US spy allegations should be taken seriously. So too, should the motivation behind them.
These days, the arena of geopolitical strife is less likely to be some unstable developing nation than some unstable internet platform. The latest row in the transatlantic alliance centres on spying concerns over Chinese involvement in implementing new high-speed 5G technology.
In recent days, tensions have again risen between the European Union and the United States in response to a letter by the US Ambassador to Germany, warning that relying on Chinese telecom giant Huawei’s equipment to establish the new high-speed communications technology would make it impossible to maintain current levels of cooperation with German security agencies. These remarks come on the back off earlier statements made by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence that asserted much the same.
You must give it to the current US government, there is not an ounce of quit in them. Under the Trump administration, the United States has threatened allies over their observance of the Iran Nuclear agreement the US itself helped negotiate, slammed Germany for its investment in the Nord stream 2 pipeline expansion because of its reliance on Russia and issued tariff-threats over cars despite most EU manufacturers supplying the American market through factories on American soil. Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in allies adopting an attitude that can increasingly be summarized as utterly exasperated. Yet, the US persists.
With this latest attack, we have entered truly troubled waters, however. It takes a worrying lack of self-awareness to threaten an ally over spying concerns when not five years ago, a massive leak of NSA records by WikiLeaks through the efforts of whistle-blower Edward Snowden showed that the United States had spied on allies for decades. To think that the USA now wishes to lecture nations on who they should and should not trust. Sensing the room is a soft skill that has apparently gone out of style as of late, but if anything can be taken away from all this, it should be that it is due for a comeback. China is not Iran or Russia, relatively minor markets within the global scheme of things. Taking the drastic step off limiting market access to one of the largest economies on earth is a step not to be taken on a whim, least of all the whim of someone else. Now European nations find themselves in the awkward position of having to please two economic behemoths who have started to collide.
When it comes to the actual threat posed by Huawei, experts are divided. US politicians who have considered the issue invariably estimate the risks to be very real, and this is true for both sides of the isle. Yet they also unfailingly frame this discussion in the context of US competitiveness. Senator Mark Warner (D-Va), Chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee warned that Huawei, touted by the Chinese as a “national champion”, is not truly independent of the People’s Liberation Army, despite being a private company with little evidence of spying presented so-far. Technology giants are rarely not tied to their respective states in some form or another to begin with. Google and Microsoft both have massive contracts with the United States military. It took EU intervention to ensure that social media data of European consumers was not abused by the NSA. Amazon is as of this very moment developing facial recognition technology for the US Departments of Immigration and Homeland Security.
Thus, we are left to wonder if our collective safety is foremost on the mind of our friends across the pond. European security agencies had already recognized the risks brought up and allies like Japan and Australia voted for complete bans on the use of its technology in their roll-out of the network altogether. Just this week a joint communication released by the EU commission for the first time publicly established China no longer as a market opportunity but as “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. The unspoken truth behind this statement is that the EU is waking up to not only China’s ambitions. The scent coming off the recent US threats are not smelling quite as rosy as they once did either. Security officials have dubbed Brexit, the rise of populism and climate change as the more significant security threats yet Trump regularly pokes those fires just to see how high the flames can get. The tone only ever changes when money changes hands, and only ever when the probability of one of those hands not being American goes up.
As of the moment of writing, the European strategy seems to be to mix and match technology in order to alienate no one and to grant no one too much access. Question remains for how long this strategy can continue to work when globalisation is increasingly becoming a narrative of winners and losers rather than one of mutual advantage. And why are European companies not even in this fight to begin with, when the single market was created partly to serve as a counterweight to these major economies? These questions need a European answer. In the meantime, we should stay wary of Huawei. Not because the United States tells us to, but because it is the responsible thing to do.
Matthijs Lenaerts follows a European Law Bachelormat UM, has a background in economics, and writes for the MD.