The Chinese technology giant spends millions of dollars in Brussels on a charm offensive, aiming for a leading role in developing 5 G networks. It appears to work.
BRUSSELS – The European Parliament’s committee room was packed with lawmakers and lobbyists meeting telecommunications company Huawei’s executives. One lawmaker, eager to raise the issue of confidence, went straight to the point: Can Huawei be a front for Chinese state spying?
Abraham Liu, Europe’s top official of the group, pushed back straight. Huawei, he said, is independent, with no duty to spy on China and “would like to commit suicide” to do so.
Instead, at Huawei’s loudest opponent, the Trump administration, he applied a twist — and a veiled swipe: it is Huawei, not America, that shares European values.
“Europe’s ideals of transparency, creativity, and the rule of law have made it a mobile communications superpower — and Huawei shares those values,” said Mr. Liu.
Huawei is viewed in Washington as a serious security risk due to concerns that Chinese intelligence agencies might use the company’s technology to hack different customer networks. Yet the organization is waging a multi-faceted charm offensive in Brussels, the de facto capital of the European Union, partly by leveraging European skepticism of the Trump administration — and it’s working for now.
As the company is vying to create Europe’s next-generation 5 G wireless networks, Huawei is spending millions of dollars on aggressive advertisement and lobbying efforts, while making a bold statement to European policymakers: While the Trump administration is volatile and unstable, Huawei is a guarantor of privacy, transparency, and globalization.
The post did not go unnoticed, nor did it have the irony.
“The Chinese have brazenly begun to say that it is China, not the U.S., that shares more ideals with Europe,” said Julianne Smith of the Washington-based German Marshall Fund.
“Chinese academics and officials often remind European audiences that China believes in climate change and multilateralism, unlike the United States, a message that is particularly powerful in a place like Germany,” she said.
Huawei has made abrupt attempts to spread his word. One is the October hearing in which Mr. Liu spoke about principles. It wasn’t a case that a corporate leader was hauled for a grilling by lawmakers. Alternatively, Huawei had arranged the “public debate” with MEPs, live-streamed the proceeding, and posted the video online.
In the United States, Huawei was effectively barred by the Trump administration, but the attempts of Mr. Trump to force European allies to ban Huawei fell flat.
Neither the E.U. Nor individual countries have acted to limit the company’s market access. In November, Hungary, whose far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban, describes himself as a Trump ally, announced that Huawei would lead the rollout of 5 G networks. Even as government officials discussed their position, Huawei has forged ahead, saying it has made dozens of deals to sell 5 G equipment to wireless carriers across Europe. The scope of its presence is uncertain, as several suppliers may buy stuff from a single carrier, and some pieces of equipment are more prone to protection than others.
And at this month’s NATO meeting near London, when Mr. Trump urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to shut down Huawei from Britain, Mr. Johnson — who delayed a decision on the issue — was uncommitted.
In an opinion piece by Politico Europe, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo implored lawmakers “not to allow Chinese tech giants to leverage over their critical infrastructure.”
To some extent, European officials responsible for evaluating cybersecurity threats share the fears of the United States about Huawei. A recent European Union study illustrated, without naming Huawei, the prospect of pressuring a non-European 5 G technology supplier to allow its government to hack into and even monitor its networks, allowing access to private data, trade secrets, and national security operations.
Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated in Germany that Huawei should be allowed to compete for 5 G contracts. Still, other politicians have pushed back, suggesting that the company might be in there for war.
“No Chinese company is an independent company,” said recently Norbert Röttgen, a former Merkel party government minister, adding that Huawei’s presence was “an immediate issue of national security.”
But Telefonica Deutschland, a German telecommunications company, has announced that it intends to contract Huawei for its 5 G production.
The laws of the European Union make it difficult for political reasons to target individual businesses. For 5 G contractors, the bloc could impose stringent standards of conduct and openness that could be used to restrict Huawei but, as yet, has allowed each member country to decide how to proceed.
Also, distrust of the Trump administration is a significant factor, as European policymakers worry that American sanctions on Huawei are simply a bargaining chip on the broader trade war with China in the United States and could be reversed.
“There’s a concern that if you take what might be very expensive 5 G decisions because the Americans told you they’re a security issue, And then President Trump has a trade deal with China, and all of a sudden Huawei is all right. Finally, you’ll feel like the world is spinning under your feet, “said Ian Bond, Foreign Policy Director at London’s Center for European Reform.
Huawei set up a significant presence in Europe years before the introduction of 5 G, where it ranks third in mobile phone revenue, behind Samsung and Apple. The company says it has 12,000 staff and 23 research and development centers in Europe, a place for politicians to create trust and familiarity.
And it has moved boldly in Brussels to position itself.