Donald Trump tried to prod Germany to ban the Chinese tech giant, but former Chancellor Angela Merkel defied him. As Germany grows increasingly anxious about China, Biden is trying to do the same with Merkel’s successor.
By JOHN SAKELLARIADIS and LENNART PFAHLER
October 15, 2023
Four and a half years ago, former President Donald Trump’s crusade to pressure U.S. allies into banning the Chinese tech company Huawei ran into a wall of resistance in Berlin.
Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed Trump’s warnings that Huawei posed a grave security risk to the West — and defied his threat that the U.S. would curb intelligence sharing with allies who let the Chinese company build their future mobile networks.
Germany will not “exclude a company simply because it’s from a certain country,” Merkel declared at global policy conference in Berlin in March 2019.
At the World Economic Forum in January of 2020, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly dismissed the Trump administration’s warnings of the security risks posed by Huawei. | Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images
What followed was a burst of lucrative contracts between the Chinese tech giant and German telecommunications firms: Huawei is in the midst of constructing 5G infrastructure throughout the country, connecting Germany with Europe and the U.S.
Now, however, is a season of worry and regret on both sides of the Atlantic. The Biden administration told POLITICO and WELT, a German national daily newspaper, it is as resolute as its predecessor in its belief that the infrastructure being built by Huawei in Germany renders a key NATO ally vulnerable to cyberattacks and data theft. But it is largely pressing its case against Huawei behind closed doors, in the belief that Trump’s brash diplomacy backfired in Berlin.
Meanwhile, the Berlin establishment isn’t dismissing U.S. warnings about Huawei — or China — anymore. Shocked when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine cost the country its natural-gas lifeline, Germans are suddenly alert to the risks that emerge when business partners become geopolitical enemies. Unlike five years ago, they increasingly warn that there is no technical solution to the risks posed by heavy reliance on the Chinese firm.
Two senior German intelligence officials, granted anonymity to discuss confidential matters, told POLITICO and WELT that they now believe that Huawei’s dominance of Germany’s fourth- and fifth-generation radio access networks represents a major threat to their country’s security.
“To believe that the installation of Huawei technology is unproblematic is infinite naivety,” one senior German intelligence official said in an interview.
A radio mast for mobile communications is seen over the town of Bottrop, Germany. Huawei is in the midst of constructing 5G infrastructure throughout the country, connecting Germany with Europe and the U.S. | Martin Meissner/AP
The official didn’t specify the risks Germany’s heavy reliance on Huawei gear poses. But U.S. officials have long warned that the firm’s telecommunications equipment provides a springboard for Beijing to siphon off confidential data or sabotage the critical services that increasingly rely on civilian mobile networks, like self-driving cars, autonomous machinery or — for a NATO ally like Germany — sensitive military and diplomatic communications.
Those who dismiss the risks of using Huawei gear “lack the imagination of what is possible in the field of cyber espionage,” the official said.
Those warnings have intensified in severity and broadened in scope since 2019, an investigation by POLITICO and WELT has found. But there is serious concern on both sides of the Atlantic that Huawei — which has a multibillion-euro business in Germany — is already so embedded in German telecommunications networks that the government will resist taking strong action against it.
Current and former officials tell a story of how growing mistrust within the transatlantic alliance strengthened Germany’s resistance to taking direction from Washington, while the country’s political class followed its longstanding instinct that business dealings can be separated from geopolitical concerns.
The officials point to dysfunctional relationships among the leaders of the alliance: Merkel’s distaste for Trump — which was shared by many leaders across the German political landscape — seemed to blind her to the fact that his warnings about Huawei should be taken seriously. And Trump’s own desire for the spotlight and his failure to cultivate the kind of confidential relationships that have helped to maintain the U.S.-European alliance for decades set the stage for conflict rather than cooperation.
Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germans are suddenly alert to the risks that emerge when business partners become geopolitical enemies. | Sean Gallup/Getty Images
For its part, Huawei — whose European headquarters is in Germany — vigorously denies the notion that its gear is uniquely vulnerable to subversion, and that it is beholden to Beijing.
