BARCELONA (BLOOMBERG) - The US government and Huawei Technologies Co are grappling for air time in a war of words over network security at the phone industry's biggest trade show.
Telecom carriers at MWC Barcelona are stuck in the middle of the conflict, which has become a lightning rod for the broader trade war between China and the US. Half-way through the conference on Tuesday (Feb 26), both sides laid out their strongest arguments.
The Trump administration called on executives and governments to shun Huawei and its Chinese peers when building new networks. Mr Robert Strayer, who leads cybersecurity policy at the US State Department, said American officials have "substantial concerns" over state-ordered spying, in a briefing with journalists.
"Chinese law requires these firms to support and assist Beijing's vast security apparatus," Mr Strayer said. The US has made "great progress" talking to governments about the need to build secure networks, he said.
Earlier in the day, Huawei's rotating Chairman Guo Ping delivered what might have been his boldest defence yet to US accusations that the Shenzhen-based company's products could be used for espionage. The US had "no evidence, nothing" to back those claims, Mr Guo told a a packed main auditorium.
Mr Guo even went on the offensive, pointing to a US federal law that compels US tech companies to provide law enforcement officials with requested data stored on servers - even if they are located on foreign soil.
"Prism, prism on the wall, who is the most trustworthy of them all?" Mr Guo asked, drawing laughter and scattered applause.
"It is a very important question and if you don't answer that, you can go and ask Edward Snowden."
Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) subcontractor, leaked documents revealing the NSA's use of US-made telecom equipment for spying.
Carriers including Deutsche Telekom AG, Telefonica SA and Vodafone Group Plc have used Huawei's equipment for years and they are about to spend billions of dollars on building fifth-generation wireless networks. So at MWC Barcelona, phone executives are trying to speak with one voice, warning that they need access to several suppliers and that banning Huawei risks delaying 5G in the region.
Vodafone Chief Executive Officer Nick Read, speaking on stage on Monday (Feb 25), said carriers need "a degree of choice" when buying equipment. In an interview, Orange SA's Chief Technology and Innovation Officer and Deputy CEO Mari-Noelle Jego-Laveissiere said that any ban on the Chinese company's equipment would be "damaging" for the region.
It is not clear how much of an impact the US delegation is having. Vodafone's Read said on Monday he had no meeting planned with US officials on Huawei and would rather talk to national regulators if needed. Deutsche Telekom Board Member Claudia Nemat said she had not been approached by the US for meetings.
For the State Department's Strayer, the choice facing Europe's carriers is easy.
"There are plenty of options in the West that don't have these types of risks," he said, citing Cisco Systems Inc, Ericsson AB, Nokia Oyj and Samsung Electronics Co.
"Do you want to have a system that's potentially compromised by the Chinese government, or would you rather go with the more secure alternative?"