The Trump administration has signed a raft of bilateral declarations with countries in Central and Eastern Europe aimed at rolling back Chinese influence in cutting-edge 5G telecommunications infrastructure, notching an important eleventh-hour success for an administration that has sought to counter Beijing’s growing global influence.
In the past week, the State Department announced that it had clinched agreements with Slovakia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria on high-speed wireless network technology. The memorandums make no explicit mention of other countries, but they stress that any new 5G systems should take into account whether the network suppliers are subject “to control by a foreign government,” taking indirect aim at Chinese telecoms giants like Huawei and ZTE that are building up 5G infrastructure all over the world, including in Europe.
During a visit to Washington, Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korcok said in an interview that the memorandum with the United States “is fully consistent with our own national effort to do everything that is needed to make sure that 5G will be secure.”
“Everybody’s aware of all the risks involved,” he said. “And we don’t want to see any backdoor players coming in unless we know and decide that on [the] national level.”
Slovakia’s position is emblematic of how many smaller countries in Central and Eastern Europe are braving new geopolitical headwinds amid competition among the United States, Europe, Russia, and China. Slovakia’s new government, propelled into office on a wave of protests and promises of anti-corruption reform, has actively sought to tighten relations with fellow European Union members—and with the United States and other NATO allies.
In August, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Central Europe and warned against both Russian and Chinese influence in Europe, part of a monthslong diplomatic offensive to convince European countries to block Chinese companies from developing their telecommunications systems. That same month, the Trump administration unveiled what it called a “Clean Network” program to counter “long-term threats to data privacy, security and human rights posed to the free world from authoritarian malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party.”
This month, the United States launched a new U.S.-EU dialogue on China aimed at coordinating policies across the Atlantic to address China’s emerging role as a global superpower.
U.S. officials and top European intelligence officials warned that allowing Chinese companies to develop Europe’s 5G systems could be a Trojan horse for high-tech snooping from Chinese spy services and could grant Beijing undue influence over the trans-Atlantic community’s critical infrastructure. This month, Sweden became the latest European country to ban Huawei and ZTE from its 5G infrastructure. The United Kingdom in July announced plans to completely purge Chinese equipment from its 5G networks in the next seven years. Other major European powers such as Germany, France, and Italy have stopped short of banning Huawei from its networks outright but have pushed its own industries to move away from cooperating with the Chinese company and placed tighter restrictions on its 5G networks that could serve as insurmountable barriers to Huawei.
Both the Chinese government and Huawei representatives have repeatedly dismissed the claims that Chinese-built infrastructure is risky. “Huawei is a private commercial company 100% owned by its employees. There are no factual grounds to support any allegations of Huawei posing any security threat. We find the exclusion of Huawei simply based on groundless presumption, unfair and unacceptable,” Huawei said in response to Sweden’s decision.
In Central Europe, the new Slovakian government is pursuing an abrupt about-face. The previous government downplayed Huawei as a security threat and stood out as the only country in Central and Eastern Europe not to expel Russian diplomats from the country after the 2018 poisoning of a former Russian intelligence officer in the United Kingdom—even as senior Hungarian and Czech officials faced criticism for maintaining warm relations with Moscow.
But under center-right Prime Minister Igor Matovic, who took office in March, the Slovak government expelled Russian officials for abusing Slovak visas, reportedly tied to the murder of a Georgian man in Berlin in 2019. When it comes to China, Slovak President Zuzana Caputova went as far as to refuse to speak at a think tank conference due to the conference’s partnership with Huawei. (The think tank later withdrew from its sponsorship pact with Huawei.)
Korcok, the foreign minister, was careful to point out that the new agreement with the United States does not explicitly ban specific companies from its networks, but he indicated his country was waking up to the geopolitical implications of foreign investment from rivals like Russia and China. For years, China has tried to make investment in Central and Eastern European countries—the so-called 17-plus-1 group—a key plank in its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative, with an eye toward gaining a stronger foothold in European markets and reaping geopolitical rewards. (Greece has run interference in Brussels for Beijing on issues like human rights, which some analysts attribute to substantial Chinese investments in Greek ports.)
“China is a country that we recognize as a partner,” Korcok said. “But at the same time, China is a competitor, and … it’s a systemic rival. So I’m looking at partners like China through very realistic optics.”