“Huawei has been operating in Germany for over 20 years and is a reliable supplier of innovative technologies with a very good cybersecurity record. Huawei is one of the most open, most evaluated and transparent technology companies in the world,” Patrick Berger, head of media affairs for Huawei, said in an email.
But many German lawmakers and government officials now regularly bemoan the close commercial ties between Huawei and the country’s three major mobile operators: Deutsche Telekom, Telefónica, and Vodafone.
“Our own security interests were ignored for far too long,” Norbert Röttgen, a conservative lawmaker in the German parliament, known as Bundestag, said in an interview. “We would have saved time and money if the security policy dimension [of Huawei] had been the focus from the beginning.”
In March, Germany’s Interior Ministry launched a probe of gear made by Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese equipment maker, in the country’s telecommunications networks, and signaled the review could lead to tighter restrictions on the two companies.
A leaked draft plan now circulating among the German government would require the country’s mobile operators to significantly cut back their reliance on Huawei gear and ban it completely from sensitive parts of the network. But some are calling for more drastic action.
“I advocate for a complete abandonment of Huawei technology in the entire German mobile network,” Maximilian Funke-Kaiser, member of parliament for the FDP, which is part of the coalition government of Merkel’s successor, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said in an interview.
The Biden administration, too, is hoping to see the country significantly curb its reliance on Huawei gear, or phase it out altogether. Senior administration officials maintain that it has consistently pressured Scholz’s government to take strong action — but quietly, behind the scenes.
“Pounding your fists on the table and saying, ‘My way or the highway,’ is not always the most effective diplomatic strategy,” a senior official in the U.S. State Department, granted anonymity to discuss a matter of national security, told POLITICO. “But make no mistake, the pressure, if anything, has ramped up.”
Still, Germany’s ties to both Huawei and China are substantial, and multiple current and former officials interviewed by POLITICO and WELT expressed skepticism of the country’s willingness to take decisive action in defiance of their own tech and telecom companies, or of Biden’s willingness to press the issue.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (right), and the Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at a joint press conference in Berlin, Germany, May 31, 2018. | Michael Sohn/AP
China has been Germany’s largest trade partner for seven years running, with bilateral trade volumes reaching almost $334 billion in 2022. Last December, a blistering EU-wide study estimated that German mobile operators had sourced 59 percent of the gear in their 5G radio access networks and 57 percent in their 4G networks from Huawei and ZTE.
Those dependencies have led the country’s mobile providers to warn that removing Huawei equipment nationwide would hamper German economic growth, costing roughly four-to-five billion euros. There is also a fear that strong action on Huawei could invite blowback from China — and not without good reason.
In December 2019, China’s then-German ambassador, Wu Ken, threatened “consequences” if Berlin excluded Huawei from the German market. And in response to a request for comment on this story, a spokesperson for China’s German embassy largely reiterated those warnings.
“If Germany unjustly excludes Chinese companies … without providing evidence that Chinese products pose a security threat to Germany, we will not stand idly by,” the spokesperson wrote in a statement.
Germany is in a bad position to take an economic hit, as many analysts believe it is in the second year of a recession.
Most of U.S.’s closest allies have banned or restricted Huawei. That includes all five members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership — the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, along with the U.S. — and Japan, Taiwan and France. The European Commission is also urging more EU countries to curb the firm’s access to their markets, with 10 EU countries having done so already.
Matthew Turpin, a former director for China on Trump’s National Security Council, conceded that Trump’s confrontational approach to Germany was “self-defeating.”
But like other current and former officials in Berlin and Washington interviewed for this story, he expressed doubts that Germany may be truly on the cusp of making a big change, or that the U.S. has enough leverage to get what it wanted.
Matthew Turpin, a former director for China on Trump’s National Security Council and a key architect of its Huawei diplomacy, conceded that Trump’s confrontational approach to Germany was “self-defeating.” | Leon Neal/Getty Images
“It was clear to me always that the Germans were actually not afraid we’d cut off intelligence to them,” said Turpin, now a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
But “when the Chinese ambassador in Berlin says, ‘You know, it’d be a shame if something happened to the German automobile companies,’ they do believe that threat,” he said.
