We have been wondering what to say about Huawei Technologies’ decision not to follow last week’s recommendation by the U.S. Committee on Foreign Investment (CFIUS) that it sell patents acquired as part of last year’s acquisition of 3Leaf Systems, a U.S. software company that lets many computers combine as more than the sum of their parts. But now we have a conspiracy theory.
Huawei has instead chosen to throw itself on the mercy of an executive decision by the U.S. president, Barack Obama. This struck us as a hiding to nothing. It is highly unusual for a U.S. president to overrule any CFIUS recommendation. In this particular case, where domestic political pressure brought about a retrospective CFIUS national security review of the deal and there is no apparent argument to be made that the committee made a glaring error, the political cost would be so great that it is hard to imagine any quid pro quo that would make Obama willing to devote even a scintilla of his political capital to pay it, even if that quid pro quo came from Beijing.
By taking the decision it has, Huawei keeps clean its argument that it is a civilian telecoms company and not a front for China’s military, the accusation made against in the U.S. and which it denies. Yet by not doing the expected thing — quietly walking away form the deal in the face of an adverse CFIUS finding — it is setting itself up for a public rebuff from Obama, assuming that he rules as we believe he will. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, to lose one U.S. deal on national security grounds, as Huawei has already done in 2008, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness.
Yet it is equally difficult to believe that Huawei would put itself through all that without at least the tacit support of Beijing — which will have to do a bit of diplomatic huffing and puffing in the event of the deal being unwound. Obama has only 15 days to decide so the decision is likely briefly to unsettle Sino-American relations so soon after President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Washington last month sought to smooth them. But equally, Beijing, ever one for reciprocity, may be quite happy to have a rejected Chinese takeover deal for an American company in its back pocket along with some ruffled national amour-propre now that it is setting up a committee of its own to review foreign acquisitions on national security grounds.