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Germany

The 5G Debate: Time To Choose Sides In China-U.S. Showdown?

Allowing Beijing to have a hand in the new, faster mobile network would entail significant risks. But in Germany, debate about 5G is also a question of who you like more: China or the U.S.

Five Eyes on Huawei's 5G
Five Eyes on Huawei's 5G
Julianne Smith

-Analysis-

MUNICH — For months now, the German government has been discussing whether they should allow high-risk suppliers to be involved in setting up the 5G mobile network. Unfortunately, this important debate keeps getting side-tracked, as Donald Trump's government is pursuing a misguided campaign to pressure Germany into ruling out Chinese supplier Huawei, thus turning the problem into a standoff between the U.S. and China.

Who do the Germans trust more? Which relationship is more important? It doesn't seem like Washington has much chance of success, given that three-quarters of Germans say they don't trust the U.S. president. However, Germany's 5G debate shouldn't be turned into a referendum on Donald Trump.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision is about much more than whether or not she should rely on a reasonably priced but highly risky supplier from China. It is about Germany's values and democracy. The greatest irony here is that, although the Trump administration has a very strong opinion on the matter, they can't offer an alternative supplier to Huawei. The other options are based in Europe — Nokia and Ericsson — or South Korea.

These facts are getting lost in all the noise: threats from the Americans, threats from the Chinese and news articles in the German media questioning the trustworthiness of Silicon Valley and the U.S. government. Of course it's difficult to separate this debate from worsening transatlantic relations or from recent revelations about the Swiss encryption company that for decades has secretly been owned by the CIA and the German intelligence services. But it's vital that the German government now focuses on what is really at stake.

Assuming that the European project is at the center of German foreign and economic policy, the EU's position on this question should hold the greatest sway. It considers that using a company based in a country with no democratic or constitutional control mechanisms would pose a significant security risk.

It's about much more than technological solutions for technological problems.

The EU has published security recommendations for its members, and although these are not binding, they should shape the debate. Most important is to consider a variety of non-technological questions, such as where a potential supplier's headquarters is located, its relationship with the government of that country, the legal position on surveillance of telecommunications and the likelihood of complaints about possible espionage, sabotage or political blackmail being properly investigated.

As well as looking to the EU, the German government could also learn from the experience of other democracies. Last summer, Australia announced a ban on Huawei. Unlike the United Kingdom, Australia does not believe that limiting the high-risk supplier to a part of the network, the periphery, and shutting it out from the sensitive core truly reduces the risks.

A Huawei 5G phone — Photo: Yang Suping/SIPA Asia/ZUMA

As well as examining why the members of the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (the USA, Australia, the UK, Canada and New Zealand) have come to very different conclusions in their risk assessment, it could be interesting for German politicians to ask their Australian colleagues how their decision has affected bilateral relations with China. What have been the consequences? Have Australia's economic and trade relations with China been irreparably damaged by the Huawei ban? And, just as importantly, what alternatives is Australia now considering?

Germany should also work closely with France, a country that is similarly facing severe pressure from the U.S. and China. Unlike Germany, France's networks only partly use Huawei technology, which makes the decision easier. French telecoms company Orange has announced that it will probably use Nokia and Ericsson.

It's about much more than technological solutions for technological problems.

If Europeans want to establish a continent-wide policy that relies on the EU's regulatory powers, France and Germany must take the lead in telecommunications policy. The recent joint meeting of the German parliament's Committee for Foreign Affairs and the National Assembly in Berlin, which discussed telecommunications, is a good starting point. Under the right conditions, Germany and France could later aim to develop an alternative transatlantic network with the U.S.

I hope that when Germans see Huawei posters claiming that 5G is about "values," they will agree. Huawei's right about this. As the EU has made clear, it's about much more than technological solutions for technological problems. At its core, this is about how democratic states protect their societies and economies from authoritarian states and from possible blackmail in the future. Germans undoubtedly understood this before Huawei began its advertising campaign. Now the government must reach a decision about 5G that endorses and protects the values that are important to the German people.

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