The U.S. government is ratcheting up pressure on Beijing’s 5G ambitions overseas, offering financial incentives and other enticements to countries willing to shun Chinese-made telecom gear.
U.S. foreign-affairs agencies are developing workshops and a handbook that would help policy makers in places like Central and Eastern Europe, and in developing countries elsewhere, to build next-generation 5G cellular networks that don’t use equipment from Huawei Technologies Co. and China’s ZTE Corp.
U.S. officials say they also plan to offer training to foreign politicians, regulators and academics overseeing the rollout of 5G networks in their respective countries in coming months and years. Leading the initiative is the Commerce Department’s Commercial Law Development Program, whose mission is to advance U.S. foreign policy by directly collaborating with foreign governments on technical and legal matters.
To help with training, U.S. officials say they are putting together a reference book that includes case studies of how American allies such as Britain have implemented restrictions on Chinese telecom equipment.
Over the weekend, the Group of Seven industrialized nations unveiled a new global infrastructure initiative called “Build Back Better World.” The Biden administration has positioned it as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road initiative, which has aimed Chinese investment at infrastructure projects around the world. While not part of the weekend G7 initiative, Washington’s new incentives for avoiding Chinese telecom purchases underscores the U.S.’s special focus on the telecom industry.
“The Biden-Harris administration views 5G security as a high priority,” said Stephen Anderson, an acting State Department deputy assistant secretary overseeing its outreach efforts on telecom and technology. He said U.S. experts will advise countries on the costs, regulations and cybersecurity considerations needed to build 5G networks in an effort to dissuade them from using Huawei and other Chinese equipment.
The U.S. considers such gear a spying threat. Huawei and other Chinese makers say they aren’t beholden to China and wouldn’t use their gear to spy.
Meanwhile, a large, bipartisan group in Congress is backing a bill introduced last month that would allow Central and Eastern European countries to receive American foreign aid specifically to buy non-Chinese telecom equipment.
The efforts represent the latest phase of a long-running U.S. campaign to discourage the use of Chinese telecom equipment by overseas allies. Washington began the campaign a few years ago by mostly wielding sticks—warning allies that it would limit intelligence sharing with countries that used Huawei equipment.
The results of that effort have been mixed: Germany, for instance, has so far refused to ban Huawei gear. Other allies like the U.K. have moved to restrict Chinese equipment.
Now, Washington is offering carrots in the form of loans and training to encourage countries to stay away from Huawei and other Chinese suppliers. Telecom executives, as well officials in the U.S. and allied countries, have said Chinese gear is often cheaper than equivalent equipment made by Huawei rivals Ericsson AB and Nokia Corp.
U.S. officials and lawmakers say cybersecurity is important in 5G because the technology is envisioned to be embedded in so many sensitive industries and devices, such as automated factories and internet-connected heart monitors.
Late in the Trump administration last autumn, U.S. agencies began a push to offer loans to developing countries to buy from preferred telecom-equipment providers such as Sweden’s Ericsson, Finland’s Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co. The initiative notched a victory in Ethiopia last month, when a U.S.-backed consortium beat out a Beijing-funded rival to build a new nationwide wireless network. Washington had offered up to $500 million in loans.
Historically, such U.S. lending has been restricted by law to developing countries. That has kept funding from reaching places like Central and Eastern Europe. Poorer than many of the world’s most advanced economies, these countries are nonetheless considered wealthy enough to fall outside the developing-world category.
Congress has already made some recent exemptions, including for energy projects. A new U.S. agency, the International Development Finance Corp., last year approved a $300 million investment in the Three Seas Initiative, a fund that invests in energy projects and other infrastructure in 12 Central and Eastern European countries.
The bipartisan bill making its way through Congress would exempt telecommunications projects, too. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat, introduced the legislation last month. It would grant Central and Eastern European countries an exemption to receive U.S. foreign aid to buy non-Chinese telecom equipment. She said she expects the bill, which like other recent legislation aimed at countering Beijing has broad bipartisan support, to pass this year.
Ms. Kaptur said such countries still have weak economies and should be offered alternatives to Beijing-backed infrastructure projects. “They are countries at risk,” she said.
Many Central and Eastern European countries, including Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, have been broadly receptive to American arguments against Huawei. Many also view strong military relations with the U.S. as vital after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula.
Many have been skeptical of China, too. In 2019, Poland jailed a Huawei executive on espionage charges, while Baltic and Romanian governments have taken steps to limit their countries’ use of Huawei. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has demanded China replace its current ambassador to his country, after a series of public spats largely about the role of Huawei in the country.
Yet the Chinese government has found partners in the region, particularly in Hungary, whose capital Budapest is hosting a new Huawei research center. Huawei opened a similar center in Serbia last year. Several countries have also signed up for Beijing’s Belt and Road program, in which Chinese government-backed institutions largely finance and build highways, ports and other infrastructure. WSJ