How Russia Helped the United States Fight Huawei in Central and Eastern Europe
Thirty years of independence from communism and the Soviet Union have also meant 30 years of fear of a Russian invasion for Central and Eastern European countries. As a result, these countries have spent three decades consolidating relations with the United States and NATO — both of which they see as possible saviors in an existential crisis.
The United States has become the number one partner of many Central and Eastern European countries. Ties with Washington are the bedrock of their defense and diplomatic strategies. Not surprisingly, it has become natural for policymakers in these countries to be very sensitive to anything that could jeopardize their relations with the United States.
That is why the only three countries with which Washington has signed memoranda of understanding targeting Huawei are Romania, Poland, and Estonia. Regional policymakers are less concerned about the possible threat from Huawei, and more concerned that failing to side with the United States on this issue would risk losing Washington’s support in a crisis with Russia. China and Huawei find themselves caught in the geopolitical realities of the region: They have failed to understand the “Russian factor” and the loyalty that Central and Eastern Europe have toward the United States and NATO, which has been repeatedly highlighted over the years.
Coming to an Understanding in Central and Eastern Europe
The use of memoranda of understanding, although a very old tool of foreign diplomacy, has been popularized worldwide most recently at the state-to-state level by China through its Belt and Road Initiative. The Belt and Road Initiative includes a plethora of memoranda of understanding signed between China and numerous other countries, all gathered under the branding name of the Belt and Road Initiative, or its nickname, the “New Silk Road.” China’s frequent use of these memoranda. , many of which never materialized, has been a target of criticism
For its part, the United States has begun signing memoranda of understanding with countries that agree not to use Huawei and its 5G technology. America has focused these efforts on Central and Eastern Europe. It all started with Romania in August 2019 during a visit to Washington by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding through which, without mentioning Huawei, Romania committed not to use technology from any company that isn’t independent from government influence, lacks a transparent ownership structure, or has engaged in unethical behavior. Romania was soon followed by Poland and more recently by Estonia. The U.S. government didn’t seem to tailor its agreements to each of these European countries, instead using a universal blueprint for all of them. Yet, Romania, Poland, and Estonia all share a fear of Russia and are strongly committed to the United States.
One possible explanation for their willingness to sign these memoranda about Huawei could be the region’s experience with communism and state surveillance. But if this were the case, there would have been wariness toward Huawei in the past. And yet, the company acquired considerable market share in 3G and 4G gear in the region. In fact, Huawei’s expansion went unabated for years. Doubts only started creeping in after the U.S. lobby and pressure campaign against Huawei and China began, in 2018.
The Chinese memorandum of understanding model was thus successfully co-opted by the United States in its extensive policy of economic containment of Huawei. However, these bilateral agreements don’t have any power unless they are reinforced by a local law. They are more of a statement than a decisive blow against Huawei.
In Romania, more than six months after the government signed the memorandum of understanding, there is still no legal act excluding Huawei. The new right-wing government, which came to power in November 2019, was expected to pass a government executive act that would have made the memorandum of understanding’s provisions national law. But the government was recently dismissed through a motion of no-confidence, meaning that such an act cannot be passed by the caretaker government, which leaves Huawei’s fate up in the air.
Both the limits and the usefulness of the Romanian memorandum of understanding could be seen in the Romanian telecommunications authority’s October 2019 decision to postpone until 2020 the public auction for selling the frequencies through which 5G services will be provided. This was done in order to give the government more time to pass a law that provides the memorandum legal power. While the memorandum of understanding didn’t itself ban Huawei, it was the basis for the decision to postpone the action. Without it, the auction would have probably taken place without any restrictions imposed on the acquisition of Huawei 5G gear by telecommunications operators, many of which already use Huawei for their 3G and 4G networks.
Poland’s story is more interesting. At the start of the decade, Poland began developing a friendlier attitude toward China, hoping to unlock economic opportunities. The first summit of heads of government between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries — the then-16+1 mechanism — took place in Warsaw in 2012. Poland was later the first Central and Eastern European country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as a founding member. But the expected opportunities and investments from China never materialized. In the meantime, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass, it was the threat from Russia that became Warsaw’s number one concern. Weighing between unfulfilled investment promises coming from China and its national security regarding Russia, Poland chose to prioritize its relationship with the United States, standing by Washington’s side in its strategy against Huawei. Even before the signing of the 5G memorandum of understanding, Poland made headlines when it arrested a Huawei employee who was a suspected spy, in January 2019. During his meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, Polish President Andrzej Duda brought up the issue of Chinese spying in Poland. And yet, one year after his arrest, the trial against the suspected spy still hasn’t begun.
How Russia Brought Central and Eastern European Countries Closer to the United States
Poland had already tried to show its commitment to the United States when it proposed to President Donald Trump the construction of “Fort Trump” in Poland, a military base that, if constructed, will host around 1,000 American troops. The proposal was part of a larger strategy of beefing up its defense ties with the United States in recent years. In 2019, Poland began the boldest military modernization in its history. The effort is the signature program of Polish Minister of Defense Mariusz Błaszczak’s. It aims to spend around $133 billion to buy new armaments and equipment by 2035. Its Harpia program will replace Soviet aircraft with F-35A Lightning II stealth jets, with the contract for 32 F-35 jets having been signed this year.