Lindsay Gorman, a former senior adviser on technology issues for the Biden administration’s National Security Council, agreed that Trump’s approach to Germany backfired. But Gorman, who is now head of technology and geopolitics at the Alliance for Securing Democracy, questioned whether Biden’s behind-the-scenes lobbying would be enough to overcome dogged pushback from German industry.
“The stakes could not be higher when it comes to Germany because … we’re not just talking about one layer of digital infrastructure, we’re talking about a full technology stack that gets built on top of it,” she said, pointing to Huawei’s investments in biotechnology, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology.
“If China has an advantage in the infrastructure layer, that confers an advantage in all the other application layers that are built on top of it,” Gorman continued. “And that’s why this decision is so critical.”
Right message, wrong time
The Trump administration launched its pressure campaign against Huawei in 2018 due to three overlapping concerns.
The first was that Beijing could siphon off or sabotage any data passing through Huawei’s networks, since it wielded legal authority over the company.
The Trump administration was concerned Beijing could siphon off or sabotage any data passing through Huawei's networks, since it wielded legal authority over the company. | Pool photo by Thomas Peter
Second, mobile operators across the globe were on the verge of upgrading their networks to 5G. The transition would radically expand the amount of information and variety of services — from smart grids to smart cars — that would depend on the antennas and base stations companies like Huawei manufactured.
Finally, backed by dirt-cheap prices and increasingly competitive manufacturing, Huawei was gobbling up contracts to build those networks across the globe — thus extending the risks of data theft and cyber-physical disruption deeper into the capitals of key U.S. allies, like Berlin.
U.S. and EU officials assert Huawei could only offer those bargain deals due to China’s aggressive state subsidies — a claim the firm denies. Still, as Huawei edged out Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson for highly specialized equipment contracts everywhere from London to Amsterdam to Norway, U.S. officials started to worry that Europe’s two leading telco giants would fall hopelessly behind, eventually leaving the continent with nowhere to turn but Huawei.
“Having a Chinese company that is strongly susceptible to the [Communist Party of China] leading the globe in a foundational technology was not only a security problem, but a major economic problem,” Josh Cartin, a former NSC staffer during the Trump administration, said in an interview.
Because the U.S. boasted no direct competitors to Huawei, the Trump administration leaned into the idea that its pressure campaign would benefit two European firms, Nokia and Ericsson.
To its surprise, that pitch fell flat in Berlin, the heart of the European solidarity project.
The Germans “didn’t even seem to bat an eyelash at the Ericsson and Nokia argument,” said Josh Steinman, the former senior director for cyber policy on Trump’s national security council. Germans felt their telecommunications network was “an embarrassment,” Steinman said, and that Huawei’s bargain deals offered the quickest route to fixing that.
Germans felt their telecommunications network was “an embarrassment,” Steinman said, and that Huawei’s bargain deals offered the quickest route to fixing that. | Arne Dedert/AFP via Getty Images
Economically speaking, they may have had a point.
By 2018, Huawei already had a large footprint in Germany’s older telecommunications networks. Barring it from the nation’s 5G — as the U.S. wanted — meant mobile operators would slowly have to phase out older Huawei equipment, too. Legacy gear from one equipment maker often isn’t compatible with newer equipment from another.
A Huawei-commissioned study from Oxford University in December 2019 estimated that excluding the firm from Germany’s 5G rollout would cost Berlin $7 billion dollars over fifteen years. A separate study by GSMA, a mobile industry trade group that includes Huawei, projected that a Huawei 5G ban would cost European operators $62 billion.
Those figures were significantly inflated to scare off a ban, U.S. officials and some telecommunications industry experts believe. But they weren’t completely without merit. And either way, they had currency in Germany, where one of the country’s largest mobile operators, Deutsche Telekom, is partially state-owned.
Germany “had a huge install base of 2G, 3G and 4G Huawei in their networks,” said Sue Gordon, the principal deputy director of national intelligence under Trump. “And so what we were asking them to do is basically rip and replace. And that’s a big deal.”
