High-Tech Acrobatics

High-stakes negotiations between the US and China over technology and trade continue this week, with top Chinese envoy Liu He arriving in Washington. One of the main items on the agenda will be the fate of Chinese tech giant ZTE. Some backstory, for those who haven’t been following every twist and turn:


  • Last month, amid delicate negotiations over the future of US-China trade and industrial policy, officials at the Commerce Department barred US companies from selling parts to ZTE for seven years.
  • The move, a result of the cell phone and networking equipment maker’s failure to abide by a settlement agreement struck after it was found to have violated sanctions against Iran and North Korea, apparently took Trump and other players in the White House by surprise, and left one of China’s biggest tech companies on the brink of collapse.
  • Over the weekend, President Trump reversed course, saying he was working with Beijing to save the company, along with tens of thousands of Chinese jobs. Mr. Liu got on a plane to Washington. Now there’s talk of a deal to lift the ban on ZTE in return for China easing tariffs on US agricultural imports (whether it can be consummated is still an open question).

There’s a lot of noise here: Some Republicans and Democrats have wondered out loud why an America-first President wants to help a Chinese company that US intelligence services consider to be a security threat. Although Trump’s decision removes a major irritant to the US-China relationship at a sensitive time, deeper security concerns about Chinese telecom companies and China’s broader technology rise will persist.

Some other things I took away from the episode:

A chaotic White House was forced to improvise: Usually, executive branch agencies with a stake in a big decisions get to air their views before the president decides on a course of action. Even if President Trump has managed to bend the resulting chaos to his advantage, he may not be so fortunate next time.

China demonstrated that tech is a red line in trade talks: Chinese President Xi Jinping knows that advanced technologies are the key to China’s future. If the US wants to talk about industrial policy, fine, but China can’t be seen to be capitulating the face of US pressure.

This tiff is only one twist in what is going to be a drawn-out negotiation between the US and China.

Populist nationalists who have rocked the political establishment in European capitals from Rome to Berlin in recent years now have their sights trained on a new target: the European Union itself.

Starting tomorrow, voters across the bloc's 28 member states will cast ballots for the next European Parliament, the Union's legislature. Candidates from across the bloc compete for 751 seats that are divvied up roughly according to each member state's population.

The Parliament is the only democratically elected governing body of the EU, and it has final say over contentious issues like EU-wide migration policy, trade rules, and budget allocations. The EU Parliament also plays a role in selecting the EU Commissioner, the bloc's most powerful official.

That power is something that far-right populists, buoyed by success in their own countries, now want a bigger piece of. In particular, Italy's Matteo Salvini and France's Marine Le Pen, whose parties once advocated for leaving the EU, are now joining in a loose alliance with other populist nationalists, hoping to win enough seats to bend EU rules in the more anti-immigrant and nationalistic direction that their supporters want.

Polls suggest the nationalists will do very well: A pro-EU coalition of the center-left and center-right is expected to lose its majority for the first time in 40 years, as parties from the extremes, but particularly the right, surge.

But they are still badly fragmented. While the populist-nationalists agree that they want less oversight from Brussels and a more restrictive immigration policy, they haven't been able to coalesce into a single bloc, because of disagreements over who would lead the group and what its main objectives should be. That means that the next EU Parliament may end up deeply fragmented and ineffectual.

The campaigning for EU Parliament also has a lot to do with national politics, and here there are a few key implications to watch:

French President Emmanuel Macron's forceful and defining push for a more unified Europe would effectively be dead if populist parties score a big victory – that could pull the rug out from under him in national politics as well.

Italy's Salvini might call for snap elections at home if the polls confirm his Lega Party's growing popularity.

In Poland, the ruling Law and Justice Party, which faces national elections later this year, is looking to gauge whether its prolonged fight with the EU over rule of law and cultural issues has been a political winner or if it's a reason the party has lost some ground to the opposition.

The upshot: Far from a snooze-fest, this week's elections could significantly shift the direction of the world's largest economic bloc.

Does the European Union even hear the voices of average European citizens? As millions of people prepare to cast ballots in European Parliament elections, that's a good question. As this graphic shows, more Europeans feel "heard" by the EU today than ten years ago. But what, precisely, they are saying to the EU with those voices is something that we'll understand better when we see the election results this weekend.

Back in January, we warned that an intensifying "Tech Cold War" between the US and China over technology and trade could plunge global innovation into a deep freeze as both countries impose fresh restrictions on the free flows of money, people, and information that (throughout history) have powered new ideas.

We're not at the winter solstice of innovation just yet, but the US's move last week to restrict Chinese networking equipment giant Huawei's access to US markets and technology sent an awfully chilly wind through the tech sector.

Here are two ways that a decoupling of the Chinese and American tech sectors could damage innovation in the US:

  • Less good money: Huawei spends roughly $10 billion a year buying hardware and software from US firms. Total Chinese tech industry purchases are many times greater than that. A portion of that money is reinvested by Silicon Valley in R&D; to help develop the next generation of innovative tech products. If Chinese firms can't – or won't – buy from American companies, a lot of R&D; cash will vanish.
  • Fewer good brains: US semiconductor companies are already struggling to hire highly coveted Chinese engineers as the Trump administration slow-rolls their visa applications over national security fears. But top tech talent is hard to come by, and there aren't always qualified workers from the US or other countries available to pick up the slack.

The upshot: The United States has plenty of well-founded grievances with how China runs its economy and its increasingly powerful tech sector. But the costs of Washington's more confrontational approach are already becoming apparent. Those costs will rise further if the US and China's deeply linked tech sectors decouple more fully and formally, as some China hawks in the US hope. At what point do the costs start to outweigh the benefits?

Iran's proxies – The thing about "proxies" is that you don't always have perfect control over what they do. To varying degrees, Iran funds and backs Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and various militias in Iraq. But these groups also have agendas and interests of their own. Sometimes they'll do things Iran doesn't want them to do. At a time of high tensions between Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States, these proxies can create trouble for Iran whether they've acted in coordination with its government or not.

Finns fighting fake news "Fake news," the dissemination of false information designed to create confusion and sow division, has become a truly global problem, but at least one country has a proven track record in helping its citizens to recognize and reject it. Finland has faced information warfare in various forms since declaring independence from Russia a century ago, but since Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014, the country's government has worked hard to help its people – in particular high school students -- spot false information. This report suggests we can all learn something from the Finns' example.

What We're Ignoring: Fruitless British ploys and Venezuelans at the Pentagon

A second referendum on Brexit – A collective guffaw arose in the office here when we learned yesterday that British Prime Minister Theresa May had made yet another attempt to rally support for her thrice-rejected deal to leave the EU. This time she promised to let Parliament vote on whether to hold a second referendum on Brexit, but only if MPs pass her withdrawal agreement first. It's a notable concession by May, who had previously resisted calls for another referendum. But some prominent Brexit supporters have rejected the move, and we doubt that a whole lot of Remainers will be swayed by a promise to hold a vote on whether to ask the public to hold a vote.

Venezuelan talks – An emissary of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó (recognized as president by more than 50 countries) went to the Pentagon on Monday for talks with the US military, evidently about humanitarian assistance. This follows last week's meetings in Norway between reps of both Guaidó and President Nicolas Maduro. Talks are good, but we don't see much scope for progress. Guaidó wants the one thing – free and fair elections – that would be certain political suicide for Maduro, whose approval rating is a deservedly pitiful 12 percent. But following Guaidó's failed April 30 uprising, the Maduro regime is feeling like it's got the momentum now. We see no compromises on the horizon.