Politics & Society

Clean Network’s Summer Tour

EU in the Middle of U.S-China Rivalry Over 5G

Dueling diplomatic trips in Europe this summer by United States Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi sought to sway the European Union’s stance on the China-U.S. rivalry. Among other goals, Pompeo would like to convince more countries to pledge not to use parts made by Huawei and ZTE in their 5G infrastructure—allegedly to limit the Chinese government’s ability to spy on communications there—while Wang hopes to keep the EU from shutting itself off from Chinese 5G companies.

Though caught in the middle of this tug of war, Europe emerged from the late summer visits not showing deference to either superpower. Neither diplomatic visit was particularly effective in pulling EU member states to either side of the 5G stand-off. Instead, the EU has set out to develop and implement its own policy: acknowledging potential threats to 5G networks, while avoiding a hard-line ban on certain equipment suppliers.

Pompeo and circumstance

In August, Pompeo visited Prague, Ljubljana, Vienna, and Warsaw seeking commitment to his Clean Network program, which urges U.S. allies to exclude components made by Chinese telecommunications companies Huawei and ZTE from their 5G networks. The key clause of the Clean Network program that pertains to 5G is the Clean Path, “an end-to-end communication path that does not use any transmission, control, computing, or storage equipment from untrusted IT vendors, such as Huawei and ZTE, which are required to comply with directives of the Chinese Communist Party.” So, membership in Clean Network means no Huawei or ZTE parts in that country’s 5G network.

Huawei China 5G
Huawei China 5G

Politics aside, Huawei is the world’s leading telecommunications equipment supplier with 29 percent of the global market—almost as much as its two largest competitors Nokia (17 percent) and Ericsson (13 percent) combined. The Chinese company is more than capable of offering products as good or better than its European rivals and at lower prices. Naturally, Huawei would be a top consideration for any EU telecommunications company, like Vodafone or Deutsche Telekom, seeking to install 5G networks.

Although several countries already support the principles behind the Clean Network program, including the Czech Republic (which hosted the summit that led to its drafting in 2019 as the Prague Proposals), the commitments solicited by the U.S. Secretary of State are thus far nonbinding. During Pompeo’s tour of Europe, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia pledged to critically evaluate 5G equipment suppliers, but they did not opt for an outright ban of Chinese equipment. And, while Slovenia was the only country to sign a joint declaration on Clean Network, it did so a few weeks after having rolled out its first completed commercial 5G network with Ericsson.

Pompeo has been unable to pull more countries to the Clean Network Huawei and ZTE ban. Instead, EU members are choosing their own way in step with guidelines from the von der Leyen Commission that recommends EU members “assess the risk profile of suppliers” and ensure “an appropriate multi-vendor strategy.” For example, the Netherlands and France have adopted laws requiring government agencies or task forces to evaluate the risk of 5G equipment suppliers before telecommunications companies can buy. Given that Huawei’s biggest competitors when it comes to 5G equipment are Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, any evaluation of risk of foreign spying would put Chinese companies at a disadvantage. But it does leave the door open.

Pompeo has been unable to pull more countries to the Clean Network Huawei and ZTE ban. Instead, EU members are choosing their own way in step with guidelines from the von der Leyen Commission.

Throughout the summer, all eyes were on Germany, whose Deutsche Telekom had planned to use Huawei 5G equipment. But Chancellor Angela Merkel did not signal she would bow to the U.S. pressure on this issue. She does, after all, remember that the U.S. National Security Agency tapped her mobile phone.

While the State Department confidently claims the Clean Network is gaining momentum, growing support for the program across the EU is far from certain. It was safe for Pompeo to visit the Trump administration’s friends in Warsaw, Prague, and Ljubljana to bang the drum about Huawei’s dangers, but most EU countries are content to follow the pace set by the von der Leyen Commission. EU members have until the end of 2020 to submit their own findings to revise the EU-wide 5G recommendations, and March 2021 is the deadline for agreeing on a final approach to 5G in the EU.

The EU’s policy will be instrumental in the success or failure of Clean Network. If the EU opts for anything less than a ban of Huawei and ZTE, it would undermine the impact of the U.S. campaign. The U.S. would consider EU 5G networks insecure, creating potential issues for security and intelligence sharing across the Atlantic.

China counters

After Pompeo’s trip, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang conducted his own tour countering the U.S. narrative and promoting stronger EU-China ties, visiting some of the EU’s main power centers in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Italy, with an additional stop in non-EU-member Norway.

Wang opened his speech to the French Institute of International Relations by arguing that China was not a rival but a partner for the EU. “The [coronavirus] has held up a mirror to a complex international scene where heartwarming acts of partnership and collaboration such as those between China and Europe are juxtaposed with the undertows of blame games, unilateralism and bullying,” he said. Without naming the U.S., it is clear Wang is painting a picture of a cooperative China and a domineering America. In Italy, the EU’s largest economy to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Minister Luigi de Maio discussed relaunching Italy’s economic partnership with China in the wake of the recession caused by COVID-19. And German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas spoke of the important economic ties between China and Germany during a meeting in Berlin on September 1st.

Clearly, China’s influence on the continent is on the rise, but while European foreign ministers were happy to echo the importance of multilateralism and open economic relationships, they rebuked China over the Hong Kong security law and the Uighur detention camps in western China. Noah Barkin, Senior Visiting Fellow of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia Program, observed that officials in Paris and Berlin felt that the myriad China issues this year—trade, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and the Uighur human rights abuses—have finally galvanized a unified stance on China in the EU’s major capitals.

Officials in Paris and Berlin felt that the myriad China issues this year—trade, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, and the Uighur human rights abuses—have finally galvanized a unified stance on China in the EU’s major capitals.

Still, even this newly galvanized, assertive stance on China was not enough to push the EU into Pompeo’s Clean Network. It has been a difficult path to navigate for countries across the EU, acknowledging the warning issued from the United States and assessing the fallout with America if they chose not to adopt U.S. policy, while also keeping the door open for increasing economic cooperation with China.

Player, not a playing field

The Pompeo and Wang visits set the tone for the EU-China virtual summit on September 14th, in which German Chancellor Angela Merkel, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and European Council President Charles Michel faced China’s President Xi Jinping in a video conference intended to be an important next step for EU-Chinese economic relations.

On the agenda was the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which is meant to create new opportunities for EU companies’ investment in China by eliminating laws that prevent European businesses from competing on equal footing with Chinese competitors on their home turf. Michel, Merkel, and von der Leyen did their best to convey a united EU front, pressing Xi to live up to his diplomats’ promises of a multilateral and economically open China by meeting EU demands for the CAI. Michel remarked that the EU would be a “player, not a playing field” in the U.S.-China rivalry. That means taking the time to reach consensus within the EU on vital issues like 5G security that does not bend to pressure from Washington or Beijing.

For now, 5G is the EU’s chance to demonstrate that it can be a moderating force in the tug-of-war between the United States and China.


Nathan Crist

Manager, Transatlantic Projects and Digital Communications
Bertelsmann Foundation