Chinese multinational tech giant Huawei Technologies opened a new information security lab in the German city of Bonn last month. Some observers see the move as designed to butter up German regulators ahead of the country’s 5G mobile spectrum auction.
The German network regulator (BNetzA) is finalizing the terms for the 5G licensing round it plans to hold in the first quarter of 2019.
The total cost of building Germany’s 5G networks could be €80 billion ($91 billion) and this means high stakes for Huawei and its rivals Ericsson, Nokia, ZTE and Samsung.
Not too bothered
Germany doesn’t have its own indigenous telecoms hardware industry to speak of and maintains close trade and investment ties with Beijing.
The German interior ministry has said there is no legal basis to exclude foreign equipment providers from the country’s 5G system and no such measure is planned.
There is no formal bilateral agreement on preventing commercial cyber espionage between Germany and China, but the number of known China-originated commercial cyber espionage attacks on German companies has dropped in the past two years, according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).
This is corroborated by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), Germany’s domestic intelligence agency. The fall has been linked to an increase in Chinese foreign direct investment in high-tech and advanced manufacturing industries in 2016.
BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen has linked the decline to an increase in the use of legal tools for obtaining the same information, such as corporate takeovers.
“Industrial espionage is no longer necessary if one can simply take advantage of liberal economic regulations to buy companies and then disembowel them or cannibalize them to gain access to their know-how,” Maasen said.
But things may be changing. “The German public discourse around China has changed in the last year or so, not primarily rushed by the US,” cyber security specialist Raffaello Pantucci told DW. “The Germans have seen several cases where the Chinese have crossed a line.”
Pantucci believes the Chinese will now have difficulty winning the 2019 5G auction. “This puts the cat among the pigeons. No country can avoid this dilemma and I think it’s now very unlikely a Chinese firm will win.”
Issues in the UK, Australia and New Zealand
Britain’s BT Group said this week it will remove Huawei Technologies’ equipment from its core 4G network within two years and has also excluded Huawei from bidding for contracts to supply equipment for use in its core 5G network. However, a ban remains unlikely in the UK, due to the advanced stage of Huawei’s involvement in 5G development in the country.
New Zealand has also rejected Huawei’s first 5G bid, citing national security risks while earlier this year, Australia banned Huawei from supplying 5G equipment for the same reason.
The US is putting increased pressure on its political allies, including Germany, to exclude Huawei from their next-generation mobile networks. Washington has long said Huawei and ZTE, another Chinese hardware maker, are potential menaces to security and privacy.
US authorities have pointed to China’s national intelligence law, which they say could force Chinese companies to facilitate spying efforts in other countries. US authorities cited the issue when they blocked Broadcom’s hostile takeover of Qualcomm earlier this year.
In 2013, the US Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property estimated that the theft of Intellectual Property was $300 billion (€257 billion) annually, with 50–80 percent of the thefts attributed to China.
But why is it all such a big deal?
“Many states are concerned about using Chinese telecommunications and technology companies in critical infrastructure companies for a range of reasons,” Daniella Cave, a specialist on cyber security at ASPI, told DW.
Firstly, she says, the Chinese state has a history of aggressive and wide-ranging espionage and intellectual property theft.
Secondly, the national intelligence law they introduced in 2017 compels organizations and individuals to participate in intelligence activities and to keep secret the intelligence activities they are aware of.
Thirdly, there have been allegations that Chinese companies have been complicit, knowingly or unknowingly, in the theft of secrets and valuable government data, Cave says.
A double-edged sword
“I think the Chinese state’s introduction of the national intelligence law is going to place suspicion on the international activities of most of China’s large companies going forward,” Cave says.
“But it’s a double-edged sword for China, as the Chinese Communist Party has made it virtually impossible for Chinese companies to expand without attracting understandable and legitimate suspicion,” she adds.
Cave believes most developed states will be looking at ways in which they can move away from the use of Chinese products in their critical infrastructure.
“A lot of companies have already, and will continue, to look at ways in which they can minimise the risks to their supply chain by closely scrutinizing the hardware and software in their systems.”