The U.S. government warned Spain this week about the security risk inherent in opening its fifth-generation communications networks to Chinese mobile technology providers.
In meetings Thursday and Friday, U.S. officials warned Spanish officials and telecommunications executives that the U.S. could stop sharing sensitive information with Spain if the Chinese firms reportedly involved in 5G technology were not excluded from local markets.
Robert Strayer, U.S. deputy assistant secretary for cyber and international communications and information policy, told reporters at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid that 5G pioneer Huawei was under the control of the Chinese government.
“We cannot put our important information at the risk of being accessed by the Chinese Communist Party,” Strayer said, stressing that technology developed by Huawei to accelerate connections between billions of objects has inevitable defense implications.
Huawei offers better 5G network equipment at lower prices than its competitors, according to telecommunications analysts. U.S. efforts to restrict the company's access to major international markets have been rebuffed by allies in Europe and Asia.
The U.K. announced in late January that it would allow Huawei to equip parts of its 5G networks. Similar decisions have been made by Germany and other EU governments.
At an international security conference in Munich last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for the creation of a Western alliance against China aimed at blocking cyberespionage.
“In recent years, we have witnessed an intense communications campaign to raise consciousness over the interference of the People’s Republic of China in companies that manufacture telecommunications equipment," said Javier Cremades, a Spanish lawyer specializing in cybersecurity.
Cremades said Chinese laws allow official access to all information handled by technology firms. That provision, however, does not extend to European affiliates or commercial activity outside China, he said, adding that U.S. accusations against China might be aimed at “criminalizing” the competition in the rivalry with Beijing to control the world's phone technology market.
Spokesmen from the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Center said it was "feasible” to implement security measures to separate “high-risk vendors” from sensitive data and functions, although it could require design restrictions that may slow 5G network performance.
U.S. officials said other European and Asian firms that have been cleared to operate in American markets, including Sweden’s Ericsson and South Korea’s Samsung, offer 5G technology as advanced as China’s.
Spain’s biggest telecommunications companies, including Telefonica and Vodafone, say they have taken steps to reduce Chinese input for their core systems of future data management in mobile telephones, according to the newspaper El Mundo.
But U.S. appeals to European countries to restrict access to Chinese tech giants come at a sensitive moment in transatlantic commercial relations.
Serious disagreement over European Union efforts to impose a new tax on American high-tech providers has already shaken the telecommunications sector.
U.S. diplomats have threatened to retaliate against Spain and other countries for imposing taxes that target American firms that operate a majority of Europe's digital networks.
U.S. President Donald Trump “cannot become a boss who tells European countries what they can do in the EU,” said Spain's Treasury Minister Maria Jesus Montero, who defends the tax as a way of protecting local competitors.
Spain has a had a close commercial and military relationship with the U.S. since the middle of the last century. But the influence of China has grown recently, with nearly 50% of Spain's national debt now owned by Chinese banks.