Mark Esper Says China's Huawei 5G Push Is 'Malign,' Warns Beijing Will Expand European Activities Amid Coronavirus

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has warned that China and Russia will try to exploit the coronavirus crisis to expand their activities and influence in Europe, which could have long-term security implications.

Esper told Italian newspaper La Stampa Monday that the U.S. has identified nations—including China and Russia—trying to exploit the pandemic in Europe, Reuters reported. These nations are hoping to create divisions in Europe and the NATO alliance, the defense secretary added.

Responding to a question about Chinese and Russian medical aid sent to Italy to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, Esper said Washington, D.C. is aware that some countries "will try to use the pandemic as a way to invest in critical industry and infrastructure, with effect on security in the long term."

Both China and Russia have sent medical equipment and personnel to Europe and the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic. China—where the virus originated—has largely stemmed its own outbreak, though Russia is now grappling with soaring infection figures.

China has been especially active, prompting concerns that Beijing might be using so-called "mask diplomacy" to expand its soft power on the continent. China and Russia have both also been accused—including by the European Union—of spreading disinformation around the coronavirus pandemic.

"Potential opponents will almost certainly try to use their interest to put their interests forward and create divisions in NATO and Europe," Esper said. "Huawei and 5G are an important example of this malign activity by China."

Chinese firm Huawei's involvement in Europe's nascent 5G network was controversial even before the coronavirus pandemic. President Donald Trump's administration has pressured European allies to block Huawei from 5G projects, warning the firm's involvement could give Beijing a way into vital communications infrastructure on the continent.

The aggressive American pressure campaign was not welcomed by the Europeans. The administration later pivoted to a softer approach, but with limited success. The U.K. agreed last year to allow Huawei to develop some parts of its 5G network, while nations including France and Germany reportedly prepared to do the same.

"Dependence on Chinese suppliers could make crucial systems vulnerable to interruption, manipulation and espionage," Esper told La Stampa. "This would put at risk our capacity to communicate and to share intelligence."

The coronavirus outbreak may have undermined these plans, and has prompted calls from lawmakers to reduce dependence on Chinese firms and supply chains. Beijing has been accused of covering up the scale and severity of the outbreak, while failing to adequately warn the international community. Chinese officials have rejected such accusations.

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have even expressed high confidence in a theory that COVID-19 escaped from a research lab in Wuhan, rather than originating at a local wildlife market as previously proposed. The administration is yet to provide evidence to support the assertion, and China has dismissed the theory as groundless.

Mark Esper, China, Russia, coronavirus, 5G, malign
Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks at a press conference at the Pentagon on March 5, 2020 in Washington, D.C. OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images/Getty