Picture: FRED DUFOUR / AFP
Picture: FRED DUFOUR / AFP

 Munich —The fight between the US and Europe over  Chinese 5G technology is threatening to split the transatlantic military alliance.

With the US defence establishment identifying China as its highest priority, a bipartisan delegation headed by House speaker Nancy Pelosi rammed home their concerns about the use of equipment from Huawei Technologies at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend.

The officials warned that installing Huawei equipment could undermine co-operation with US allies as President Donald Trump’s hardball trade tactics started to infect his administration’s relationships on defence.

“Republicans and Democrats agree on this,“ said Republican senator Lindsey Graham, a close ally of Trump. “If you go down the Huawei road you are going to burn a lot of bridges.”

European leaders have been hunkering down amid the Huawei storm as they try to maintain their critical relations with both sides in the US-China trade spat.

Pelosi’s intervention signalled that they should not pin their hopes on the problem blowing over if the Democrats win back the White House in December.

The atmosphere at the high-level gathering of security officials was an improvement on 2019, when Vice-President Mike Pence and German Chancellor Angela Merkel clashed. But the structural tensions between the US and Europe were if anything greater: Europe’s exports to China have become a critical plank in its economic model and the Chinese have threatened retaliation on European companies if the bloc follows Trump in banning one of its flagship technology companies.

Strong-arm tactics

The US was on the back foot throughout because their strong-arm tactics have conspicuously failed to bring the Europeans into line: the EU stopped short of an outright ban on Huawei in its guidelines for 5G communication technology.

Even the UK, which has been energetically courting the White House as it begins life outside the EU, opted in part to use Huawei equipment.

“We have a tech Cold War right now that’s on display right here and Europe wants no part in it,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. “There’s never been such a rift with how Americans and Europeans define the security threat as right now.”

That rift may have sweeping consequences as the western powers struggle to come to terms with the technological prowess China has developed since Xi Jinping in 2015 unveiled a 10-year plan to take the lead in industries such as communications, IT and artificial intelligence.

Huawei has become a lightning rod for the US’s wider insecurities.

“If you don’t understand the threat and we don’t do something about it, at the end of the day, it could compromise what is the most successful military alliance in history: Nato,” defence secretary Mark Esper said in Munich.

Europeans are already feeling uneasy about the state of Nato. Opening the conference in the Bavarian capital, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier accused the Trump administration of rejecting “the very concept” of an international community. “Every country, it believes, should look after itself and put its own interests before all others,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has said that Nato is undergoing “brain death”, said on Saturday that Europe needs to build up its own capacity as a strategic power.

Since Trump took office, he has  tried to end the Iran nuclear deal, withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and repeatedly threatened the EU with tariffs. So Pompeo’s claim that talk of the demise of the transatlantic relationship is “grossly over-exaggerated” was met with scepticism.

Hours later energy secretary Dan Brouillette was crowing that US sanctions have managed to scupper a $6bn project to link Germany and Russia with a new Baltic gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2.

For Europe, caught between the US and its global rivals, the situation may yet get worse.

While Trump often touts his relationship with Xi, competition between the countries has only deepened since they signed their “phase-one” trade deal in January. The US a week ago charged members of China’s military over one of the biggest data thefts in American history and on Thursday charged Huawei with racketeering to engage in intellectual property theft.

And the coronavirus outbreak adds an extra element of uncertainty to the global political outlook — a disease originating in China is threatening to weaken the global economy in the run-up to a US election.

“The potential for this to get much uglier in a short period of time is real,” said Bremmer.

Bloomberg