A group of Republican senators are set to sit down with President Donald Trump Wednesday over Chinese company ZTE, an issue that has split the GOP as it tries to push through its annual defense package.
The Senate’s $716 billion defense spending bill that passed June 18 strengthened a ban on exports of U.S. products to ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that has been accused of being a tool for Beijing’s cyberspies. The decision would all but kill the Chinese company because it relies on American products. But the Trump administration has fought to allow ZTE to re-enter the American marketplace and forego sweeping fines, in part because there are “too many jobs in China lost,” according to the president.
At times, it appears Congress and the president are conducting their own foreign policies. The Senate’s defense bill took aim at the rise of China and Russia with bolstered defense spending and new cybersecurity programs. Yet the Trump administration is in the midst of high-stakes trade negotiations with China, where ZTE is seen as a key issue.
The meeting over ZTE presents a barometer for how Trump’s unconventional brand of foreign policy will affect national security.
On one hand, an embrace of ZTE is a useful bargaining chip in an escalating trade confrontation with China. It could also allow American businesses to more easily operate in China. On the other hand, if experts are correct, the embrace of ZTE could mean trading away parts of Americans’ cybersecurity. Intelligence and lawmakers have accused ZTE of being a potential tool for Chinese digital infiltration.
ZTE is one of China’s national champions and is key to the country’s global ambitions, said Peter Singer, a senior strategist at New America.
Allowing ZTE to retain access is a short-term trade off that ignores the long-term risks, according to Singer, who described Trump’s deal as a ”cave in to them on core cybersecurity and national security issues.” He added that the decision also had global consequences.
“This is occurring within the larger context of nations around the world trying to figure out what to do about Chinese telecommunications and critical infrastructure access,” Singer said. “If the United States can’t figure it out, how can these smaller nations expect to?”
Republicans to meet Trump
The Senate’s National Defense Authorization Act must be merged with the House’s version of the bill. Those negotiations will happen soon, and that is where the fate of ZTE may live or die.
Alongside the export ban, the Senate’s version of the NDAA bars the U.S. military from purchasing products from ZTE or Huawei. The House version of the bill does not include the strong provisions. That offers a chance for the White House to argue for ZTE’s American future, which it is expected to do at the meeting between Trump and lawmakers.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, confirmed the meeting, which is reported to include Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, as well as Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who co-sponsored the language. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., confirmed he would be there, too.
“I think we just need to understand each other’s positions a little bit better, and that would be the goal,” Cornyn told reporters Tuesday.
The Senate Armed Services Committee’s No. 2 Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe, unsurprisingly expressed greater openness to the views of the president. He said he plans to attend the White House meeting.
“I’m not taking a message in, other than we have two opposing views here. The president has some strong feelings and we owe it to everyone to get in the same room and try to resolve it,” Inhofe said.
Though the Senate bill passed with a veto-proof majority, and Inhofe did not believe Trump would attempt to veto the reconciled bill over this issue, Inhofe said Trump has a lot of negotiating room, adding that the conference process historically yields “a lot of changes.”
“This issue might be changed in conference, I don’t know,” Inhofe said.
Asked if he would represent the president’s views in negotiations, Inhofe was cagey: “As long as he’s right.”
ZTE’s vulnerabilities questioned
Since at least 2012, U.S. officials have raised concerns about the security of ZTE’s products. A House intelligence report said that the U.S. should view the penetration of the American telecommunications market by Chinese companies with suspicion.
“Huawei and ZTE cannot be trusted to be free of foreign-state influence and thus pose a security threat to the United States and to our systems,” the report said.
“It just makes no sense at all to use major Chinese telecoms for the U.S. government,” said Nicholas Weaver, an researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He raised the example of the U.S. infiltrating telecommunications servers that were allegedly used in Syria, and said that China could do the same with American products.
Others questioned the American government’s allegations against ZTE.
“If the risks from ZTE and Huawei are really that significant, the U.S. public and the world deserve to have better information about what the risks are,” said Graham Webster, a senior fellow at Yale Law School, adding the evidence against ZTE so far has not been presented in a credible forum.
“It strikes me as pretty extraordinary that with minimal evidence a company is labeled a total national security risk.”
Justin Lynch is the Associate Editor at Fifth Domain. He has written for the New Yorker, the Associated Press, Foreign Policy, the Atlantic, and others. Follow him on Twitter @just1nlynch.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.