U.S. Can Destroy Huawei

Catch-up is how economists explain the success of China and other fast-growing developing economies. Not having to invent the wheel, the microchip or the theory of continuous improvement is a distinct advantage over having to invent them.

This is not a small part of the Huawei story. Its rise in 32 years to be the world’s largest telecom-equipment manufacturer and the second largest maker of smartphones is a story of catch-up—of learning from the West, but also stealing from the West. Or to put it more politely, Huawei has taken advantage of the fact that Beijing is not interested in enforcing the intellectual-property rights of foreigners under Chinese law.

An early Huawei router design was shown to have been filched from Cisco, right down to copying the typos in the instruction manual. This week a U.S. criminal indictment piggybacking on a successful private lawsuit by T-Mobile shows persuasively that Huawei stole the design of a robot, known as Tappy, for testing the durability of cell phones.

Nobody in his right mind thinks these episodes are exceptions. Nobody even needed these episodes to suspect that Huawei’s spectacular success has not been the product entirely of its own ingenuity and hard work (though these have been considerable). U.S. and other Western companies also vigorously “learn” from each other right up to the limit prescribed by our patent laws. In China, there is no limit. Stealing is regarded as a national development strategy and patriotic duty. The U.S. indictment alleges that Huawei even offered bonuses to employees who successfully purloined a competitor’s trade secrets.

This might seem clever, but it points to a problem for China’s own development—and not only because it antagonizes trade partners. China wants higher-order technology and investment from the West. It won’t come if trade secrets aren’t honored and enforced. China’s own firms cannot develop to their potential, at home or globally, if their own intellectual property isn’t secure even as they are distrusted abroad as agents of Chinese spying.

Which brings us to the growing tranche of U.S. legal actions directed at Huawei. We might prefer that prosecution of its chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, now awaiting extradition from Canada, were over something other than violating U.S. sanctions on Iran. But the U.S. is nonetheless positioning itself to destroy China’s shiniest success story, as it almost did ZTE until Donald Trump relented in a last-minute olive branch to Xi Jinping.

If Ms. Meng is extradited and convicted, she can be given a stiff prison sentence. The U.S can impose heavy fines on her company for sanctions-busting as well as for unrelated technology convictions. The long arm of U.S. law can seize Huawei assets and threaten key employees—including founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei—with arrest if they set foot outside China. Washington can turn up the pressure on other nations to exclude Huawei equipment from their networks. Perhaps most damaging, it can stanch Huawei’s access to still-vital U.S. building-block technologies.

In U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, Mr. Trump has a general who probably would be happy to command such a war. Mr. Xi’s government might respond by stirring up patriotic froth in China’s media. Beijing might start seizing U.S. businesspeople as hostages, as it already has done Canadian businesspeople in apparent response to the Meng extradition fight. If so, look out below.

The Trump administration tends to exaggerate how much U.S. prosperity and security depend on getting tough over China’s trade practices. Our national strength is overwhelmingly made at home.

On the other hand, if China wants to go down this road, it might as well unfurl a banner declaring itself North Korea writ huge—a country that intends to thumb its nose at international norms, a pirate nation living by blackmail and theft. Six years ago this column was spanked by foreign-policy types for saying a tad too bluntly that stealing was an activity that “unites the private and public selves of Chinese officials.” But it’s true. For the sake of its own development, China needs to start separating business from the state, and holding its companies to some cognizable standard of lawfulness.

So here’s a question: Do you trust both sides to manage this conflict? Washington should be able to mete out technology sanctions, arguably necessary to protect U.S. security and military advantage, without throwing the entire economic relationship out the window. It can uphold our laws and prosecute Huawei for clear violations without trying to bury China’s entire output of exported iPhones, coat hangers and flat-screen TVs in tariffs.

For its part, getting into a full-scale economic war over practices that Beijing knows are indefensible and need to change would be an exceedingly poor decision by China’s maximum leader, Mr. Xi. Unfortunately, poor decisions have been a métier, off and on, of China’s Communist Party over the past 70 years.

We should not kid ourselves about the risks. Not all risks can or should be avoided, however.

The Double Standard of America’s China Trade Policy

As a Chinese official once explained to me, the strategy is to open the window but place a screen on it. They get the fresh air (foreign investment and technology) while keeping out the harmful elements (volatile capital flows and disruptive imports).

In fact, China’s practices are not much different from what all advanced countries have done historically when they were catching up with others.

.. One of the main US complaints against China is that the Chinese systematically violate intellectual property rights in order to steal technological secrets. But in the nineteenth century, the US was in the same position in relation to the technological leader of the time, Britain, as China is today vis-à-vis the US. And the US had as much regard for British industrialists’ trade secrets as China has today for American intellectual property rights.

.. The fledgling textile mills of New England were desperate for technology and did their best to steal British designs and smuggle in skilled British craftsmen. The US did have patent laws, but they protected only US citizens. As one historian of US business has put it, the Americans “were pirates, too.”

.. Any sensible international trade regime must start from the recognition that it is neither feasible nor desirable to restrict the policy space countries have to design their own economic and social models. Levels of development, values, and historical trajectories differ too much for countries to be shoehorned into a specific model of capitalism.

..  Governments that worry about the transfer of critical technological know-how to foreigners are, in turn, free to enact rules prohibiting their firms from investing abroad or restricting foreign takeovers at home.

.. Many liberal commentators in the US think Trump is right to go after China. Their objection is to his aggressive, unilateralist methods. Yet the fact is that Trump’s trade agenda is driven by a narrow mercantilism that privileges the interests of US corporations over other stakeholders. It shows little interest in policies that would improve global trade for all. Such policies should start from the trade regime’s Golden Rule: do not impose on other countries constraints that you would not accept if faced with their circumstances.