China’s attempt to gain economic influence in Europe poses major strategic threats to American allies, according to defense officials, including one on the front lines of NATO.
“We really need to be careful that, as well, China would not be dictators [of] us economically,” Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis told the Washington Examiner.
Lithuania, a Baltic Sea nation that keeps a close watch on Russia as well as on China’s efforts to make inroads in northern Europe, has warned since February about Chinese espionage threats. Karoblis’s comments are emblematic of a broader shift in Europe, American sources said, as the transatlantic alliance unites against the threat of the world’s leading communist power.
“The entire European Union and NATO have flipped to understanding the threat of China,” Rob Spalding, a retired Air Force general who helped craft President Trump’s 2017 national security strategy, told the Washington Examiner.
That shift has been driven by U.S. diplomats and Western intelligence agencies, which see Chinese telecommunications companies such as Huawei as an espionage threat.
“Capitols are beginning to wake up at differing speeds, and, normally, it is intelligence services and defense-related people who [first] come to the realization of the vulnerability of adopting all of this,” Philip Breedlove, former supreme allied commander of NATO, told the Washington Examiner. “There are Europeans now who are understanding this problem much more like we do, and it has changed in the last year.”
The intelligence agencies have viewed the risk as growing because the Chinese tech giants have pushed to build 5G — the next generation of wireless technology infrastructure — for Western allies, giving Beijing’s spy services a potential back door into NATO communications.
“5G, it’s not only the simple telecommunication technology but, in fact, is the network for command-and-control systems,” Karoblis said. “We can’t afford [to be] letting our strategic competitor, if not adversary, to just simply to give us this very, very important strategic asset.”
The head of Germany’s intelligence agency delivered a public warning against Huawei last month.
“The trust in a state company that has a very high level of dependence on the Communist Party and the country’s intelligence apparatus is not present,” Bruno Kahl, the president of Germany’s Foreign Intelligence Service, told German lawmakers.
Some European officials resisted U.S. warnings earlier this year, due to the apparent economic benefits of working with Huawei. This spring, it emerged via a leak that the United Kingdom might allow Huawei to help build 5G systems — as a result, the British defense minister was fired. German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly saw benefits from investing in 5G.
But overall, Spalding said, European allies recognize the threat. In February, Spalding said, German officials told him that European opinions have been shifting since February — the same month that Lithuania publicly denounced Chinese spy threats.
German officials told Spalding that European opinions have been shifting since February. That shift coincides with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tour of central Europe, as he warned the NATO allies with the closest ties to Huawei that the Chinese technology would interfere with their ability to cooperate with U.S. military forces.
“We’ve made known the risks that are associated with that,” Pompeo said at the time. “Individual countries then will make their own choices.”