Germany's Refusal to Ban China's Huawei From 5G Is Dangerous for the West | Opinion

This month, two relatively small, obscure German ministries made a decision with strategic implications: They published draft set of rules for the construction of Germany's 5G network that permits Huawei to have an even greater role than it currently does. Reportedly, Chancellor Angela Merkel's office intervened to ensure Huawei would not necessarily be excluded. If left to stand, this decision represents nothing less than an abdication of German leadership in Europe, undermines long-term growth in Europe's most important economy and threatens the large American military presence in Germany.

The draft rules published by Germany's Federal Network Agency and its Federal Office for Information Security, with input from Chancellor Merkel's office, do not explicitly rule out technology provided by China's Huawei or ZTE. Although the rules are still in draft form, they could be finalized later this year and ultimately lead to extensive German reliance—even more so than today—on Huawei for the backbone of its 5G network.

American government officials believe Huawei and ZTE are tied to Chinese intelligence and would therefore essentially siphon information for the benefit of China's economy and its national security. In the event of a conflict between China and the West, some worry the ubiquity of Huawei's equipment could provide Beijing a decisive advantage, allowing it to cripple Western communications. Washington is not alone in these fears. Other countries such as Australia, Japan and New Zealand have also blocked domestic firms from using Huawei's technology in 5G networks.

Some in Germany also share these concerns, but evidently not Merkel. Her decision to keep the door open for Huawei and ZTE to achieve even greater access to Germany's network effectively ignores the concerns of her interior ministry, foreign ministry and intelligence services. This likely is based on a short-term economic rationale: Economists believe Germany is headed for a recession in the coming years, and Merkel hopes to avoid making it worse by angering Beijing and incurring retaliation against German companies.

Merkel's decision may be challenged by the Bundestag, but if the draft rules stand, they will carry some significant implications for Europe and the United States. First, they will undermine the conventional wisdom that Germany was willing to get tough on countries like China when security issues bleed into the economic realm, threatening growth and employment. Germany, like the United States, is an object of Chinese intellectual property theft and commercial espionage, which undermines long-term growth and job security. Surely Merkel realizes this, yet she nonetheless decided not to keep Huawei and ZTE out.

It also shows the limits, at least under the coalition government led by Merkel, of German leadership in 21st-century security matters. It has long been known that Berlin usually shuns high intensity military operations, the kind involving tanks, combat jets, battleships and casualties. In contrast, it was thought Germany was far more willing to play a larger role when it comes to cyber and other related non-kinetic operations. Evidently, this is not the case, given the impact a Huawei-based German 5G network could have on German cyber operations, cyber capabilities and cyber security.

Third, it is clear the most important German decision-makers are not yet fully attuned to the threat posed by China, despite some evidence earlier this year of a changing mindset in Berlin. China's economic threat isn't the same as the competitive challenge posed by the United States or, as Merkel recently noted, a post-Brexit United Kingdom. Beijing's massive state subsidies and easy loans to Huawei and other Chinese companies have undercut European industry, destroying European jobs. Moreover, competitors like Nokia and Ericsson exist in a rule of law environment where courts are independent: Huawei and ZTE are based in a country where the Communist Party is the state, the judiciary, the military and often the leading businesses.

Angela Merkel
Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel arrives at European Parliament on October 17 in Brussels. Jean Catuffe/Getty

Finally, while U.S. authorities have already made it clear that a Huawei-based 5G network in Germany would endanger intelligence sharing with Berlin, it will also have an impact on U.S. forces based in Germany. Today, Germany is home to some of the most important U.S. overseas military facilities in the world, including Ramstein Air Base, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, and the Army's only overseas combat training center at Grafenwoehr. Roughly 39,000 U.S. troops are based in Germany, along with thousands of dependents—more than any other country except Japan. Their communications over a Huawei-based 5G network in Germany could put U.S. operations—and ultimately U.S. service members—at risk, undermining the utility of forward-based troops in Germany.

It has become commonplace for China to use its economic heft to push around its immediate neighbors, but less often do we see Beijing getting away with the same behavior vis-à-vis a country like Germany, the dominant economic and (arguably) political power in Europe. Beijing will likely interpret Merkel's actions on Huawei as proof that it has the ability to wield decisive influence in Europe now as well.

John R. Deni is research professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College's Strategic Studies Institute, and the author of NATO & Article 5.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.