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Washington’s Anti-Huawei Tactics Need a Reboot In Europe
Efforts to convince allies of the Chinese threat in 5G have floundered.
A coronavirus-induced economic crisis could send Europe bargain-shopping for critical infrastructure—in ways that might be dangerous. Europe’s argument on moving forward with the implementation of Huawei 5G technology against U.S. objections has long centered on cutting costs. The U.S. calls for a ban of the Chinese telecommunications firm’s 5G equipment in European networks have failed to gain traction in most European capitals. Just a handful of countries have echoed U.S. demands for tougher restrictions to supplement the recently released EU toolbox for 5G security, and even fewer have called for an outright ban.
The United States has highlighted the risks that Huawei poses to national security, including the threat of espionage. Given the Chinese Community Party’s effective control of Huawei, there is concern over data integrity. More serious is the potential to debilitate critical infrastructure. 5G will be the backbone of communications and controls needed for power grids, water supplies, and transportation infrastructure. In January, the United Kingdom announced it would allow Huawei equipment on 35 percent of its 5G networks—a decision that could provide top cover for Germany, France, and others to do the same.
Even so, there are bright spots. Estonia and Poland announced stronger restrictions to ensure 5G network security, and some lawmakers, such as Iain Duncan Smith in the United Kingdom and Norbert Röttgen in Germany, remain opposed to Huawei’s inclusion in their networks, leaving hope that a clear-eyed risk assessment will prevail. Recently, technology industry leaders for open radio access networks sent a letter to the U.K. House of Commons Defense Committee urging it to abandon implementation of Huawei technology. Given the uneven response across Europe, where should the United States go from here? It can still sway countries that remain on the fence, but it will need to change tack.
For one, the United States should create a multilateral coalition with like-minded European allies, such as Poland, the Czech Republic, and Estonia, to reboot conversations about Huawei’s role in Europe. A number of European countries perceive Washington as a self-interested messenger and see its fight against Huawei as merely part of a geopolitical game against China. That’s a criticism Washington should answer, and it can emphasize a few key messages to do so.
The coalition should emphasize that the EU toolbox is designed to be a baseline for a common approach, not a final answer. Countries should do their own risk assessments based on their technical capabilities to mitigate risk and secure their networks. The coalition should also dispel the oft-cited myth that there are no viable alternatives to Huawei. The United States, and European adopters of Nokia and Ericsson technology, must tout the value and quality of Nokia and Ericsson kit. For one, the United States should point to the obvious fact that it is building world-class 5G networks using solely Nokia and Ericsson radio access network equipment.
Then there’s the pernicious myth, pushed by Huawei’s public relations team and through Huawei-commissioned reports, that the firm is the undisputed 5G technology leader. While Huawei leads the pack in number of patents, qualitative assessments show that the value of its portfolio is much less than that of its competitors—a classic case of quantity over quality.
Finally, the coalition should also take on the cost argument. While Huawei may provide the cheapest upfront option on the market, countries should examine how Huawei could impose hidden costs on the backend for maintenance and installation, beyond the considerable expense associated with risk mitigation efforts.
The United States should also lead to make new alternatives to Huawei available. A promising approach is to promote open architecture as a way to upend the 5G status quo. Open architecture consists of proprietary software for functions like switching, routing, and firewalls that run on vendor-neutral hardware and standardized interfaces. This would offer Europe a new way to bypass adoption of Huawei in ways that promote vendor diversity, lower cost, and better interoperability. The United States should work with Finland and Sweden to help Nokia and Ericsson, Huawei’s key competitors, transition to this new telecommunications infrastructure model over the next three to five years.
The United States must face the reality of Europe’s strong reliance on China for economic growth. Beijing has been clear that it is willing to retaliate over any country’s decision to ban Huawei from its networks with economic coercion. In December, China’s ambassador to Berlin threatened to torpedo German car sales in China. Beijing directed similar warnings at France. In order to remove the teeth from China’s threats, the United States must show Europe that it is a reliable trade partner, ending its deleterious trade policies toward Europe and threats to levy tariffs on European goods. Further, the United States should expedite U.S.-EU trade agreement negotiations. A robust agreement would help stimulate economic growth and assure Europe that the United States has its back when European countries exclude Huawei from their networks. The United States remains the largest single export destination for EU goods, nearly twice as big as China. Washington should use this economic clout as a bulwark, not a bludgeon.
Finally, the United States should focus more on the norms and values that it shares with its European partners to dissuade them from purchasing Chinese telecommunications equipment. A large part of Huawei’s success in Europe stems from its large-scale lobbying campaign to convince Europe that it is a trustworthy vendor. Huawei launched a campaign highlighting its so-called shared values with Europe. Huawei has likened voting for Huawei 5G with voting for European values. Largely absent from the 5G debate is the fact that China generally, and Huawei specifically, uses 5G technologies as part of its campaign to suppress and isolate Uighurs in Xinjiang, counter protesters in Hong Kong, and exert greater control over the daily lives of all Chinese. Buying Huawei kit subsidizes these actions—ones that go against the core values of the EU itself.
The United States’ one-size-fits-all approach on 5G has not worked in Europe, and it must recalibrate with a tailored, affirmative strategy and abandon the blunt approach of the past two years. This requires Washington to lead in conjunction with key European partners by offering new technological options, strong trade relations, and a united front on shared norms and values. Above all, this means treating Europe as the friend, partner, and ally that it is.
Carisa Nietsche is a Research Associate in the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.