, according to a senior Huawei official, in effect negotiating with the Commerce Department on behalf of the Chinese telecom giant that has been blacklisted in the U.S.
The fates of Huawei and Google are intertwined. Huawei is a leader in creating next-generation wireless networks, and it's the world's No. 2 maker of smartphones. Google provides support for Android, the popular mobile operating system. The U.S. government ban against Huawei also blocks Google from giving security updates to millions of existing Huawei phones and from issuing Android licenses in the future.
In an interview this week with Huawei Chairman Liang Hua, NPR asked him how his company would resolve the problem of losing access to Google software.
"Google is a very responsible company. We have maintained very good cooperation with each other," Liang said through a translator at Huawei headquarters in Shenzhen, China. "We really look forward to productive results from the communication that Google is currently having with the Commerce Department."
When the Huawei ban first went into effect, and Google announced it would cut ties, there was an outcry. Days later, the Trump administration said it would postpone parts of the ban until August.
The outsize power of American tech giants is well-understood the world over. Huawei's Liang is now leaning on Google to influence the Commerce Department on his company's behalf.
"We really hope that there are possible remedies coming out of the communication between Google and the Commerce Department," he said. "We think that it is in the benefit of the consumers if they could work out a solution."
Last month, citing national security concerns, the Trump administration added Huawei to a list of banned entities. American companies — from mobile providers to chipmakers like Intel and Qualcomm — will not be allowed to do business with Huawei. That's because, according to U.S. officials, the company's technology could be used for surveillance. If a resolution isn't reached, Liang says, Huawei will have to build its own software, which would be "difficult."
Liang says he does not know the details of the talks. In an email, a Google spokesperson says the company is engaging with the Commerce Department to ensure Google is in "full compliance" with the new rules. The company declined to say if its talks with the government have included directly or indirectly advocating for the ability to support future Huawei devices.
NPR interviewed several former senior officials at Commerce and the White House who are concerned that a private company, governed by its own self-interests, is advocating for a foreign partner that has been officially blacklisted for security concerns.
Eric Hirschhorn says turning Huawei into a bargaining chip in the U.S.-China trade war was a strategic mistake. "I spent a lot of time [trying] to make sure that national security and trade were kept separate," he said. Mixing the two "would have been unheard of."
Hirschhorn served in the Commerce Department during the Obama administration as an undersecretary for industry and security.
According to former Commerce officials, it's standard for companies to reach out to the department about their ability to do business abroad. But the foreign partner is often at the table too, able to talk and be questioned.
Hirschhorn says the process changes once the U.S. government decides to take enforcement action – as it did last month when the U.S. banned Huawei. He says company financials should not be considered alongside national security decisions. And, he says, if Huawei gets what it wants, through Google's efforts, that sends a "very, very bad message" to people who break American rules.
"If I know that my government or my powerful business partner can basically fix a ticket if I get one, I won't worry about speeding," Hirschhorn says.
The Commerce Department says it routinely responds to inquiries from companies about regulatory requirements. It says this is not new to this administration, and these discussions don't influence law enforcement actions.
NPR's Pallavi Gogoi contributed to this report.
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