Despite Huawei’s Experience, America Is Open to Chinese Investment

After several days of defiance, Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei announced Monday that it would abide a recommendation from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) that it divest of U.S. technology company 3-Leaf. CFIUS is an inter-agency group charged with reviewing the national security implications of proposed foreign investments in U.S. companies and assets and advising the president about whether or not he should block those transactions on security grounds. CFIUS is composed of representatives from 16 different U.S. government departments and agencies and is chaired by the Secretary of the Treasury.

Last week, CFIUS issued a recommendation that the president block Huawei’s $2 million purchase of assets—including certain patents—from 3-Leaf on the grounds that the transaction presented a risk to national security. (Technically, the recommendation was for the president to compel Huawei to divest of 3-Leaf, since the transaction was consummated in May 2010, before CFIUS was made aware of the deal). Apparently, CFIUS was concerned about Huawei’s ties to the Chinese government—specifically the Chinese military.

Despite assurances from Huawei’s vice president of government affairs, William Plummer, that the company “is 100 percent employee-owned and has no ties with any government, nor with the PLA,” Huawei’s ownership structure is opaque. A letter submitted to administration officials from U.S. Senators Jim Webb (D-VA) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ) alleged that Huawei has a “history of illegal behavior and ties with the People’s Liberation Army, Taliban and Iranian Revolutionary Guard.” The letter also accused Huawei of various patent and trademark infringements and suggested that the small scale of Huawei’s acquisition ($2 million) was designed to enable the transaction to avoid scrutiny—a theory that is lent credibility by Huawei’s decision not to inform CFIUS of its intention to purchase 3-Leaf.

Huawei’s decision this week to abandon the deal spares the president from issuing a formal opinion on the matter, and in all likelihood spares Huawei the added humiliation of a formal rejection from the U.S. president. Meanwhile, Huawei and officials of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce are lambasting the CFIUS decision as further evidence that the United States is closed to Chinese direct investment, and implying that U.S. investors might expect similarly shoddy treatment in China. What to make of all of this?

First, as I’ve argued before (e.g., here, here, and here), the United States should be open to foreign direct investment from all countries and the rules and regulations governing investment should be transparent, consistent, straightforward, and applied equally to suitors from all countries. That being said, state and local governments should be aggressively courting Chinese investment, for the reasons I gave in a paper published 14 months ago:

If it is desirable that China recycle some of its estimated $2.4 trillion in accumulated foreign reserves, U.S. policy … should be more welcoming of Chinese investment in the private sector. As of the close of 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States stood at just $1.2 billion—a mere rounding error at about 0.05 percent of the $2.3 trillion in total foreign direct investment in the United States. That figure comes nowhere close to the amount of U.S. direct investment held by foreigners in other big economies. U.S. direct investment in 2008 held in the United Kingdom was $454 billion; it was $260 billion in Japan, $259 billion in the Netherlands, $221 billion in Canada, $211 billion in Germany, $64 billion in Australia, $16 billion in South Korea, and even $1.7 billion in Russia.

Some of China’s past efforts to take equity positions or purchase U.S. companies or buy assets or land to build new production facilities have been viewed skeptically by U.S. policymakers, and scuttled, ostensibly over ill-defined security concerns. But a large inflow of investment from China would have an impact similar to a large increase in U.S. exports to China on the value of both countries’ currencies, and on the level of China’s foreign reserves.

In light of China’s large reserves, its need and desire to diversify, America’s need for investment in the real economy, and the objective of creating jobs and achieving sustained economic growth, U.S. policy should be clarified so that the benchmarks and hurdles facing Chinese investors are better understood.

Since 2008, Chinese direct investment in the United States has increased from $1.2 billion to perhaps as much as $6.5 billion last year. If only President Obama’s speech last week at the Chamber of Commerce exhorting U.S. business to invest and hire were given at the Guandong Business Club…

Second, I am no security expert, so I cannot comment on the credibility of CFIUS’ concerns or the senators’ allegations about Huawei. But I think it is entirely reasonable to have a process, like that conducted by CFIUS under the Foreign Investment and National Security Act, to vet transactions to ensure that those presenting risks to national security are brought to the attention of the president, who can then exercise his discretion to block them. Like some prospective export transactions, some prospective purchases of U.S. assets present legitimate security risks that may warrant intervention. Is the process completely apolitical and immune from insider maneuvering? No. Is there scope for politically driven decision making? Yes. Can the process be used to steer a transaction away from the foreign suitor and toward a politically favored domestic entity? Sure. But so far there have been few accusations of that nature, so why make the perfect the enemy of the good?

Finally, in the immediate case, Huawei acted clumsily, if not irresponsibly, and in defiance of a process with which it should by now be quite familiar. In 2008, Huawei had to withdraw its bid for American company 3Com after CFIUS found national security problems, some of which could have been resolved had Huawei been more forthcoming about its ownership structure and business dealings. Likewise, Huawei was excluded from participation in a major network upgrade by Sprint Nextel over similar concerns about the company’s ties. That the company thought it could just circumvent CFIUS carrying that kind of historical baggage and quietly purchase 3-Leaf last May speaks to a profoundly amateurish decision making process at Huawei, or an imperative to conceal something.

Despite the sour grapes expressed by Huawei and its patron, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, the United States is open and ready to welcome Chinese investment