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Balkans Become Unlikely Bridgehead In Europe For U.S.'s Anti-China Push

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington in July.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking at a news conference at the State Department in Washington in July.

Romania's announcement that the country would ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from its networks was the latest move to roll back China's dominance in cutting-edge 5G telecommunication in Central and Southeastern Europe.

The announcement by Prime Minister Ludovic Orban on November 1 comes as the United States seriously steps up its "China strategy" in Europe recently, inking a slew of declarations across the region designed to limit China’s role in telecom networks.

It comes shortly after the October announcements by the U.S. State Department that it had signed deals with Slovakia, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria on high-speed wireless network technology, joining what the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump has dubbed the Clean Network program, unveiled in August 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."

"The U.S. is achieving its goals in terms of limiting Huawei in Europe’s networks," Ivana Karaskova, the founder of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) and a China research fellow at the Association for International Affairs in Prague, told RFE/RL. “These agreements are part of a much tougher approach toward China from governments in [the region].”

The agreements mark a last-minute series of diplomatic wins for the United States’ wider push to counter China’s growing global influence and are a sign that disenchantment with Beijing is spreading in Central and Southeastern Europe, an area previously viewed as conciliatory towards China.

U.S. government officials have led a campaign across Europe and elsewhere against the inclusion of Huawei, which has been blacklisted in the United States for posing a threat to national security and using its technology to spy on behalf of the Chinese government.

China denies the charge and argues that the U.S. initiative is driven mainly by commercial concerns. Both the Chinese government and Huawei representatives have repeatedly dismissed claims that Chinese-built infrastructure is a security risk.

The bilateral agreements signed by the Central Europeans and Washington make no specific mention of other countries and do not explicitly ban specific companies from the networks.

But the memorandums are widely seen to take aim at Chinese telecoms giants like Huawei and ZTE that are building up 5G infrastructure all over the world, having also made significant headway in recent years across Central and Southeastern Europe.

“This shift isn’t simply about U.S. diplomatic pressure,” Karaskova said, “it is also the result of growing domestic concerns in Europe towards China.”

The Anatomy Of A Shift

The new additions to the Clean Network program are part of a harder line taken towards China across Europe, with 5G networks becoming a central front.

In October, Sweden moved to ban Huawei and ZTE from its 5G infrastructure, joining the United Kingdom, which announced similar measures in July.

A trade fair in Mostar, Bosnia in April 2019.
A trade fair in Mostar, Bosnia in April 2019.

Other major European powers such as Germany, France, and Italy have taken aim at those Chinese tech firms. While stopping short of outright bans, they have instead moved to restrict Huawei from participation in their networks by creating legal barriers and limiting how domestic industries can cooperate with the Chinese companies.

Elsewhere, multiple Central and East European countries -- including Poland, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Slovenia -- have all agreed to work with the United States on 5G cybersecurity, signalling future plans to restrict or phase out Huawei and ZTE.

“The debate on 5G within Europe has shifted quickly, in part because of a change in U.S. diplomatic approach,” Erik Brattberg, the director of the Europe program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told RFE/RL.

"There is a recognition that simply pushing countries to outright ban Huawei is not always productive," he said. "Now they are allowing countries to cite their own security concerns and make their own decisions to achieve the same result."

The headway made to limit China’s presence in Europe’s 5G networks is particularly notable in Central and Southeastern Europe. In 2012, 16 countries formed an economic cooperation forum with Beijing called 16+1, which was expanded into 17+1 in 2019 with the addition of Greece.

The initiative was quickly co-opted into China’s far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative, which launched in 2013, with Beijing viewing the region as cheap access to European markets and a geopolitical foothold within the continent.

But the forum has lost momentum recently as European members have grown disillusioned with Beijing as grand infrastructure building plans for the region have not developed as expected and much-desired investment from China has lagged.

Growing concerns over Beijing's so-called “mask diplomacy” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and aggressive “wolf warrior” tactics by its diplomats across Europe have also hardened attitudes and raised security concerns about China.

Growing geopolitical tensions between Beijing and Washington have also prompted many countries in the region to reevaluate their China strategies, particularly as the United States has escalated its focus on China’s foothold in 5G technology.

“The 21st century is becoming a century of rivalry between Washington and Beijing -- and increasingly there is less room for gray areas,” Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a former Serbian diplomat, told RFE/RL. “I think we are seeing a slow drift where many countries are seeing that their ties to the United States are more important than their cooperation with Beijing.”

Navigating A Rivalry

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the European Union has taken a tougher approach toward China, labeling the country a rival and sparring with Beijing over issues such as human rights violations in Hong Kong and China's western Xinjiang Province.

But despite the more strained relationship, economic relations between Brussels and Beijing are still crucial, with the EU becoming China’s largest trading partner and China becoming the EU’s second-largest after the United States.

While many Central and Southeastern European countries have moved to restrict Chinese firms in their 5G networks, they are still looking to preserve ties with Beijing in other realms.

Moving forward, many European countries will be hoping for a more coordinated China policy with Washington that can allow them to pursue shared strategic goals without having to alienate Beijing as a partner.

This has countries across the continent closely watching the November 3 presidential election in the United States, where both candidates have proposed different styles, but similar views, in terms of their China policy.

The Trump administration has pushed a hard line against Beijing, but has followed a unilateral approach that has left the EU on the outside looking in and, at times, caught in the cross fire of U.S. policy moves.

Tension between the United States and Europe over issues ranging from trade and Iran to defense spending have also strained ties between Washington and Brussels in recent years.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has also called for tough China policies, signalling to Europe that Washington’s more confrontational approach to Beijing is here to stay.

“Most European countries understand that there is a growing bipartisan consensus in Washington to view China as an adversary and that would continue under [either] a Biden or Trump administration,” Carnegie's Brattberg said.

But Biden foreign-policy advisers have differed by calling for a consultative approach with Europe, saying that they would consult allies on any future U.S. tariffs on China and will adopt a more multilateral style that will balance concerns over how best to confront Beijing in Europe and around the world.

“What Europeans want is a United States counterpart that shares the EU view that China is a rival that needs to be checked but still can be a partner on some important global issues,” Brattberg said.

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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

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