If Trump was asking a lot of the Germans, he did the same elsewhere across Europe. And in Prague, Paris, and — after significant hesitation — London, U.S. allies agreed the risks stemming from Huawei gear could only be addressed through targeted restrictions against it. Often, the costs of boxing the firm out of 5G networks weren’t nearly as bad as the firm had warned.
A key difference in Germany was that Berlin didn’t see the U.S. as an honest broker when it came to spying.
Trump’s warnings about Huawei “really didn’t work with the Germans because they were like, ‘No, hang on. We’re not so sure about this. What about all your spying?’” said Janka Oertel, the director of the Asia programme and a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In 2013, documents leaked by Edward Snowden showed that the National Security Agency had tapped Merkel’s phone, a revelation that still rankled in Berlin.
In the fall of 2019, Merkel announced that the country would not bar Huawei from participating in its 5G rollout. Berlin instead adopted stricter, vendor-agnostic security criteria for equipment suppliers — a compromise that U.S. officials argued was inadequate.
The Germans defended their approach, in part, by arguing that the U.S. had no evidence Huawei did anything wrong. “For such serious decisions like a ban, you need proof,” Arne Schönbohm, Germany’s then-top cybersecurity official, told news weekly Spiegel in December of 2018.
For Americans, that argument missed the point. “Everyone got hung up on the notion of a smoking gun,” said Gordon.
U.S. officials saw Huawei as more akin to a loaded gun, the type of weapon Beijing would only exploit in a crisis. To support that argument, Gordon and other former officials said, they often pointed to a 2017 law that requires Chinese tech companies to support the Communist Party’s intelligence gathering efforts.
China's National People's Congress in 2018. China passed a law in 2017 that requires Chinese tech companies to support the Communist Party’s intelligence gathering efforts. | Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Huawei denies that that law — China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law — mandates that it assist the country’s intelligence services. “Huawei has obtained various legal opinions on the subject, all of which agree that it is not subject to any legal provisions that could bring it into conflict with German laws,” Berger, the Huawei spokesperson, said in an email.
Lacking the proof U.S. officials insisted wouldn’t come until it was too late, the Germans were reluctant to come down hard on Huawei. U.S. officials believed Berlin’s enormous economic dependency on China was a key obstacle.
By 2020, German automakers Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW were selling more cars in China than anywhere else in the world. That made Berlin especially sensitive to fears of Chinese retaliation.
“German policy towards China has always been primarily industrial policy,” said Röttgen, the conservative lawmaker. During the Trump years, “Germany did not want to antagonize China and thus provoke disadvantages for the German automotive industry, which China openly threatened.”
“Part of their unstated concern, we always believed, was the economic damage that would be imposed [by China] as a retribution for walking away from Huawei,” she said.
For Turpin, the former NSC official, Germany’s apprehensions of Chinese bullying were proof of the very point the U.S. was trying to make. Whether it was blunt economic pressure or technically sophisticated cyberattacks, relying heavily on Huawei meant making yourself vulnerable to Chinese coercion.
“For [the Germans] to continue to tell us, well, we need a smoking gun, we haven’t seen intelligence, suggests that they’re being just completely obtuse,” he said.
Turpin and other Trump administration officials believe it was difficult to convey that message, in part, due to the Germans’ bitter dislike for Trump and his high-pressure style of diplomacy.
Since he entered office, Trump had berated Germany and other NATO allies as “free riders” because they failed to fulfill the alliance target of spending 2 percent of GDP on national defense. He also frequently threatened to levy a 20 percent tariff on European car imports — a potentially crippling blow to Germany’s auto industry, and a threat that looked an awful lot like the one U.S. officials were suggesting could come from China.
“Merkel is looking at this through the lens of, first of all, I’m not going to side with Donald Trump. And second of all, I am not going to jeopardize our economic relationship with Beijing,” he said.
