The US government has temporarily eased trade restrictions imposed last week on China's Huawei, a move aimed at minimising disruption for its customers but dismissed by its founder who said the tech firm had prepared for US action.
The US commerce department will allow Huawei to purchase American-made goods in order to maintain existing networks and provide software updates to existing Huawei handsets.
The world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker is still prohibited from buying American parts and components to manufacture new products without licence approvals that likely will be denied.
The US government said it imposed the restrictions because of Huawei’s involvement in activities contrary to national security or foreign policy interests.
The new authorisation is intended to give telecommunications operators that rely on Huawei equipment time to make other arrangements, US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said in a statement on Monday.
“In short, this licence will allow operations to continue for existing Huawei mobile phone users and rural broadband networks,” Mr Ross added.
The licence, which is in effect until August 19th, suggests changes to Huawei’s supply chain may have immediate, far-reaching and unintended consequences for its customers.
"The goal seems to be to prevent internet, computer and cell phone systems from crashing," said Washington lawyer Kevin Wolf, a former commerce department official. "This is not a capitulation. This is housekeeping."
Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei on Tuesday said the temporary reprieve move bore little meaning for the company as it had been making preparations for such a scenario.
"The US government's actions at the moment underestimate our capabilities," Mr Ren said in an interview with CCTV, according to a transcript published by the Chinese state broadcaster.
He said Huawei was at odds with the US government, not US companies, and that Huawei was capable of making the chips it buys from the US though that does not mean it will stop buying American chips.
The US commerce department said it would evaluate whether to extend the exemptions beyond 90 days.
On Thursday, the US commerce department added Huawei and 68 entities to an export blacklist that makes it nearly impossible for the Chinese company to purchase goods made in the US.
The government tied Huawei's addition to the "entity list" to a pending case accusing the company of engaging in bank fraud to obtain embargoed US goods and services in Iran and move money out of the country via the international banking system. Huawei has pleaded not guilty.
Reuters reported on Friday that the department was considering a temporary easing, citing a government spokeswoman.
The temporary licence also allows disclosures of security vulnerabilities and for Huawei to engage in the development of standards for future 5G networks.
Reuters reported on Sunday that Alphabet's Google had suspended business with Huawei that requires the transfer of hardware, software and technical services except those publicly available via open-source licensing, citing a source familiar with the matter.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new authorisation.
Out of $70 billion Huawei spent buying components in 2018, some $11 billion went to US companies including Qualcomm, Intel and Micron.
"I think this is a reality check," said Washington trade lawyer Douglas Jacobson. "It shows how pervasive Huawei goods and technology are around the globe and if the US imposes restrictions, that has impacts."
Mr Jacobson said the effort to keep existing networks operating appeared aimed at telecom providers in Europe and other countries where Huawei equipment is pervasive.
The move also could assist mobile service providers in thinly populated areas of the US, such as Wyoming and eastern Oregon, that purchased network equipment from Huawei in recent years.
Call to ease restrictions
John Neuffer, the president of the Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents US chipmakers and designers, said in a statement that the association wants the government to ease the restrictions further.
“We hope to work with the administration to broaden the scope of the licence,” he said, so that it advances US security goals but does not undermine the industry’s ability to compete globally and remain technology leaders.
A report on Monday on the potential impact of stringent export controls on technologies found that US companies could lose up to $56.3 billion in export sales over five years.
The report, from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, said the missed opportunities threatened as many as 74,000 jobs.
Mr Wolf, the former commerce department official, said the Huawei reprieve was similar to action taken by the department in July to prevent systems from crashing after the US banned China’s ZTE, a smaller Huawei rival, from buying US-made components.
The US trade ban on ZTE wreaked havoc at wireless carriers in Europe and South Asia, sources told Reuters at the time.
The ban on ZTE was lifted on July 13th after the company struck an agreement with the commerce department that included a $1 billion fine plus $400 million in escrow and replacement of its board of directors and senior management. ZTE, which had ceased major operations as a result of the ban, then resumed business. – Reuters