ZTE: We'll join the top tier of worldwide smartphone vendors 'very soon'

ZTE sign
ZTE was the fourth-largest smartphone brand in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2016. (Karlis Dambrans/Flickr)

ZTE’s mobile chief said the Chinese company is positioned to join the top echelon of smartphone vendors worldwide “very soon.”

Lixin Cheng, who oversees ZTE Mobile Devices, told CNBC that the firm is focusing on innovation and giving smartphone users what they want, the news outlet reported this morning. That strategy will help ZTE join the ranks of Apple and Samsung in the near future, he said.

“We are confident we will be in the top tier (of) smartphone vendors in the world,” Cheng said during CES Asia in Shanghai, adding that the transition from 4G to 5G provides an opportunity for ZTE to better compete with its larger smartphone rivals. “We will be very fast, faster than you think,” he said without offering a specific date.

ZTE is a significant smartphone vendor in the United States and a major player in the international wireless industry in both network equipment and smartphones. The company earlier this week posted a 27.8% year-over-year increase in first-quarter profit thanks to increased demand for its telecom gear and smartphones, and it was the fourth-largest smartphone brand in the U.S. during the third quarter of 2016, according to Strategy Analytics.

But the company has faced major challenges in the United States over the last year after the Commerce Department last year said it had uncovered plans by ZTE to use multiple shell companies to re-export controlled items to Iran, which would violate U.S. control laws.  

As a result, the U.S. government imposed export restrictions on the company, preventing ZTE from conducting business in the United States and working with U.S. suppliers like Broadcom and Qualcomm. But ZTE has since received multiple reprieves from those restrictions as investigations into the company continued.

In March, the firm pled guilty to violating the International Emergency Powers Act, the U.S. Department of Justice said, agreeing to pay a $287 million fine and “criminal forfeiture” of $143.5 million as well as submitting to a three-year probationary period.

ZTE may have cleared its legal hurdles in the United States, but whether it can grow its smartphone business here—or, indeed, in some other mature markets—is far from clear. The high end of the U.S. market is dominated by Apple and Samsung, while a slew of Chinese vendors continue to gain ground both on their home turf and abroad.