Germans became some of the world’s foremost Trump critics by the end of 2019. | Carsten Koall/Getty Images
It was that type of behavior from the U.S. president that turned Germans into some of the world’s foremost Trump critics by the end of 2019. A survey published that December by British research firm YouGov found that roughly two-fifths of Germans believed Trump was the world’s most dangerous world leader, even ranking above North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Still, the Trump administration wasn’t shy about browbeating the Germans on Huawei.
In March 2019, Trump’s then-ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, wrote a letter to the German Minister of Economic Affairs threatening to curb intelligence sharing with Berlin unless it excluded Huawei from the pending rollout of its 5G networks.
In it, Grenell warned that the 2017 law meant Beijing could force Huawei and ZTE to share confidential information that passed through their German networks, potentially compromising sensitive defense and intelligence data belonging to NATO.
The letter, which leaked to reporters, was followed by repeated public warnings from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark Esper, when the two were in Germany.
Those early efforts failed because “we were going around the world, banging on the table like the ugly American, and saying, ‘Don’t buy Huawei,’” said Keith Krach, who began as Trump’s under secretary of state for economic affairs in June 2019.
Like Turpin, Krach believes the bluntness of the Trump team’s early appeals backfired. After he came into his role, he tried to develop a positive vision of how German industry could benefit by reducing its reliance on Huawei, he said.
But Steinman, Trump’s senior director for cyber policy on his national security council, pushed back against the idea that the administration’s vocal approach was foolhardy.
“When one of your major trading partners, when one of your major military allies, is doing things that are contrary to their national interest — and as an ally, things that are contrary to yours, too — you say something,” he said. “I wouldn’t call that brash, I would call that honest.”
Whatever the reason, Turpin said he realized how difficult it would be to move the Germans off Huawei during a trip to Berlin in May 2019.
After a day of meetings with his German counterparts, Turpin’s hosts brought him to a rooftop bar overlooking the city’s Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church. The church, which had been leveled during a World War II bombing raid, later became a symbol of Germany’s commitment to avoiding the sins of its Nazi past.
But the view that day featured a perverse twist: The church’s new tower had been covered in an enormous, 360-degree advertisement for Huawei.
“The idea that a solemn monument that is supposed to look at the full crimes and challenges of the Second World War had turned into an advertisement for Huawei, it was like, ‘Guys, this is what we mean,’” Turpin said.
A digital Nord Stream II?
The ground beneath Huawei began to shift in Germany in February 2022, virtually the same day Russian tanks rolled across the border of Ukraine.
Moscow’s unprovoked invasion brought war practically to Germany’s doorstep. China’s refusal to condemn it didn’t sit well in Berlin.
“The Ukraine invasion has prompted this realization [in Germany] that depending on autocrats for critical infrastructure is just not sustainable,” said Gorman, the former member of Biden’s national security council.
China’s response to the invasion “has greatly clarified the [Huawei] issue across Europe,” added the senior State Department official. “It’s not lost on people that in Europe’s hour of need, China declared a ‘no limits friendship’ with Putin.”
China’s tacit support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine pushed Germany to pare back its enormous economic dependence on China. In July, the German government released its first-ever China strategy, a 61-page document that labeled China a “systemic rival” — one of the first official acknowledgements that Beijing was not just an engine of GDP growth for Berlin.
On Huawei specifically, the war also hardened the German intelligence community’s assessment of its ability to manage the risks of the firm’s telecommunications gear.
Merkel and the former German cybersecurity chief, Schönbohm, had previously argued that mobile operators could mitigate the risks of using Huawei gear through rigorous testing and security monitoring, especially of equipment used in the most critical part of the network, known as the “core.”
The country’s three major mobile operators moved to limit how heavily they used Huawei gear for their core, while turning unreservedly to the firm to build out the antennas and base stations that constitute the mobile radio access networks, or (RAN). In older telecommunications networks, RAN was regarded as less sensitive because it relayed — but did not process or store — data.
But the arrival of 5G meant the edge of a network was beginning to feature the same computing capabilities as its nerve-center-like core, eroding the security distinction between the two. U.S. officials made this point forcefully during the Trump administration and German intelligence officials are increasingly agreeing today.
