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U.S. Pressures Europe To Find Alternatives To Huawei


In Munich, an annual security conference has attracted leaders from around the world. It's also attracted a sizable U.S. delegation. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was there, as was Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and more than two dozen members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. Their message - don't use Huawei. That's the Chinese telecoms company that many countries in Europe are in discussions with to build their 5G networks. NPR's Rob Schmitz is at the conference and joins us now.

Hi, Rob.


FADEL: So Democrats and Republicans agree on very little these days. But where you are in Germany, it seems they've found one thing they agree on - that Huawei is a danger.

SCHMITZ: (Laughter) That's right. Yeah, it's been really interesting to watch. Republican Lindsey Graham made a remark in a session yesterday that Huawei is one of the only things that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Trump agree on. And Pelosi, who was also here, used much of the time that she had yesterday for remarks to warn the European leaders in attendance about using China's Huawei to build their 5G infrastructure.

And the argument goes that Huawei, being a Chinese company, is vulnerable to the influence of China's government, who could use Huawei equipment to steal data and spy on other countries. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper echoed these fears this morning. And at one point, the former president of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, finally stood up and asked a question that seemed to be on everyone's minds after this unrelenting U.S. barrage of don't use Huawei. Here's what he asked Secretary Esper.


TOOMAS HENDRIK ILVES: Many of us in Europe agree that there are significant dangers with Huawei, and the U.S. for at least a year has been telling us, do not use Huawei. Are you offering an alternative? Are you going to subsidize Nokia and Ericsson? I mean, what do we get? What is it that we should do other than not use Huawei?


FADEL: So you can hear people laughing, applauding.


FADEL: How did Secretary Esper answer?

SCHMITZ: Well, he admitted that the U.S. needs to develop alternatives. And he said that the Pentagon is doing its part by opening up a handful of U.S. military bases to 5G providers so that they can come in and test 5G systems on U.S. bases to develop a high-performing, low-cost alternative to Huawei. But that is all he said. He did not really answer the question of what is a good alternative to Huawei.

But there are alternatives, and there are companies here in Europe. Both Nokia and Ericsson provide this infrastructure but at a much higher cost than Huawei's equipment, whose costs are kept low due to Chinese government subsidies. And that low cost is a big reason why many European telecommunications companies are pushing their governments to go with Huawei.

FADEL: So conferencegoers heard a lot of criticism of China.


FADEL: Was anyone defending China?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, a few people. First off, what I found curious is that for a conference that used the theme Westlessness (ph) - the idea that Western influence is waning in the world, sort of ceding influence to Asia - that there really were not that many speakers from China. You know, China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, was one of the country's only speakers, and, of course, he did defend his country.

But China had another big defender at the conference, and that was Tedros Adhanom, the director general of the World Health Organization. This afternoon, he gave a powerful speech criticizing all of the Western leaders in the room for not doing enough to help China battle the coronavirus epidemic.

Adhanom said the measures that China has taken are helping buy time for the rest of the world. But he criticized the European and U.S. leaders in the room for not doing enough with that time to prepare their own populations for the arrival of this virus because he said at the rate that it is spreading, it could be a matter of time before it spreads more widely beyond China's borders. And the reason it's taking longer than expected is due to China's efforts.

FADEL: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz joining us from the Munich Security Conference.

Thanks, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: February 16, 2020 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous headline on this story incorrectly said Europe was pressuring the U.S. to find a low-cost alternative to Huawei. In fact, the U.S. was the one pressuring Europe.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.