Washington Tries a Softer Approach in Anti-Huawei Campaign

The Trump administration claims progress in signing up European allies in the fight against Beijing.

A visitor walks past the logo of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei at the Hannover Messe technology fair in Hanover, Germany, on April 1. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
A visitor walks past the logo of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei at the Hannover Messe technology fair in Hanover, Germany, on April 1. (JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Having failed to pressure its allies to ban Huawei outright from next-generation telecommunications networks, Washington appears to be trying a softer approach in its campaign to prevent the Chinese electronics firm from dominating the market for 5G equipment.

The strategy, on display in a Wednesday conference call conducted by the U.S. diplomat leading Washington’s anti-Huawei campaign, Robert Strayer, featured something the allies in question, including Germany and France, are not accustomed to getting from the Trump administration: praise.

“At this point we’re looking for governments to adopt security standards like we’re seeing in Germany,” Strayer told the mostly European reporters on the call.

Germany has emerged as a central battleground in Washington’s campaign to curtail Huawei’s spread. But Washington’s threat to scale back U.S. intelligence sharing with Berlin if Huawei is allowed to build German networks has so far been met with indifference.

Strayer was referring to telecommunications regulations German officials announced last month that committed Berlin to working only with “trustworthy suppliers” but failed to ban Huawei outright. U.S. officials had viewed the regulations as a snub, but Strayer appeared to be more conciliatory, referring to “risk mitigation” and fears regarding “rule of law.”

“Systems may only be sourced from trustworthy suppliers whose compliance with national security regulations and provisions for the secrecy of telecommunications and for data protection is assured,” the German regulations read. “Network traffic must be regularly and constantly monitored for any abnormality and, if there is any cause for concern, appropriate protection measures must be taken.”

Washington believes the wording could be used to ban Huawei and another prominent Chinese equipment supplier, ZTE, according to Strayer.

“It’s hard to see how Chinese technology would meet that standard for protection of data,” he said.

Strayer pointed to a proposed French law tightening telecommunications security and a recent European Parliament resolution warning about 5G security concerns as evidence that Europe is coming around to Washington’s point of view.

“We actually think that we are where we need to be at this point in Europe,” he said.

5G telecommunications networks, pilots for which are beginning to be rolled out, will vastly increase the speed and volume of data transmitted over mobile networks. Just as 4G and LTE mobile technology spurred a transformation in the digital economy, 5G is expected to serve as the backbone of next-generation products, including self-driving cars and smart factories.

Huawei is the global market leader in the manufacturing of 5G equipment, and U.S. officials believe the company could be subverted by Beijing for espionage purposes.

This year, U.S. officials tried to cow their German counterparts into banning Huawei. In a letter from the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, Washington threatened to reduce the amount and quality of intelligence shared with Berlin. The presence of Chinese telecommunications equipment in key nodes of the German network would force Washington to assume that material passed to Berlin would inevitably end up in Beijing, U.S. officials argued at the time.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to that threat by saying Germany would define its own security standards.

That threat remains on the table. Strayer said on Wednesday that “it would be very difficult for us to share information the way that we have in the past if there are unsecured networks that we’re having to rely upon.” But he emphasized that no policy decisions had been made yet.

Strayer also seemed to soften his tone toward Huawei itself. At the MWC Barcelona conference in February, he described the company as “duplicitous and deceitful.” On Wednesday, he argued that a lack of rule of law in China made Huawei an unreliable partner.

Last month, Washington scored a victory in its campaign against Huawei when the British government determined in a report that Huawei’s products contained widespread security vulnerabilities.

That report prompted an official from Britain’s signals intelligence agency, GCHQ, to argue that Huawei’s engineering could result in the company’s ban.

“The security in Huawei is like nothing else—it’s engineering like it’s back in the year 2000—it’s very, very shoddy,” Ian Levy, the technical director of GCHQ’s National Cyber Security Centre, told the BBC. “We’ve seen nothing to give us any confidence that the transformation program is going to do what they say it’s going to do.”

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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