In separate interviews for this story, the two senior German intelligence officials likened the country’s continued reliance on Huawei RAN to its disastrous investment in the Russian natural gas pipeline, Nord Stream II.
Berlin once saw the $11 billion pipeline as a central pillar of its energy future. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced Germany to cancel the contract, validating repeated U.S. warnings that Berlin should not place its economic fortunes in the hands of autocratic governments, like the Kremlin.
Germany’s digital dependency on Huawei could have “even more serious consequences” than Nord Stream II because it could provide a springboard for Beijing to sabotage German infrastructure, not just coerce the country economically, the second intelligence official said.
Even as Berlin has soured on China, some within Germany still view the warnings about Huawei with intense skepticism.
German security authorities have presented alleged evidence of vulnerabilities in Huawei gear to German parliamentarians only one time, during a classified session of the Bundestag’s Digital Committee in April, two individuals familiar with the meeting told POLITICO and WELT. At the meeting, security officials warned lawmakers about a vulnerability in a Huawei component in the antenna network responsible for energy management — the same issue that sparked the German Interior Ministry’s probe into gear made by Huawei and ZTE.
But two participants at the meeting, granted anonymity due to the classified nature of the session, said the security officials did not confirm whether the vulnerability has ever been exploited or if it was designed to cause significant disruptions. The warnings were purely theoretical, leaving them unsure about the severity of the threat, they said.
One German telecommunications industry insider, granted anonymity to speak openly on the matter, called the allegations “ridiculous.” Huawei also strongly disputes the potential for remote sabotage of its gear.
“We are not aware of any technically plausible description of how espionage and sabotage would be possible for an equipment supplier via the radio access network,” Huawei’s Berger said in an email. “The equipment supplier has no remote access to the equipment and the data is highly encrypted according to 3GPP standards.”
Those doubts are one reason Germany’s tougher talk on Huawei has not yet been backed up by action.
In 2021, under Merkel’s leadership, the German parliament passed a new IT security law that for the first time gave the government the power to bar equipment made by “untrustworthy” telecommunications providers from parts of Germany’s mobile network.
But the German government has bypassed every opportunity to invoke the law against Huawei or ZTE since then. It has declined three separate opportunities to block new critical components from the Chinese firms from being introduced into critical parts of Germany’s mobile network, as documents disclosed in a September parliamentary inquiry revealed.
And despite the vocal warnings from U.S. and, later, German officials about the reliability of Huawei gear, German industry has signed contract after contract with the firm since Merkel’s decision not to ban Huawei from the country’s 5G networks.
In 2019, Duisburg, a German city, announced plans to collaborate with Huawei for a large-scale “smart city” project. That same year, Germany’s largest mobile operator, Deutsche Telekom, inked a partnership with Huawei that even included special provisions for potential supply chain disruptions resulting from U.S. trade restrictions. And as recently as March, Deutsche Bahn, the partially state-owned rail operator, signed a $67 million deal for its digitization.
“With each new installation, it becomes more difficult to remove these Chinese components from our mobile network,” Reinhard Brandl, a member of the opposition CSU party, said in an interview.
German mobile operators and others with big investments in Huawei have argued publicly that any policy to “rip and replace” Huawei gear — or even phase it out too rapidly — would be enormously costly.
In September, after the leak of a draft plan to require German mobile operators to remove all critical components from Chinese vendors in their 5G core networks and reduce the share of Huawei RAN below 25 percent by 2026, German mobile operators reacted with alarm.
Telefonica publicly warned it could seek damages and legal action if the plan went into effect. Stephan Broszio, a spokesperson for Deutsche Telekom, called the interior ministry’s timeline for replacing Huawei gear “completely unrealistic.”
“In general, we do not understand why German mobile customers, who benefit from one of the best 5G networks in Europe, should be unnecessarily subjected to significant quality losses,” Broszio wrote in an email.
Barclays has estimated a requirement to replace all Huawei RAN would cost all three major mobile operators $2.6 billion. The German national railway company Deutsche Bahn, whose deal with Huawei covers a different mobile communications technology than 5G, has said a blanket ban on its gear would cost it $420 million.
