Canada, France deny masks will affect Huawei 5G decisions

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A woman wearing a wearing a facemask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus speaks on her smartphone outside a shopping mall past a Huawei shop (back) in Beijing on April 1, 2020. (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI / AFP) (Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicolas Asfouri | AFP | Getty Images

Canada and France this week denied that donations of masks from Huawei would influence their decisions on whether the Chinese firm plays a role in their 5G rollouts.

The Chinese technology giant, which has been caught in the crossfire of a larger U.S.-China trade and technology battle, has quietly given masks to a number of countries around the world. Huawei has been accused by at least one U.S. congressman of using the donations to win favor when it comes to participating in 5G.

Huawei is in the process of giving 6 million masks to Canada, along with other personal protective equipment, Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported this week. 

Huawei declined to comment when contacted by CNBC.

The company is seeking federal approval to be a part of Canada’s 5G rollout. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the mask donations would not influence the country’s decision on 5G.

“We are not expecting these donations to have any impact on our decisions. In fact, they will not affect our decisions on any issues,” Trudeau said in French, according to Canadian publication Global News.

Meanwhile, Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, is currently undergoing an extradition trial in Canada. 

Washington calls Huawei a national security risk, claiming its networking gear could be used by the Chinese government for espionage. The U.S. has tried to convince other countries to ban Huawei from 5G — advanced mobile networks that promise super-fast data speeds and are seen as underpinning the next generation of infrastructure. 

Despite American efforts, countries such as the United Kingdom have begun to roll out Huawei equipment or plan to do so. Others including Australia and Japan have pushed ahead on 5G without Huawei, while still others are deciding what course to take.

The telecom equipment maker donated hundreds of thousands of face masks to Spain, the Netherlands and Italy, as well as 12,000 to Poland, Politico reported last month.

Republican Rep. Mark Green last weekend claimed in a Fox News interview — without naming sources — that French President Emmanuel Macron asked Chinese President Xi Jinping for a billion masks. Green also alleged that Xi told Macron that China would send France the masks if it used Huawei in its 5G infrastructure. 

It is unclear whether Huawei actually donated masks to France. A spokesperson for Huawei was not immediately available to comment on that question. But following Green’s claims, the French embassy in the United States denied that Xi and Macron ever discussed the topic of masks and 5G. 

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesperson Zhao Lijian also responded, saying that the Tennessee lawmaker’s comments proved that “certain individuals in the U.S. resort to lies and disinformation to sabotage international cooperation against the pandemic.”

‘Commercial goals’

“It would be naive in the extreme to think that these efforts were totally altruistic,” Fergus Ryan, an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), told CNBC. “Inevitably, these large Chinese corporates — like large corporates from any other country — would be aligning this largesse with their own commercial goals.”

ASPI’s Ryan flagged that Huawei could use a boost in the Netherlands, where Huawei has also donated masks. The country is scheduled to hold a 5G auction in June. No decision has yet been made on the company’s participation in the Netherlands’ 5G infrastructure. 

In Poland, Ryan said Huawei “no doubt hopes its donations will help rehabilitate its image” after a sales director was arrested in on charges of conducting espionage on behalf of China. The director was subsequently fired. Huawei said at the time the employee’s actions had “no relation to the company.”

A high-profile European politician acknowledged that some donations may be made with political motivations.

“We must be aware there is a geo-political component including a struggle for influence through spinning and the ‘politics of generosity’. Armed with facts, we need to defend Europe against its detractors,”Josep Borrell, high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs, said in a recent blog post. 

Donations to New York

Huawei also donated masks and other equipment to New York, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, even though Huawei is effectively banned in the United States.

Huawei is not the only high-profile Chinese technology company donating personal protective equipment. The Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation have donated more than 7 million masks to nearly two dozen Asian countries along with hundreds of thousands of coronavirus test kits and pieces of protective gear. 

Anton Malkin, a research fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation think tank, said the fact that many companies are donating masks, shows it is not political.

“A lot of companies are donating masks, so I don’t think we can read much into the political aspects of what Huawei is doing. In fact, they are donating masks to countries that have banned their technology,” Malkin said. “Huawei is a firm that is under a microscope for years so whether they donated masks or not, it would make news.”

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