The European Union has adopted probably the best strategy concerning the clash over Huawei. It introduces the obligation to check security in devices forming the backbone of the IT network and to share the results of such check with the other Member States. It does not prohibit using them in 5G networks, but recommends diversifying suppliers. If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you were able to have a cake and eat it too, this is what the EU is trying to do, reconciling cybersecurity with economic viability.
If you’re reading this on a Huawei – do not throw it away just yet
With the inclusion of Huawei (and related companies) in the so-called Entity List of the US Department of Commerce, some companies such as Google, but also suppliers of electronic components such as Intel, Qualcomm or Broadcom, have suspended their cooperation with this company, as reported by Reuters. The trade war is going up a notch. Although owners of Huawei smartphones can still sleep rather soundly (they will receive security and Google app updates, a store with Google Play apps will also work), they will not get, e.g. updates to the new version of Android. Huawei itself assures that it is prepared for such case and develops its own version of the system, based on the publically available code for the basic version of Android (Android Open Source Project); however, new smartphones of this company – so far – are not able to provide access to the Google store and apps of this company.
What may be more noticeable for Huawei is the discontinuation of cooperation by component suppliers, which are used not only to make smartphones but also by a major department that generates company profits – the department of IT infrastructure devices. It is this sector – producing components for the 5G standard among others – that is the focus of a silent diplomatic war going on for months. According to the information obtained by Tim Culpan from Bloomberg, the management of Huawei has been preparing for the shut-down scenario from the manufacturers of electronic components for a year now, accumulating stocks of sub-assemblies sufficient to support three months’ worth of manufacture.
The Union (finally) notices the Chinese Dragon
The Council of Europe met in March to discuss China’s case. It is the first EU meeting of this rank, on which the PRC is the main issue since the events in Tiananmen Square. It is a symbolic moment, the EU member states are beginning to treat China as a serious world challenger. The European Commission’s document published before the summit even describes China as „a systemic rival promoting alternative political models”.
However, developing a joint strategy for dealing with Beijing is extremely difficult. Northern EU countries are sensitive to the Middle Kingdom’s discrimination against foreign companies, or theft of intellectual property by local companies. Attention is also drawn to the Chinese companies’ level of investment within the EU.
On the other hand, the Union’s Southern countries (though not only them) are much more positively inclined towards China. Fourteen Member States declared their support for the New Silk Road project. On April 3rd, Italy joined this group – which also has its symbolic aspect. Although the Italian economy nowadays is more like a Beetle than a Ferrari, the state is a member of the G7 and one of EU’s “founding fathers”.
The case of Huawei and cybersecurity in 5G networks is at the heart of this turmoil. Americans have just included it more intensely into their trade war; for months now, they have been pushing their allies to also exclude the Chinese company from building networks in their countries.
Why we can be proud of Europe
Overall, the EU has accepted a waiting attitude towards the debate on Huawei’s potential „espionage”. However, this is not a passive attitude of a moody donkey that can’t make up its mind. No EU ban was issued on using this company’s devices to create 5G networks. Instead, the European Commission has obliged the Member States in March to share information on the cybersecurity of devices and to create a framework for analyzing and preventing the resulting threats. This way, the Commission is striving to solve the Gordian knot issue of different interests.
The reaction of European services and politicians seems right – at least considering what we know so far. US and UK services rarely differ in their approach to technology and cybersecurity policies – this time, however, the British believe that by controlling the code and double-checking Huawei devices, they will be able to prevent the risks arising from their use. The Germans adopted a similar strategy, specifying their security requirements for 5G networks in a special document.
After all, there are money and time on the second scale. Huawei is a major supplier of devices that make up European telecom networks. As early as January, Deutsche Telekom warned that the ban on using devices from the Chinese market leader might delay the implementation of 5G technology in Europe by up to two years. Other estimates state that the cost of building the network would rise by as much as several dozen percent.
There is one more significant difference in terms of cybersecurity between Europe and the USA. The number „two” and „three” worldwide in providing devices for building networks are the European companies Nokia and Ericsson, hence it will be easier to diversify device manufacturers in security sensitive networks.
We often complain about the EU struggling to create a coherent Community-wide policy. In the case of Huawei, however, it seems that the common ground for the interests of the Member States has allowed to build… an appropriate, independent policy. In the absence of US evidence of backdoors installed in Huawei devices, the risk of slowing down technological progress and a couple-dozen-percent increase in costs seems simply illogical. And yet, a scenario where Donald Trump reaches a strategic agreement with Xi Jinping in a month or two, including Huawei, is a likely one. In that case, we as EU citizens would bear the costs of these decisions, a huge problem on our hands.
Polish version is available here.
This publication reflects the views of the author and not the official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.