German Officials Raise China Alarm as 5G Auctions Loom

German Officials Raise China Alarm as 5G Auctions Loom
Journalists follow the presentation of a Huawei smartphone ahead of the IFA Electronics show in Berlin, Germany on Sept. 2, 2015. Meng Wanzhou, deputy chair of Huwaei's board, was arrested in Canada on Dec. 1, 2018 on suspicion she violated U.S. trade sanctions. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

BERLIN—Senior German officials are planning a last-ditch drive to convince the government to consider excluding Chinese firms such as Huawei from providing equipment for the country’s 5G mobile network, because of national-security concerns.

The behind-the-scenes push in Berlin, which comes after decisions by Australia and the United States to ban Chinese suppliers from a 5G role, has emerged at a late stage; Germany is expected to start its 5G auctions in early 2019.

Because of this momentum, it’s unclear whether the initiative will succeed, Reuters reported, citing officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But the push highlights the extent of the concern in some Berlin ministries about a Chinese role in building Germany’s next generation mobile network, despite the lack of a vigorous public debate here about the security dimensions of 5G.

“There is serious concern. If it were up to me, we would do what the Australians are doing,” one senior German official involved in the internal 5G debate in Berlin told Reuters.

Leading the charge are officials in the German foreign and interior ministries, who have held talks with and share the concerns of their U.S. and Australian counterparts about the risks of using Chinese suppliers such as Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer.

They are pressing for a more serious discussion on 5G before the auction process begins, the senior official said. Some officials suggested this could lead to a delay.

Opposition parties are pushing back.

“We need to be able to vet individual cases in order to ensure our critical infrastructure is protected. That could lead to the exclusion of Chinese firms from building our 5G infrastructure,” Katharina Droege, a Greens lawmaker who co-authored the Bundestag motion, told Reuters.

So far, the public debate in Germany over 5G has focused on how extensive next-generation mobile network coverage will be rather than questions about security.

Current coverage is patchy and that, combined with delays in building out high-speed internet, has been criticized by business groups as a handicap in the digital era.

Intelligence Law

The security concerns center around China’s National Intelligence Law, approved in 2017, which states that Chinese “organizations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”
This has sparked fears that Huawei could be asked by the Chinese government to incorporate “backdoors” into their equipment that would allow Beijing access, for spying or sabotage purposes. Some experts also see a risk that Chinese intelligence may develop an ability to subvert Huawei’s equipment.

Growing Concern

The debate in Germany also comes at a time of growing concern about Chinese investments and influence in Europe. Berlin is in the process of tightening its foreign takeover rules to prevent Chinese rivals from snapping up German tech companies.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has kicked off a debate about strategic autonomy, arguing that Europe must ensure that it doesn’t become overly reliant on the United States or China in the digital age.

Excluding Huawei is no simple task, since the company’s technology is among the cheapest in the world. European alternatives include Ericsson and Nokia.

“If the conclusion of your strategic autonomy debate is that you as a state must have control over everything, then it’s going to cost a lot of money,” said Paul Timmers, a research fellow at Oxford University and former director of cybersecurity at the European Commission’s digital directorate. “You have to think about whether it’s realistic and whether you can afford it.”

Some officials in Berlin, Washington and Canberra also expressed concerns about whether Germany’s fragile coalition government was strong and forward-thinking enough to take a big decision such as banning Chinese firms from a 5G role.

By Noah Barkin