A contingent of Chinese companies, led by technology giant Huawei, is using Mobile World Congress as an opportunity to show their muscle in the face of Huawei’s blacklisting by Western nations concerned about cybersecurity.
After three years of pandemic disruption, they are among tens of thousands of companies in Barcelona this week for MWC - an annual tech industry expo starting on Monday - where mobile phone makers show off new devices and telecom industry executives peruse the latest networking gear and software.
Out of 2,000 exhibitors and sponsors, 150 are Chinese companies with Huawei Technologies Ltd. having the biggest presence.
The smartphone and network equipment maker expanded its footprint by 50 per cent from last year and is taking up almost an entire exhibition hall at Barcelona's Fira convention centre, organisers have said.
Huawei has been at the centre of a geopolitical battle over global technology supremacy that's left parts of its business crippled by Western sanctions. In addition, the US's escalating tensions with China over TikTok, spy balloons, and computer chips have more recently fuelled the ongoing dissension.
Three years ago, the US successfully pushed European allies like Britain and Sweden to ban or restrict Huawei equipment in their phone networks over fears Beijing could use it for cyber snooping or sabotaging critical communications infrastructure - allegations Huawei has denied repeatedly.
Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada have taken similar action.
Brian Chamberlin, Executive Adviser at Huawei’s wireless carrier group, said "the sanctions have had a big impact" but the company is "not going to try to break any of those rules".
"But at the same time, that’s not going to slow us down from delivering innovation, innovative solutions," he told AP at the expo. "We will continue to do business with companies and countries that want our support".
Huawei's supersized presence at the show is a sign of defiance, said John Strand, a Danish telecom industry consultant.
A battleground between US and China
Huawei wants to "give Biden the finger," Strand said of the US president. The company’s message, he said, is: "Despite the American sanctions, we are alive and kicking and doing so well".
The 2019 MWC expo became something of a battleground between the US and China over Huawei and the security of next-generation wireless networks. In a keynote speech, a top Huawei executive trolled the US over its push to get allies to shun the company's gear.
Huawei hasn’t gone away, and the dispute continues to simmer. Washington widened sanctions last month with new curbs on exports to Huawei of less advanced tech components.
Still, the company has maintained its status as the world's number one maker of network gear thanks to sales in China and other markets where the US hasn't been so successful at persuading governments to boycott the company.
Strand, who has been attending MWC for 26 years, said Huawei wants to show the world it’s pivoting away from mainly making networking gear - the hidden plumbing such as base stations and antennas connecting the world's mobile devices - and becoming an all-round tech supplier.
The company is reinventing itself by supplying hardware and software for cargo ports, self-driving cars, factories, and other industries it hopes are less vulnerable to Washington.
"Since MWC is a global event, they [Huawei] will want to communicate on this and showcase that they are still a key player in the telecom and high-tech industry," said Thomas Husson, a principal analyst at Forrester Research.
The company's presence is so big simply because of "pent-up demand," said Chamberlin of Huawei.
"We have been locked into China for the past three years due to the COVID restrictions. So, this is really the first time we’ve been able to engage with our customers," he said.
Huawei also makes smartphones, but sales outside China cratered after Google was blocked from providing maps, YouTube, and other services that usually come preloaded on Android devices.
"The Huawei consumer brand has collapsed in Europe," Husson said.
At MWC, "Huawei may well announce new consumer smartphones and new consumer devices, but the brand has lost momentum and these announcements are primarily for fast-growing markets outside the US and Western Europe," he added.
Huawei is just part of the larger Chinese delegation, whose turnout is getting a boost from China lifting all COVID-19 travel restrictions. ZTE, another Chinese tech company that had been sanctioned by the US, plans product launches at MWC.
Chinese mobile phone makers Honor, Oppo, and Xiaomi will have a strong presence, said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
Honor was Huawei's budget brand but was sold off in 2020 in hopes of reviving sales by separating it from the sanctions on its corporate parent.
"The removal of COVID restrictions in China has made it possible for these manufacturers to attend the show in force," Wood said.
"They are all keen to establish themselves as the 'third alternative' to Apple and Samsung in European markets and see MWC as a pivotal event to do that".