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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Huawei CFO's arrest will divide countries over China and US

Case a throwback to the Cold War in which countries were confronted with the choice of aligning with either the Soviet Union or the US

The case around Meng Wanzhou, right, leaves countries ina dilemma over whether to back the US or China. AP
The case around Meng Wanzhou, right, leaves countries ina dilemma over whether to back the US or China. AP

The Huawei Technologies case now in the Canadian courts, while now a legal matter, illustrates one of the biggest fears of many countries, especially in the Asia-Pacific region: facing a binary choice as a result of the increasing tensions between China and the US.

The case centres on the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei's chief financial officer and the daughter of the company's founder. At the request of the US, Canadian officials detained her in Vancouver where she is now fighting an extradition order to America, which plans to pursue charges alleging that the company violated US sanctions against Iran.

China has warned Canada of serious consequences, adding that Canada “will bear the full responsibility” should Ms Meng be prosecuted. China brought the Canadian ambassador to the Foreign Ministry in Beijing to demand the immediate release of Ms Meng. The authorities also summoned the US ambassador to urge that prosecutors drop the case.

On the other side, members of the US Congress have stepped up their calls on Canada to distance itself from the Chinese company. Marco Rubio, a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that he would seek legislation to stop Huawei from operating in the US because of national-security concerns. Mark Warner, another influential senator, warned that Huawei constituted a “threat to our national security”. And all this follows multiple warnings to Canada regarding its interactions with Huawei, including in June and October of this year.

No matter how it proceeds from here, the Huawei case risks confronting Canada with a potentially damaging conflict with at least one, and possibly both of its significant economic partners.

As partial and as imperfect an example as this is, the case also highlights an escalating fear that a growing number of other countries have, or should have - that of being torn between the competing gravitational pulls involving the conflicting national security considerations of China and the US. It is a throwback to the Cold War in which countries were confronted with the choice of aligning with either the Soviet Union or the US.

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Back then, attempts at nonalignment ended up not offering much of a pushback against the competing influence of the US and the Soviets. Today, weakened international institutions and the struggle to reach any serious consensus at multilateral summits - the G20 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation are recent examples - also offer little pushback. Indeed, the multilateral structure is both too weak and insufficiently reformed and modernised to deal well with a host of current and future challenges.

With the multi-decade advance of economic and financial globalisation, the tug of war between China and the US involves a broader range of issues relating not just to trade and investment flows, but also basic technological choices that have important national-security implications.

Both China and the US have taken decisive leads over the rest of the world in technological innovation, particularly in artificial intelligence, machine learning and big data. But rather than be on a convergence path, the two models seem increasingly divergent, particularly when it comes to the relationship between governments and big-tech companies. No wonder someone as knowledgeable as Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google parent Alphabet, warned a few months ago of the likelihood of two poles in a highly bifurcated technological world.

During the Gorbachev-Reagan rapprochement of the 1980s, an African leader was asked about the difference for his country between détente and the Cold-War tensions. He responded that for his and other African nations it was analogous to the grass under the feet of two large elephants. It didn’t matter much whether the elephants were dancing or fighting; the countries risked being trampled in either case.

Countries in Asia-Pacific have been living through a golden period in which they were able to be friends with both China and the US, thereby providing them with a considerable range of economic, financial and cultural opportunities. The fear now is that they may soon end up being forced to opt for friendship with one or the other, and quite possibly being neither happy nor comfortable no matter what choice they make.

Updated: December 12, 2018 07:50 PM

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