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Germany Risks U.S. Backlash If It Hires Chinese Company Huawei For 5G Tech



Tomorrow, Germany begins auctioning frequencies to build 5G mobile networks. It is both a highly technical event and the center of a geopolitical storm. Like much of Europe, Germany is squeezed between its economic ties to China and its longtime alliance with the U.S. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports from Berlin.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: To keep your estimated arrival time...

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: 5G will not just allow you to download movies in seconds on your smartphone. Since it's supposed to be up to 1,000 times faster than current mobile speeds, it can handle communication for self-driving cars, for example.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: I will be back here and pick you up at 11.

KAKISSIS: I'm at the BMW Museum in Munich watching a video of a self-driving car dropping off its passenger.

JAN OPALKA: If you go to a meeting, you go with your car. You leave the car in front of the office.

KAKISSIS: Tour guide Jan Opalka explains what's going on.

OPALKA: And the car is going - you can see it now - on its...

KAKISSIS: On its own to the parking lot.

OPALKA: Or it's driving around the block and is coming back right in time.

KAKISSIS: So that would solve the parking problem.

OPALKA: Yes, definitely.

KAKISSIS: The driverless cars need a super-fast network to communicate with traffic lights, with each other and with sensors that alert them to jaywalkers. And the company offering the quickest and cheapest 5G technology is the Chinese firm Huawei. Several countries across Europe, including Germany, already rely on Huawei for their 3G and 4G networks. But the Trump administration Huawei an untrusted vendor that could pass on customer data to the Chinese government. During a visit to Poland last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a blunt warning to U.S. allies that intend to use Huawei for their 5G network.


MIKE POMPEO: We'll never put our equipment in a place which would present risk to our technology from having Chinese technology co-located alongside of it that presents a risk.

KAKISSIS: In other words, the U.S. may not share intelligence with these countries. So far, the threats have not swayed Germany, which refused to ban Huawei from its 5G auction. Chancellor Angela Merkel says Germany can define its own security standards.



KAKISSIS: "Privacy and security are very important to us," she told reporters last week, "and we will discuss these questions with other European countries and the U.S." Huawei is fighting hard to win Germany's trust. It even opened the lab in the city of Bonn, where security officials can check its products. Huawei Germany spokesman Patrick Berger explains.

PATRICK BERGER: The idea of this lab is that the responsible IT security authority of Germany but also other interested parties like independent auditors or our customers could go to that lab and, for example, verify our source codes and, you know, see that there are no malicious things in our codes.

KAKISSIS: The heat may be on Huawei in China right now, but it's important to remember that governments spy. Germany even got mad at the U.S. in 2015 for spying on its politicians.

FRANK PIEKE: So that the Chinese can do this and might do this is also, in and of itself, not an indictment of just China or an indictment of Huawei.

KAKISSIS: Frank Pieke is the director of the McCotter Institute for China studies in Berlin.

PIEKE: In Western democracies, the work of the security apparatus is, in principle, subject to the rule of law and under the control of the democratic political system, and these guarantees you don't have in China.

KAKISSIS: German policymakers are aware of this. They're also aware that this debate is not just about network security, it's a geopolitical confrontation between two superpowers.

DANIEL VOELSEN: And when we see this confrontation, I think it's important for states in Europe to avoid being forced to take sides in this kind of conflict the way it's structured now by these two superpowers.

KAKISSIS: Daniel Voelsen is an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

VOELSEN: Instead, Europe should focus on what Europe's own interests are here.

KAKISSIS: And if that means tuning out U.S. demands, he says, then so be it. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.