MUNICH – Disagreement between the U.S. and key European allies over whether to install next-generation telecommunications gear from China broke into the open again on Saturday, exposing the deepening divide in the already-fraught transatlantic relationship over how to respond to Beijing’s growing influence.
Washington has been prodding European allies for months not to purchase 5G equipment from Huawei, arguing that the company is a Trojan horse that would that would allow China to tap into and sabotage their networks.
“I continue to stress to my friends in Europe … that America’s concerns about Beijing’s commercial and military expansion should be their concerns as well,” U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told a packed room at the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of senior defense and foreign policy decision-makers.
The remarks follow the U.K.’s announcement last week that it would allow Huawei in, despite Washington’s resistance. Germany is also debating whether to open its doors to Huawei, a step officials in Berlin say is now more likely following the U.K.’s move.
Esper warned that if Europe ignored the American call, it risked undermining the NATO alliance.
“If we don’t understand the threat and we don’t do something about it, at the end of the day it could compromise what is the most successful military alliance in history,” he said.
Despite the stark rhetoric, American officials stopped short of renewing threats to curtail intelligence sharing with European allies if they ignored the U.S. call.
Robert Blair, the Trump administration’s point man on international 5G policy, urged the British government to take a “hard look” at its decision but told reporters in Munich there would be “no erosion” in the U.S.’ intelligence cooperation with the U.K., even if it goes ahead with the plans.
The mixed signals reflect the difficulty the U.S. faces in trying to cajole its allies to back its approach on China.
Until the U.S. can present Europe with a viable alternative to Huawei, that challenge will likely remain.
“You can’t just say ‘don’t buy Huawei’ without offering something in its place,” Toomas Ilves, the former president of Estonia, said on the sidelines of the conference.
He suggested the U.S. offer to help subsidize Nokia and Ericsson, Huawei’s European competitors on 5G.
But many European officials — especially those eager to attract Chinese investment — don’t agree. They want Europe to court China and pursue closer ties, a suggestion met with alarm in Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
“Europe doesn’t understand the fundamental nature of China and the relationship between Chinese business and the party state,” said Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, a Washington-based organization that seeks to promote democracy around the world. “They need to enlarge the frame.”