Trump’s TikTok standoff could wind up hurting Apple

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U.S. investigations of TikTok gather steam.
Apple relies on both the U.S. and China.
Photo: Kon Karampelas/Unsplash CC

President Donald Trump’s dispute with TikTok and other Chinese tech companies could wind up hurting Apple.

Trump threatened to ban TikTok from the United States if Beijing tech company ByteDance does not sell the app by Sept. 15. (Microsoft is in talks to acquire TikTok. Apple on Tuesday shot down a rumor that it was interested in buying the social media company.)

According to multiple reports, China could respond to the United States’ “bullying” over TikTok by hitting back in its own way. The language in the reports, some of which come from government-backed Chinese newspapers, is vague. However, others suggest Apple could be an obvious target of China’s wrath.

On his Daring Fireball blog, Apple commentator John Gruber writes:

“If China decides to retaliate — and why wouldn’t they? — what company might they target other than Apple? Facebook and Google are already banned in China. Amazon has AWS, which has a fair-sized presence there, but AWS is sort of the anti-TikTok in terms of being consumer-facing. Microsoft would be the obvious tit-for-tat target. But does Microsoft have a neatly bundled consumer presence in China?

If I were the dictator of China, and I was angry about the Trump administration forcing a proud Chinese company like ByteDance to divest itself of TikTok, and I was looking for a way to show that China cannot be pushed around by the U.S., I’d look at iCloud and the App Store, and humiliating the biggest company in the world.”

This is, of course, far from a cast-iron guarantee that China will go after Apple. But it’s not the first time such a thing has been suggested. When Trump banned Huawei products last year, observers raised similar concerns.

Could TikTok standoff hurt Apple?

Paranoid thinking? Maybe. But there’s no doubt that Apple, a company that relies on both the United States and China, is exposed. In the past, Cupertino made multiple acquiescences in order to do business in China. These included agreeing to run network safety evaluations on all Apple products before they can be imported into the country and transitioning iCloud accounts registered in China to state-run Chinese servers.

Still, Apple occasionally falls afoul of China’s authorities. The company’s products have been booted off the list of approved state purchases in favor of Chinese-made products. The country also forced Apple to shut down its iBooks Store and iTunes Movies there.

Will Apple face repercussions for the current situation with TikTok and other Chinese apps? We’ll have to wait and see. But just the threat is likely to have some of Apple’s more nervous investors questioning things.