Estonia’s calculus was similar. With Russia posing an existential threat, it would allow no daylight between itself and the United States on any major issue. Estonia, which won the status of the first digital country in the world, fears security vulnerabilities in its digital systems to the same extent that it fears losing its U.S. military shield against Russia — a shield that China can’t replace. Estonia has learned the importance of cyber security the hard way, having been the victim of a massive cyber attack in 2007. One year later, the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence was inaugurated in Estonia.
Estonia is also investing heavily in its military systems. In 2018, it launched the “Defense Investment Program” to cover existing equipment gaps in its military forces. Last year, it signed a five-year defense cooperation agreement with the United States, while Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid called for U.S. troops to be deployed to her country.
In any dispute between the United States and China, the choice for most countries in Central and Eastern Europe is easy — side with Washington. Because of Russia, Poland, Romania, and Estonia have all signed memoranda of understanding with Washington regarding Huawei and have had rotational deployments of NATO troops on their territory over the past few years. Romania already has two U.S. military facilities and Poland is aiming for one, the aforementioned “Fort Trump.” Romania and Poland have each invested around $4 billion to acquire Patriot missile defense batteries and they also host Aegis Ashore radars and SM-3 anti-ballistic missiles. (While the site in Romania has been operational since 2016, the one in Poland is still under construction.) In 2019, Romania temporarily hosted a THAAD anti-missile defense system.
The Russian fear is also highlighted by the amount of money each country is spending on its military. All three spend more than 2 percent of GDP on defense — making them all part of the select 2 percent club, made up of only a third of NATO’s members, almost all of which are in Russia’s proximity. The five largest relative military budget increases since 2014 have all taken place in Central and Eastern European countries.
Just as the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia led to the creation of a strong Romanian defense industry according to one Romanian general, so the annexation of Crimea has also refocused the Romanian government’s attention on the urgent goal of strengthening its military, with the United States as vital partner. Since 2014, Romania has acquired 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons, seven Patriot missile defense systems, and three M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, among other major platforms.
The Russian Factor in U.S.-China Competition in Central and Eastern Europe
China has found itself caught in the middle of these geopolitical and military developments that are strongly connected to the perceived threat from Russia. In recent years, China and Russia have developed closer relations, something that has reverberated negatively in China’s relationship with Central and Eastern European countries leading to concerns about intelligence sharing between the two powers. In such a scenario, the risks of using Huawei 5G equipment are far more serious because, while Central and Eastern European countries would probably never find themselves in a conflict with China, a military confrontation with Russia is a real possibility. Although countries like Greece or Hungary aren’t so concerned about Russia, those that are physically closer to Russia value their U.S. security guarantee more than potential economic investments. In this context, China’s image as Russia’s great-power ally hasn’t been very helpful.
This points to the apparent failure of the 17+1 mechanism between China and Central and Eastern European countries, which is due to the fact that China failed to understand the “Russian factor” in Central and Eastern Europe. The 17+1 is a mechanism set up in 2012 between China and 16 Central and Eastern European countries (with Greece joining in 2019) in order to facilitate the arrival of Chinese investments and technology in the region. While it holds annual summits between heads of government or state, the mechanism didn’t succeed in achieving its goals, as many Chinese projects are at a standstill or under negotiation even seven years after their announcement.
While China may hold leverage in the form of some unfulfilled investments, the United States is the security guarantee that can keep Central and Eastern Europe free from the perceived Russian threat. That is why the United States succeeded in signing its first anti-Huawei memorandum of understanding in Eastern, not Western, Europe. In this region, the United States has more leverage than China, something the United States doesn’t have with larger European countries. On the contrary, Western European countries have stronger economic and commercial ties to China, which increases Beijing’s influence in the 5G issue. Take, for example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire not to restrict Huawei’s access to the 5G network or the United Kingdom’s recent decision to allow Huawei to participate in building the U.K. network, excluding it only from the network’s core and implementing a cap on its market share. Considerations about China’s possible response against a Huawei ban have played an important role in these decisions.
America is the pivotal ally of Central and Eastern European countries that fear Russia as a security threat. It was this “Russian factor” that led several of these countries to side with Washington over China and Huawei, which now find themselves squeezed out of a region that they once considered favorable terrain. The United States took advantage of its influence in Central and Eastern Europe and the fear of Russia, scoring some of its most important victories against Huawei in the region.
The memoranda of understanding between the United States and Romania, Poland, and Estonia are an important part of the American strategy to contain Huawei. However, the lack of legal follow-up in each country, and America’s failure to sign such memoranda of understanding with larger countries, highlight the limitations of Washington’s strategy. At the very least, however, the memoranda of understanding are proof of the partial failure of China’s Central and Eastern European strategy and its 17+1 mechanism, as Beijing failed to understand how much the region fears Russia and depends on U.S. security guarantees.
Andreea Brinza is vice president of The Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP), where she researches China’s foreign policy, with a focus on the Belt and Road Initiative. Her Twitter is @Andreebrin.