By Jack Stubbs
BARCELONA (Reuters) – Facts not fears should decide the future of telecoms network security in Europe, industry leaders and policy chiefs said this week, brushing off U.S. calls for a ban on Chinese vendors.
Europe has become the main battleground in a U.S. campaign to rid Western networks of Chinese telecoms equipment, with Washington accusing Huawei Technologies of spying for Beijing, allegations the company has repeatedly denied.
Mobile operators warn that a blanket ban could delay next-generation 5G connections by years and comments from the world’s second-largest mobile operator Vodafone and European Commission officials at this week’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona suggest a more cautious response is likely.
“You’re going to see a messy, essentially managed response that will probably vary in detail from country to country,” said Forrester analyst Frank Gillett. “In the end it’s about containing and managing the risk of Huawei, as well as any other vendor, but particularly Huawei.”
The security concerns are particularly acute because of the onset of 5G, with operators now making decisions which will govern the future of mobile networks slated to bring super-fast speeds for everything from computer gaming to medical surgery.
Huawei chairman Guo Ping met government and industry partners in Barcelona to give reassurances in the face of the U.S. accusations, people with knowledge of the matter said.
“Let experts decide whether networks are safe or not. The U.S. security accusation of our 5G has no evidence, nothing,” Guo told the congress on Tuesday.
His comments echoed those of Vodafone boss Nick Read, who called on Monday for the United States to share any evidence it had about Huawei, while the European Commission warned against “premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.”
U.S. officials, however, insisted that behind the scenes in Barcelona European governments were increasingly listening to Washington’s message on Huawei.
“We have been very successful in convincing these governments to work with us to think about these types of threats to their future infrastructure,” Robert L. Strayer, the U.S. State Department ambassador for cyber and international communications, told reporters.
Strayer repeated U.S. assertions that the security issues with Huawei centre around China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which states that Chinese “organisations and citizens shall, in accordance with the law, support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.”
Washington has made progress with its European allies due to a series of face-to-face on the sidelines of the congress, another U.S. official said, adding that the issue would probably be managed on a case-by-case basis.
“Europe very rarely speaks with a single voice, and I don’t see this being a place where Europe is going to speak with a single voice either,” the official said.
The worries about Huawei have already convinced some Western countries to bar or restrict the company’s access to their markets, but Europe is split.
The Czech Republic and Poland, where a Huawei executive was arrested on espionage charges in January, have voiced concerns, while Britain has said it can manage any risks.
“We have to understand the opportunities and threats from China’s technological offer,” Jeremy Fleming, head of Britain’s GCHQ signals intelligence service, said this week.
Intelligence and industry officials say the British conclusion has helped reassure a number of European governments, in part due to Britain’s membership of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing group with the United States.
Washington has seen the Mobile World Congress as an opportunity to counter that and sent a delegation to brief governments there, they said.
Huawei responded by branding escalators and delegate lanyards with its red-fanned logo, and unveiling a new state-of-the-art folding smartphone in an effort to reassert its status as a leading technology giant.
Paul Triolo, head of geo-technology at research firm Eurasia Group, said the United States faced “an uphill battle” convincing the telecoms industry to ditch Huawei.
“That’s a really hard case to make to industry which wants to hear about hard security concerns and wants to try to mitigate those,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Isla Binnie, Douglas Busvine and Paul Sandle; Editing by Alexander Smith)