WASHINGTON - Following Britain’s decision to ban Chinese tech firm Huawei from its 5G telecom network, Germany is emerging as the next potential battleground to check China’s expansion of influence in world affairs, which is increasingly seen as a serious challenge to democratic institutions worldwide.
Germany’s decision on whether to include Huawei equipment in its own network “is still up for grabs,” said Reinhard Buetikofer, a member of Germany’s opposition Green Party who chairs the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with the People’s Republic of China.
Britain’s decision “may very well have an impact on the decision Germany is about to make,” Buetikofer said in a phone interview from Berlin.
Buetikofer said Britain’s plan to include Huawei in its next-generation network – which was abruptly reversed in a dramatic announcement last week – had been held out as a model by German supporters of the Chinese telecom giant.
“In the past, supporters of having Huawei construct Germany’s 5G network often pointed out: ‘Look, the Brits knew that much more about Huawei than we do, if the Brits are not doing anything about it, why should we?’” But Britain’s July 14 decision has pulled out the rug from under that argument.
Buetikofer, a strong advocate for decoupling his country from Huawei, greeted the British announcement with a challenge to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Now it's Berlin's turn to move!” he tweeted. “Does the chancellor really want to be the stumbling block preventing a united EU + transatlantic + 5Eyes stance?”
The Five Eyes is a nickname for an intelligence-sharing alliance comprising the United States, Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
A German decision to exclude Huawei from its network would be a diplomatic win for the United States, which lobbied hard for the British reversal and is bringing pressure on other countries to follow suit. The Americans warn that Huawei equipment may contain “back doors” that will allow China to spy on sensitive communications.
“We hope we can build out a coalition that understands the threat and will work collectively,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a trip to Britain and Denmark this week.
But Buetikofer said his objections to the Chinese company are not influenced by the pressure from Washington. “I oppose Huawei’s playing a part in the German 5G network not because I want to do the U.S. a favor, but because I think it is a threat to German national security,” he said.
As in other countries, the German argument over Huawei is rooted in a larger debate about the best way to deal with China’s rising power.
Merkel emphasizes the importance of “dialogue” with Beijing, unswayed by the fierce international reaction to its new security law restricting long-established rights in Hong Kong. But others, including a significant number of German lawmakers, believe Beijing is not only an economic rival, but one that is doing all it can to replace democratic norms around the world with its own style of authoritarian rule.
German Free Democratic Party legislator Johannes Vogel has argued that Beijing has been explicit in stating that goal. “It would be naive if we didn’t take their assessment at face value,” wrote Vogel, the deputy chair of the German-Chinese Parliamentary Friendship Group.
Merkel has also argued in favor of Huawei on the basis of a “no-spying pact” her government secured from the company.
But Buetikofer points out that Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei is a member of China’s ruling Communist Party.
“Don’t take us for idiots,” he remarked during a recent podcast.
Analysts have warned that China could retaliate against an unfavorable decision on Huawei by targeting Germany’s auto industry, and Buetikofer acknowledged to VOA that the industry plays a significant part in his country’s economy.
Nevertheless, he said, “Germany’s national interest is not synonymous with the interests of Volkswagen, just as the U.S.’s national interest is not synonymous with the interests of GM.”