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Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE has agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges of violating US sanctions on North Korea and Iran and to pay $1.2bn in fines in the largest-ever penalty of its kind.

The move came as part of a settlement announced on Tuesday after more than a year of negotiations between ZTE and the US government. Those talks accelerated after US officials, acting on a tip, seized the laptop of a ZTE lawyer as her husband tried to leave the US, resulting in a trove of documents that laid bare what US officials called a brazen and unprecedented conspiracy to get around US sanctions.

The investigation into ZTE began under the Obama administration, which placed the company on a list of banned entities in March 2016, effectively prohibiting US suppliers from conducting business with the world’s fourth-largest telecommunications equipment supplier. But the Trump administration quickly seized on the case as an example of how it planned to get tough on China and others it accused of cheating on trade.

“We are putting the world on notice: the games are over,” said Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor who last week was confirmed as Mr Trump’s commerce secretary. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we will be aggressively enforcing strong trade policies with the dual purpose of protecting American national security and protecting American workers.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.

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