Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) with Huawei Technologies' president Ren Zhengfei. Picture: REUTERS/MATTHEW LLOYD/POOL
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) with Huawei Technologies' president Ren Zhengfei. Picture: REUTERS/MATTHEW LLOYD/POOL

Shanghai/New York — The US has temporarily eased trade restrictions on China’s Huawei Technologies to minimise disruption for its customers, a move the founder of the world’s largest telecoms equipment maker says means little because it is already prepared for US action.

The US commerce department blocked Huawei from buying US goods last week, a major escalation in the trade war between the world’s two top economies, saying the firm was involved in activities contrary to national security.

The two countries increased import tariffs on each other’s goods over the past two weeks after US President Donald Trump said China had reneged on earlier commitments made during months of negotiations.

Visiting professor of international relations at Wits University John Stremlau and MD of World Wide Worx Arthur Goldstuck speak to Business Day TV with their views on the heightened trade tensions.

On Monday, the US commerce department granted Huawei a licence to buy US goods until August 19 to maintain existing telecoms networks and provide software updates to Huawei smartphones, a move intended to give telecom operators that rely on Huawei time to make other arrangements.

Shares of US suppliers to Huawei including Qualcomm, Intel and Lumentum Holdings rose on Tuesday morning, with the Philadelphia chip index up more than 1%. Radio frequency chip maker Qorvo was the latest US supplier after mobile parts maker Lumentum to halt shipments to Huawei.

It is unclear what the US government extension permits, but if it allows Huawei to keep purchasing components, the company will likely order more to build inventory, said Mark Kelleher, an analyst at DA Davidson.

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Huawei is still prohibited from buying American-made hardware and software to make new products without further, hard-to-obtain licences. On Tuesday, Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei told Chinese state media that the reprieve bore little meaning for the company as it had been making preparations for such a scenario. “The US government’s actions at the moment underestimate our capabilities,” Ren said in an interview with CCTV, according to a transcript published by the Chinese state broadcaster.

The temporary licence suggests changes to Huawei’s supply chain may have immediate, far-reaching and unintended consequences for its customers.

The commerce department said it will evaluate whether to extend the licence period beyond 90 days.

Currency firms 

China’s yuan firmed against the dollar on Tuesday as news of the reprieve eased some worries that trade tensions would be further inflamed and inflict deeper losses on the currency.

Ren said Huawei is at odds with the US government, not US firms, and in a comment that trended on Chinese social media, he praised Apple’s iPhones

Beijing has struck an increasingly defiant tone as the trade war has escalated, saying it will take measures to safeguard the interests of its companies, but has not said whether or how it may retaliate over the US action against Huawei.

President Xi Jinping’s Monday visit to a rare-earth company in southern China sparked speculation that the sector could be the next front in the trade war, driving up shares in Chinese rare-earth related firms on Tuesday. China produced 80% of rare-earths, a group of 17 chemical elements used in electronics, imported by the US in 2017.

“Given the Huawei decision, I feel [China] has no choice but to retaliate, for face’s sake,” Cliff Tan, head of East Asian research at MUFG Bank in Hong Kong, told the Reuters Global Markets Forum on Tuesday.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang, at a media briefing, rebuffed Trump’s claim that his tariffs were causing companies to move production away from China, saying foreign investors remain enthusiastic about the country.

Google suspension

Huawei is currently on the receiving end of a US government accusation that it engaged in bank fraud to obtain embargoed US goods and services in Iran and move money via the international banking system. Huawei has said it is not guilty.

The trade blacklist has added to its woes, following which Alphabet’s Google suspended some business with Huawei, Reuters reported on Sunday, citing a person familiar with the matter, raising worries about the Chinese firm’s smartphones that run on Google’s Android operating system.

Monday’s temporary licence is likely to allow companies such as Google to continue providing service and support, including software updates or patches, to Huawei smartphones that were available to the public on or before May 16.

“Keeping phones up to date and secure is in everyone’s best interests and this temporary licence allows us to continue to provide software updates and security patches to existing models for the next 90 days,” a Google spokesperson told CNBC in an e-mail on Tuesday.

The licence also allows Huawei to engage in the development of standards for 5G telecom networks.

Apple praise 

Ren put up a brave front on Tuesday, reiterating claims that the restrictions will not hurt Huawei’s prospects and that no other company will be able to catch up with Huawei in 5G technology in the next two to three years. China was, nevertheless, still “far behind” the US in technology, he said.

Chip experts have called out Huawei on its claims that it can ensure a steady supply chain without US help, saying the technology it buys from American companies would be “hard to replace”.

Nearly 16% of Huawei’s spending on components in 2018 went to US firms including Qualcomm, Intel and Micron Technology, analysts said.

Ren said Huawei is at odds with the US government, not US firms, and in a comment that trended on Chinese social media, he praised Apple’s iPhones, saying he gifted the American firm’s devices to family members. “Apple has a good business ecosystem ... We cannot think narrow-mindedly that loving Huawei equals loving its phones.”

US firms could lose up to $56.3bn in export sales over five years from stringent export controls on technologies involving Huawei or otherwise, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation said in a report. Missed opportunities threaten as many as 74,000 jobs, the foundation said.