Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper will both give keynote speeches this weekend at the Munich Security Conference, the most important diplomatic confab of the season, where government officials, lawmakers and experts will all have China on their minds. Senior U.S. officials told me the Cabinet members will each deliver a clear but carefully calculated message to their European audience, warning them to think twice before letting Chinese companies help build their 5G telecom networks.
A large bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation, cognizant that the Trump team’s relations with some European partners are strained, is planning to drive home the message that China is using 5G technology to expand its influence and enable its espionage and economic aggression, which isn’t in U.S. or European interests.
“This is one of the most important decisions our allies will make regarding their future relationship with the United States,” said delegation leader Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “This is not just the Trump administration feeling this way; this is a broad bipartisan coalition telling our friends if your goal is to embrace Chinese 5G to avoid being left behind, you are making a serious miscalculation.”
In recent weeks, key U.S. allies have bucked the Trump administration’s warnings not to allow Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant, to participate in the development of their 5G infrastructure. President Trump reportedly “tore into” Prime Minister Boris Johnson after the British government decided to allow Huawei to participate in the development of Britain’s 5G networks.
National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien said this week that the U.S. government believes there is no way to mitigate the risk of Chinese intelligence gathering and interference, despite British claims to the contrary. He told the Wall Street Journal that Beijing has installed back doors into systems the host countries don’t know about.
“If the Chinese control the system, they’ll take everything that comes down and everything that goes up to the cloud through 5G,” O’Brien told the Atlantic Council. “We don’t think that’s good for the country;we don’t think that’s good for our allies.”
The administration has threatened to curtail intelligence-sharing with countries that don’t go along. But their all-sticks-no-carrots approach doesn’t seem to be working. The ruling party of Chancellor Angela Merkel released a report this week that emphasized that the German government should ensure that companies involved in building that country’s 5G network remain free of foreign interference. But the report stopped short of advocating an outright ban of Huawei.
The Huawei issue is symbolic of the gap between U.S. and European populations on how they view China’s rise. A poll from the Pew Research Center in December showed that Europeans are much more likely to welcome Chinese investment and view China as the world’s leading economic power.
European countries don’t want to be pushed into the Trump administration’s view of great-power competition with China — and especially if they are simultaneously the targets of the Trump administration’s attacks on trade, burden-sharing and other issues.
“The Trump administration’s messengers have a problem. These are all democracies where public officials respond to their constituents,” said delegation member Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). “If we want to inspire Europeans to stand with us, we can’t just make it about great-power competition, we have to appeal to common transatlantic values and norms.”
Administration officials plan to argue in Munich that European countries don’t have to like Trump to do what’s in their own national security interest. Huawei denies that it works with China’s intelligence services and says it would refuse Chinese government requests for information. In an emailed statement, Huawei said it “has never and will never covertly access telecom networks, nor do we have the capability to do so.”
Does that match what European governments know, based on their own intelligence? Do they really want to bet their citizens’ privacy and economic futures on those claims?
The fundamental problem is that Western countries don’t have a viable alternative to Huawei — and Huawei’s heavily subsidized offerings are too tempting to refuse absent a competitive choice. It’s a glaring gap in the strategy that allies on both sides of the Atlantic must quickly fill.
The theme of the Munich Security Conference this year is “Westlessness,” which is basically the idea that the world is drifting away from Western values of liberalism, democracy, freedom, transparency, accountability, rule of law and universal human rights. Their report argues that “Western” countries are drifting away from those values internally, as well.
What both the United States and Europe seem to have forgotten is that preserving those values is crucial to advancing our shared interests. China must be compelled to uphold these values if it wants to fully participate in building our shared future. The “West” needs to come together on a unified path forward before it’s too late.