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View from Washington: US government moves to ban Chinese phones again; targets Huawei and ZTE

Republican senators have tabled a bill to ban the US federal government’s use of equipment made by Chinese telecom groups Huawei and ZTE.

It is the latest chapter in a long-standing face-off between Washington and the two companies over claims that their products contain Chinese spyware. The ban would cover their network infrastructure hardware and officially issued smartphones.

“Huawei is effectively an arm of the Chinese government and it’s more than capable of stealing information from US officials by hacking its devices,” claimed Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, one of the bill’s sponsors.

An effective ban on Huawei and ZTE was also proposed in a recently leaked White House policy document on the build-out of the US 5G cellular network.

It was quickly dismissed by the mobile comms industry for suggesting that the move could be achieved by having the government fund construction (and thereby choose all suppliers) rather than the industry.

However, two major carriers - AT&T and Verizon - are understood to have bowed to political pressure late last year not to offer subscribers Huawei’s latest flagship smartphones, the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro. These have just gone on sale in the US unlocked via retailers, but there is little local demand for unsubsidised handsets.

It is not yet clear whether Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will make legislative time for the bill, although it is thought to have a better-than-average chance. As well as echoing the objectives of the White House’s 5G report, Cotton is a close political ally of President Donald Trump.

The only official response from Beijing has so far come via the official news agency, Xinhua. It claimed moves against Huawei and other Chinese companies call into question the Trump administration’s commitment to free trade.

However, the bill looks certain to stoke tensions between Washington and Beijing because it also follows the recent rejection of two high-profile Chinese-backed US acquisitions by regulators: that of Lattice Semiconductor by a venture capital group, and Alibaba chairman Jack Ma’s attempt to buy the MoneyGram e-payment service.

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