Reports are circulating that Germany plans to ban telecom operators in the country from using specific components made by Chinese vendors Huawei and ZTE in 5G networks. As it stands, Huawei accounts for 59% of Germany’s 5G network equipment (RAN), so removing it would be a sizeable task.
According to Reuters, a government source has said the ban could include “components already built into the networks,” something that would be costly for operators.
Though not yet confirmed, a German interior ministry spokesperson noted that a “general review” was being carried out on telecom tech suppliers in comments to the news agency. The country is also in the middle of a broader re-evaluation of its relationship with China.
“The main change is that these strict checks for potential security risks now also apply to the existing components in telecommunications networks,” the spokesperson told Reuters. Operators would also not be compensated for any parts that would be ripped out of the network interior ministry paper on the review.
If Germany does ban Huawei, it will be following a trend which has seen European ban or heavily control the use of equipment from Chinese vendors.
Germany’s digital economy is heavily dependent on Chinese infrastructure
Huawei is in more than half of Germany’s 5G infrastructure, according to figures from telecoms industry experts Strand Consult, and this means it has a big influence on the country’s digital economy.
According to analyst John Strand, founder of Strand Consult, this is a concern for Germany, which could see its networks effectively turned off if tensions with Beijing were to escalate.
“In practical terms, the Chinese can either turn off the German networks or then can stop delivering software updates for the equipment they have supplied in Germany,” he tells Tech Monitor. “It is a ‘here and now effect’ that will have a very big effect on Germany and the rest of the EU.”
China could also stop updating the software in the infrastructure, having the same effect over a longer period. “This is what I call the slow death or slow shutdown of digital Germany,” Strand says.
These fears have been heightened in the aftermath of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Four months before the war, the previous German government had claimed in an assessment of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that the country’s energy supplies “won’t be jeopardised” by the increased dependency on Russian gas, but this proved not to be the case.
Germany is now considering what it would mean if something similar happened with China.
“I usually refer to Germany as the country that did not understand the challenges associated with using Chinese infrastructure to build the foundations of the digital society before experiencing what dependence on Russian gas meant,” Strand says.
EU is already putting its foot down on Chinese tech companies
As part of its digital strategy, the EU is already clamping down on what it sees to be “untrusted vendors.”
While it doesn’t mention Huawei or ZTE by name, the European Commission has been vocal in its stance on Chinese companies operating within its member states. In February, the Bloc banned the app TikTok from its corporate devices citing security concerns and internal commissioner Thierry Breton has warned Byte Dance, the parent company, that it must abide by EU rules or face being banned.
Many EU countries have already made themselves independent from Huawei or are in the process of doing so, according to Strand, with France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and others leading the way.
The UK has also banned Huawei from its 5G networks, serving notice to operators in the country that they have to remove and replace all equipment by 2027.
However, some are being left behind: “Right now we have some big countries that have not understood [the risks posed by Chinese vendors] such as Germany, Poland, Austria and Italy,” Strand told Tech Monitor.
Germany will not impose sanctions on China
The political situation between Germany and China, as well as the rest of the EU, won't go the same way as Russia, says Strand, because of the size and power of the Chinese state.
"Germany has put itself and the rest of the EU in a situation where it does not have the muscle to impose sanctions on China in the event of the invasion of Taiwan," he explained. "The German government knows that and the Chinese know that.
"The dependence on Russian gas was the trailer for the horror movie about how China can shut down Germany tomorrow," he continues. "It is not only a problem for Germany, but it is also a huge problem for the EU and the free world, which is very dependent on Germany."
Germany makes up 29% of the EU's GDP and 20% of the EU's population. According to Strand Consult, it is "significantly more dependent" on Chinese infrastructure than Germany has been on Russian gas.
A spokesperson from Huawei told Tech Monitor that it wouldn't comment on speculation: “Huawei has a strong security record in Germany and around the world for over 20 years," they said.
"Huawei believes that there should an objective and factual discussion about how risks in cyberspace can be mitigated. This approach includes clear standards, certifications and verifications. The consensus among the vast majority of security experts is that restrictions of a reliable supplier with a strong security record will not make infrastructure more secure.