Create a bulwark against Chinese economic coercion: Advance open RAN in Europe

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European policymakers are increasingly aligned with their counterparts in North America and Indo-Pacific democracies on the national security threats posed by Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant. 2020 saw the tide turn against Huawei, with several countries announcing bans — and de-facto bans — and many joining the U.S.-led Clean Network initiative. In response, Chinese officials and Huawei representatives pushed back with a PR campaign in the United Kingdom warning of delayed 5G rollouts and outright threats of retaliation directed at Sweden.

In an effort to broaden its threat, the Chinese delegation added a clause to the recently negotiated EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) punishing European states who ban Huawei. While EU negotiators struck it from the final text, the Chinese delegation’s attempt is a remarkable example of China using its market size to advance its national champions abroad.

With key countries such as Germany still on the fence on the Huawei issue, it remains critical for the Biden administration and the U.S. Congress to work with transatlantic allies to create a bulwark against Beijing’s economic coercion and advance new telecommunications solutions based on shared interests and values.

The Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act (TTSA), which was introduced in the 116th Congress, is a good starting point to secure 5G networks in Europe and incentivize adopting non-Huawei 5G equipment. With their co-sponsored bill, Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) would authorize the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to provide financing for secure 5G telecommunications infrastructure development in Central and Eastern Europe. This proposed legislation is a direct response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the 17+1 format, the latter of which Beijing attempted to reinvigorate earlier this month but was met with a frosty response in some EU member states.

If and when the TTSA is reintroduced in the 117th Congress, lawmakers should expand the act to promote 5G technology alternatives, particularly open radio access networks (open RAN). Network architecture featuring open RAN entails interoperable software run on vendor-neutral hardware, which offers advantages in security, interoperability, and supply chain resiliency.

Expanding the legislation to prioritize open RAN solutions has several benefits. For one, linking financing to advancing these solutions would signal U.S. government support key for the viability and broad adoption of this technology alternative. This would be a boon to American companies, who are key players in open RAN. It would also have the effect of encouraging European firms to enter and compete in the open RAN space, which would boost greater technology sovereignty in Europe as well as deepen transatlantic cooperation on digital infrastructure, telecommunications, and technology norms.

As early movers in this space, the United States and Europe could leverage that advantage to set the rules and norms that dictate its use.

There is important momentum behind open RAN in Europe that U.S. lawmakers should capitalize on — in late January, the continent’s four biggest telecom providers published a memorandum committing to implementing open RAN-based networks. Germany recently drafted an investment plan dedicating over €300 million of investment for open RAN technology. Furthermore, the United States and Europe could assist in the proliferation of this technology farther afield, which would be key in advancing democratic technology norms globally. Japan in particular would be a strong partner in such an effort given its technological expertise in open RAN technologies and a shared interest in curbing Chinese tech exports in the Indo-Pacific.

Historically, Huawei has had high market shares in developing countries that cannot afford to implement more expensive solutions. Central and Eastern Europe could serve as a testing ground for the adoption of open RAN solutions in countries with weaker infrastructure and with fewer resources. This could provide a case study for the future adoption of open RAN solutions across the developing world as part of broader engagement on infrastructure development to help make these countries less susceptible to Chinese economic coercion and predatory lending. Of further benefit, exporting democratic norms and values for communication technology use counteracts the spread of digital authoritarianism.

Reintroducing and expanding the bill would also signal to European allies that the United States is ready to put its money where its mouth is. For the past few years, the U.S. pushed countries globally to ban Huawei infrastructure through the State Department’s Clean Network Initiative, while the U.S. did little to account for the significant increase in cost that abandoning Huawei would impose. The bill would provide financing to European allies who are most vulnerable to Beijing’s promises of low-cost approaches to 5G and Beijing’s retaliatory economic measures. The legislation would also help restore trust in the United States after the Trump administration’s rhetoric significantly weakened the transatlantic relationship.

The Transatlantic Telecommunications Security Act could move the needle by helping to prompt a transformation of the telecommunications sector. By using Central and Eastern Europe as a testing ground, the United States and Europe could practice cooperation on this critical technology before promoting it as an alternative to Huawei 5G kit abroad. Most importantly, using the TTSA to advance open RAN solutions would ensure that the telecommunications infrastructure of America’s European allies and partners are secure, reliable, and resilient.

Carisa Nietsche is a research associate at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C. 

Martijn Rasser is a Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at CNAS.

Tags 5G Adam Kinzinger Belt and Road initiative China Chinese businesses Criticism of Huawei cybersecurity Huawei Joe Biden Marcy Kaptur Mobile telecommunications open radio access network open RAN Technology The Clean Network

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