Huawei Deal in S. Korea Worries US Lawmakers

Two senators say Huawei's participation in a South Korean networking project raises security concerns in the United States.

Giant Chinese tech vendor Huawei Technologies continues to find itself in the middle of a global debate over cyber-security and espionage.

U.S. lawmakers this week have expressed concerns about Huawei's deal to supply broadband equipment for a project that will build a next-generation network in Seoul, the capital of U.S. ally South Korea. At the same time, England officials have provisionally cleared Huawei to run a cyber-security facility in the country, as long as the company agrees to tighter security policies.

All this came the same week that Huawei's founder and CEO, Ren Zhengfei, said the company is no longer interested in selling telecommunications equipment in the United States, where for years lawmakers and regulators have voiced concerns that Huawei's close ties to the Chinese government make it a security risk.

They worry that Huawei's telecom equipment—including networking hardware like switches and routers—could include back doors that would give the Chinese government access to U.S. networks and sensitive data, and could become a launching pad for cyber-attacks. A congressional report in October 2012 reiterated those concerns and cautioned U.S. telecoms about buying Huawei and ZTE equipment.

CEO Zhengfei and other Huawei executives said the company would continue to sell other products—from smartphones to servers and storage appliances—in the United States.

"Our go-to-market strategy in the U.S. for the enterprise business remains unchanged, and we are fully behind our customers, partners and channels," Jane Li, chief operating officer of Huawei Enterprise USA, told eWEEK.

In South Korea, mobile carrier LG Uplus has put Huawei on its list of equipment providers for its fourth-generation network. The list reportedly already includes Ericsson, Samsung and Nokia. However, U.S. lawmakers are concerned about the move. The United States has an extensive security agreement with South Korea, which currently hosts about 28,000 U.S. troops, stationed there to help protect the country against North Korea.

In a Nov. 27 letter to the Obama Administration, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, asked the president to warn South Korean officials about the risks.

"Maintaining the integrity of telecommunications infrastructure is critical to the operational effectiveness of this important security alliance," the lawmakers said in the letter sent to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Secretary of State John Kerry and James Clapper, Obama's director of national intelligence, according to Reuters. The letter also called for an "assessment of the potential threats" of Huawei's role in South Korea.

Executives for Huawei and ZTE, as well as Chinese government officials, have denied allegations from U.S. lawmakers that the Chinese companies pose any kind of security threat to the United States. They have argued that there are no close ties between the companies and the government, and that they would welcome scrutiny of their products. In the wake of the senators' letter to U.S. officials, Huawei and government officials again pushed back.

"Our gear is world-proven and trusted, connecting almost one-third of the world’s population," Scott Sykes, a spokesman for Huawei, told Bloomberg. "The motivations of those that might groundlessly purport otherwise are puzzling."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told reporters that Huawei and other Chinese companies, when operating overseas, obey the laws and regulations of those other countries.

"We hope that relevant countries can look upon the commercial activities that Huawei and other Chinese enterprises engage in abroad fairly and impartially, and refrain from politicizing this issue at every turn," he said, according to Reuters.