U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent European tour marked another step in the U.S. campaign pushing allied countries to cut ties with Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant, when building their 5G infrastructure. Poland, where Huawei has been operating since 2004, is the company’s main headquarters for Central and Eastern Europe and the Nordic region. Although Warsaw has not said its final word on 5G equipment providers yet, Pompeo is striving to consolidate U.S. allies to speak with one voice, with Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) playing a vital part in his endeavors.
With his rhetoric seeking to unite the“free world” against China, the secretary has called on European allies to “secure data from the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state” by joining the U.S.-led Clean Network program aimed at “safeguarding the nation’s assets from aggressive intrusions by malign actors.”
On August 15, Pompeo was the only high-ranking foreign official to attend the celebrations marking the centennial of the Battle of Warsaw, which paved the way to Poland’s victory in the Polish-Soviet War. However, the historical commemoration was merely a convenient formality, since Pompeo got down to business soon after tweeting “Wheels down!” at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport. Georgette Mosbacher, the U.S. ambassador to Poland, highlighted that 5G networks would be the locus of talks between Polish and American officials.
Huawei has been a sensitive issue in Sino-Polish relations since January 2019, when Wang Weijing, Huawei’s regional sales director, was arrested on spying allegations. That is why right before Pompeo’s visit, Liu Guangyuan, China’s ambassador to Poland, warned against “foreign influence” in bilateral relations. Similarly, the Chinese Embassy in Warsaw accused the secretary of “spreading false and misleading information” and being obsessed with the “Cold War mentality.”
In September 2019 Warsaw and Washington signed a joint declaration on 5G, which U.S. Vice President Mike Pence labelled “a vital example for the rest of Europe on the broader question of 5G.” However, the Polish government still sought to retain its neutral stance on Huawei, mostly due to reluctance to take a step ahead of other EU countries. Surprisingly, a month before Pompeo’s visit, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called for “all of Europe to stand with America on 5G” while pointing out “two companies controlled by an authoritarian regime” – implicitly referring to Huawei and ZTE – and warning against “influence from authoritarian regimes.” In a similar manner, since May 2020 President Andrzej Duda has stopped using his TikTok account, although a press office chief denied linking this decision with U.S. pressure. Following these developments, Polish media expected Pompeo’s visit to become a decisive moment for Huawei’s participation in Central and Eastern Europe’s 5G network.
“American expectations related to this visit were much greater than its final effects,” comments Alicja Bachulska, a China analyst at the Asia Research Centre at War Studies University in Warsaw. “Poland is trying to diversify 5G suppliers to balance its own interests. In this way Warsaw strives to avoid a direct confrontation with Beijing in the style of Trump’s administration, but the relationship with Washington is still of the utmost importance.”
In light of the lack of a coherent political approach to securing 5G in the EU, Washington has an additional card to play in CEE. While standing firmly with the region in its opposition to Russian-led Nord Stream 2 pipeline, enhancing military cooperation, and promoting regional infrastructure projects, such as the Three Seas Initiative, Trump’s administration aspires to gather new allies in its technological feud with Beijing. However, Berlin – a capital missed in Pompeo’s European itinerary – warns that such an approach may further erode EU cohesion.
“The American anti-Huawei crusade is apparently the first step in a broader strategy to build a separate global digital space, free from Chinese influences. There is an expectation in the U.S. for Central and Eastern Europe to constitute a pro-American faction on that issue inside the EU. However, given how fundamental those choices are, the incentives for the region to stand at the front and raise an anti-Huawei flag within the EU are limited,” states Jakub Jakobowski, senior fellow at the China Research Programme of the Centre for Eastern Studies in Poland. “The U.S. starts a risky game that they may not fully understand. It is a game that may disturb the cohesion of the European Union, while a strong EU is what Americans need to counterbalance Beijing.”
Considering the high political, technological, and financial costs of limiting or even excluding Huawei’s participation in local 5G networks, Americans must create “a positive, constructive and long-term proposal for the region,” Jakobowski highlights. “Washington should create a framework of cooperation, such as a partnership for technological innovation, to enhance cooperation between startups or engage in financing local digital connectivity. Bringing matters to a head without a viable vision of an alternative digital ecosystem can be inefficient.” According to Jakobowski such close collaboration between the CEE countries and the U.S. would not exclude Beijing from the region, since “China can still navigate non-sensitive fields of cooperation with CEE, such as connectivity, transport or trade.”
Paradoxically, the recent 5G debate reveals what links Washington, Berlin, and Beijing: their paternalistic approach toward the CEE region. “There is an assumption that the CEE region lacks experts who understand China and are aware of the opportunities, challenges, and risks related to close cooperation with Beijing,” Bachulska stresses. “CEE’s answer should be building a consistent local narrative to prove that the region is able to make their strategic decisions independently and consciously.”
Jakobowski suggests the CEE region could serve as an intermediary between Washington and Brussels. “Americans must learn from the mistakes that the Chinese have made when creating a China-CEE 16+1 platform,” he says. “Beijing’s experience should show Washington that when forced to choose between the EU and an external partner, the region often follows Brussels. That is why it is crucial for the U.S. to develop a comprehensive dialogue with the whole EU.”
That being said, will Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia become a viable alternative for Europe’s 5G networks? While it is still unclear what stance on the Huawei issue will prevail in Poland and other CEE countries, the decision will have implications for years to come, both on the local and EU level.
Paulina Uznanska is a sinologist serving as deputy head of the Polish Research Center for Law and Economy of China. She is a Yenching Scholar at Peking University and a winner of the 2020 Chinese-Polish Translation Prize.