Oertel, the European Council on Foreign Relations expert, argued that Germany’s mobile operators knew that by investing so heavily and so quickly in Huawei for their 5G rollout, they would make a ban more difficult. But she said she holds the government accountable as well.
The government thought that by “signaling we are potentially banning [Huawei], maybe then operators will come to their senses and will not build this in anymore,” she said. “That did not work. It fell short as a strategy.”
Gorman, the Biden administration official, said that Huawei’s economic foothold made Germany a “sticky widget” on Huawei. But she argued that it is critical Berlin start reducing its reliance on the firm’s equipment as soon as possible.
“Unfortunately, these networks take so long to change, it’s almost harder to turn them off than to reverse course on something like Nord Stream II,” she said. “And that’s why the planning needs to happen now, before we get into a crisis scenario.”
The State Department official sounded a similar sense of urgency.
“In a 30-nation alliance that is really predicated on having some degree of information and intelligence symmetry, we simply cannot afford for there to be a soft underbelly to the alliance from an information and intelligence sharing standpoint,” the official said.
Unfortunately, in places like Germany, the official wrote later in an email, “warnings from government security services have not decisively moved the needle for industry.”
Pushing quietly — or not hard enough?
Current and former Biden administration officials say that their quiet pressure campaign has translated to tougher EU action on Huawei.
Asked for specifics about their diplomacy, the senior State Department official said the White House has put Germany’s close ties with Huawei “front and center” during the four ministerial-level meetings of the EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council since 2021, a Biden-era initiative to coordinate transatlantic trade and investment policy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai have attended each ministerial meeting, where they met with European Commission Executive Vice Presidents Valdis Dombrovskis and Margrethe Vestager.
The TTC also features 10 working groups dedicated to specific issues in the U.S.-EU relationship, one of which is telecommunications.
The National Security Council and the Commerce Department did not respond to requests for comment on this story. The European Commission responded by referring to its recent actions against Huawei and ZTE — which the State Department official also highlighted as evidence U.S. diplomacy was having an impact.
In June, the commission found that the two Chinese firms “represent ... materially higher risks than other 5G suppliers.” In recent years, it has regularly shone a spotlight on Germany and smaller EU states that have been struggling to remove Huawei gear.
Publicly, cabinet-level officials within the Biden administration — and the president himself — have not talked nearly as much about Huawei as their predecessors in the White House.
Several former U.S. officials, including Gorman, Steinman and Ivan Kanapathy, the deputy senior director for Asian affairs on Trump’s NSC, question whether Biden’s quiet outreach to Germany is sufficient to move the needle on Huawei.
When only lower-level officials are talking about these types of problems, “it has dramatically less impact than when someone at a much higher level is doing it,” said Kanapathy.
Skeptics of Biden’s diplomacy are still more likely to blame Berlin than Washington for Germany’s continued ties to Huawei.
Even if it is less laser-focused on Huawei than Trump was, they acknowledge, the Biden administration has kept the heat on Chinese tech companies, from cutting off their access to advanced semiconductors to restricting Western investment in cutting-edge tech, like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.
In August, however, Huawei started advertising a new smartphone that included an advanced, 7-nanometer chip. That breakthrough is raising sharper criticisms of Biden’s approach to the telecommunications giant, even if many believe the development is not as impressive as China wants it to appear.
In September, a group of ten Republican Congressmen sent a letter to the Commerce Department urging it to slap heavier sanctions on China’s Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp., which manufactures the new chip, and Huawei.
If enacted, those measures could potentially raise the price of Huawei gear and short-circuit the Huawei debate in Germany.
But Krach, one of relatively few Trump administration officials who has continued to support the Biden administration’s Huawei push since leaving his government, said the firm would remain a significant long-term threat to U.S. interests, no matter what happens with U.S. trade and export policy.
“When you have a competitor like Huawei, you could drive a stake into their heart, put them 10-feet underground, throw asphalt on them, and light them on fire — and they’ll still come back,” he said.
Nick Vinocur of POLITICO EU contributed to this report.