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Why the US and China are sparring over 5G in Europe

The US and China have a long-simmering spat over the future of 5G. Germany is the latest flashpoint.

Chancellor Angela Merkel on her cell phone during a session of the Bundestag on March 20, 2019.
Chancellor Angela Merkel on her cellphone during a session of the Bundestag on March 20, 2019.
Monika Skolimowska/picture alliance via Getty Images

The United States and China are locked in a battle over the future of cutting-edge wireless technology, with Europe caught right in the middle.

And so far, it looks like China is winning.

The fight is over whether European nations should allow the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to install fifth-generation, or “5G,” networks on the continent. That technology will change the world, providing billions of people with lightning-fast connectivity and allowing billions more devices — from cellphones to self-driving cars to even robots performing surgery — to operate better.

In other words, the company that makes 5G available to you will touch nearly every aspect of your life.

European countries want Huawei to build their 5G networks for one simple reason: It provides one of the best services at a cheap price. But the Trump administration has a starkly different view: It’s concerned that allowing a Chinese company to build such critical infrastructure is a serious national security risk, and warns that the Chinese government could exploit the network to spy on the world.

The US has already banned Huawei from doing any work with the US government. And it’s pressuring European leaders to do the same — even threatening to cut off intelligence sharing with them.

But on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel ignored American pressure — announcing that her country won’t exclude Huawei from bidding on 5G contracts. Since Germany is arguably Europe’s most powerful country, Merkel’s decision could pave the way to other countries accepting Huawei products down the line.

That, of course, won’t make the US happy, not only because of the security concerns and the lost business for American companies but also because of what it could mean for the future.

This is a fight about handing over “the nervous system of not just the future economy, but society writ large, to an authoritarian nation” — and one that’s “an economic and strategic competitor” to the US to boot, says Peter Singer, a technology and national security expert at the New America think tank in Washington.

Which means Merkel’s decision has put Germany and Europe squarely in the center of a major US-China spat whose outcome could determine the shape of the world to come.

Why Europe wants 5G from Chinese companies

By 2024, around 40 percent of the world’s population — and some 22 billion devices, from cars to refrigerators to cellphones to traffic lights — will be on the 5G network. It’s so fast (about 100 times faster than the 4G technology we currently have) that vehicles will have an easier time driving on their own, robots will be better able to conduct surgeries, and people will be able to download full-length, high-definition films in seconds (when it currently takes minutes).

American companies like Verizon and AT&T are already working to provide 5G access to their customers, some as soon as this year. The problem is they’re not as competitive when they go up against Chinese firms like Huawei. That’s because Chinese companies have access to more digital bandwidth that makes their service faster and more reliable.

That’s not by accident: China’s government- and state-linked companies have pushed hard to lead the way on 5G, hoping to provide the best and cheapest service to millions, and maybe even billions, before American companies catch up. And if that happens, Chinese telecommunications firms would only grow in prestige and capital, possibly rivaling American giants like Apple and Microsoft.

Europe, meanwhile, has greatly fallen behind both the US and China in 5G technology and may not even offer it until 2020 or 2021. So how to move things along faster? Well, work with leading 5G providers to make up ground — which means working with Chinese companies.

Huawei is already deeply rooted in Europe and forms a major part of the way people there connect wirelessly, explained Erik Brattberg, an expert on Europe’s relations with China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. It was therefore a natural choice to work with Huawei to develop 5G on the continent.

“In some ways, it’s already too late to talk about a ban,” Brattberg told me. For instance, Huawei has already signed contracts to provide service with at least eight European countries and is conducting trials in at least 12 of them.

There is some pushback, though. Poland doesn’t plan to use Huawei for its 5G technology. The United Kingdom reviews all Huawei products to make sure there are no security vulnerabilities. And German intelligence even said Huawei wasn’t trustworthy, which could mean Germany won’t accept the company’s products in the future despite Merkel’s announcement.

But Huawei remains extremely entrenched in the continent, making it a convenient — albeit potentially problematic — partner.

“Europe should weigh the short-term gains of what appears to be an attractive deal with long-term strategic ramifications,” Brattberg said. “Europe needs to think long and hard if that’s a dependency it wants to live with.”

The US and Huawei have been at odds for years

How closely European countries choose to work with Huawei could greatly affect their relationships — many of them longstanding — with the United States.

“If a country adopts [Chinese technology] and puts it in some of their critical information systems, we won’t be able to share information with them, we won’t be able to work alongside them,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Fox Business Network last month.

Asked specifically what the US would do if European nations adopted Huawei technology, Pompeo said he wouldn’t comment specifically but added that “we’re not going to put American information at risk.”

There’s no question part of this stance comes from the Trump administration’s hardline China strategy to curb its growing economic power. But as Singer told me, there are three key, genuine reasons to worry about Huawei.

First, traditional cybersecurity concerns: Anything that passes through Huawei technology could become intelligence for China. Huawei denies that it would spy for China. “Despite the efforts to create fear about Huawei and to use politics to interfere with industry growth, we’re proud to say that our customers continue to trust us,” Ken Hu, a Huawei rotating chair, told reporters last December.

But Chinese law allows for the government to use pretty much anything it wants for espionage in the name of national security. So if Beijing wants to use Huawei to spy, it likely could.

Second, you can mostly guarantee security today — like check for any “back door” — but that only lasts until the next software update. So far, there is no public evidence that Huawei is actually spying for China, but there could be down the line.

Third, the more that Huawei and other Chinese companies grow, the more power they have in the world. That increases the risk of a monopoly, which could prove potentially disastrous, as those companies are linked to an authoritarian government. After all, there’s a chance we’ll all have to rely on the infrastructure of government-linked companies that aim to spy on all citizens.

For those and other reasons, the Trump administration wants to stop its allies from using Huawei technology.

It’s getting some help: Australia has already banned Huawei products, and Canada in December arrested a top executive at the company at America’s request for violating Iran sanctions.

But Germany’s latest announcement shows that tensions remain high, and they’ll only grow higher as America’s friends consider using the technology of its adversary.

Correction: A previous version of this article said Japan and New Zealand had banned Huawei from their nations’ 5G networks. Both countries are still open to working with Huawei.

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