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Huawei, US-China tensions and West’s 5G fears on the agenda as Beijing joins security talks

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China’s most senior diplomat is expected to try to assuage Western cybersecurity fears at a top gathering in Germany on Friday, analysts said.

State Councillor Yang Jiechi will be confronted by the US and its allies on issues including Venezuela, Iran and Chinese technology giant Huawei’s part in developing 5G networks at the three-day Munich Security Conference.

With a trade conflict and a military rivalry between Beijing and Washington simmer in the background, conference organisers expect 35 heads of government and heads of state, and 50 foreign and defence ministers, including an American delegation with Vice-President Mike Pence, to attend.

Yang, a member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, will represent China at the conference, which he last attended in 2015. Last year’s conference was attended by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

This year’s topics include the “great power competition” between the United States, China, and Russia. In a report released on Monday, conference organisers listed US-China tensions as one of their top 10 security issues of 2019.

The report said that while the trade war had not led to bloodshed, the rivalry “could have graver geopolitical consequences than all the other crises” if relations deteriorated.

Increasing pressure on Chinese technology firms on security grounds had strained Beijing’s relations with Europe, which Yang would be hard-pressed to overcome, analysts said.

“While the US has taken a clear stance on Huawei, Europe is still debating the issue. As allies of the US, many European countries will not ignore US claims of security issues about Huawei,” said Feng Zhongping, vice-president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

“Cybersecurity is a major concern of any nation today, including China, but China, and some in Europe as well, feel that the US needs to bring proof [for its accusations].”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday that US companies and interests might scale back operations in Europe if countries there continued to do business with Huawei.

Pompeo said European nations should be aware of the risks to privacy protection for their citizens. The US would find it difficult to partner Europe if nations continued using Huawei technology, he said.

The European Union and several European countries, including Britain, Norway, France and the Czech Republic are looking at whether to ban Huawei and other Chinese technology firms from their 5G telecommunications infrastructure on security concerns.

Last week, German officials said they would not exclude Huawei from 5G network development, business newspaper Handelsblatt reported. Other reports suggested that Germany’s security authorities would still investigate whether Huawei posed a threat.

During a visit to Japan last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Germany must guarantee Huawei “does not just simply hand the data to the [Chinese] state”.

Huawei would be “front and centre” of informal discussions and in sessions at the conference, said Jan Weidenfeld of the Mercator Institute for China Studies, an offshoot of a privately funded foundation based in Berlin.

While the EU and many member states shared US security concerns about China, US persistence had not been welcome, Weidenfeld said.

“Europeans will not necessarily like an additional lecture from the US side on this,” he said. “Europe has had very intense discussions with the US, and the additional US push has not been helpful. The message to the US will be ‘We have this covered’.”

Shi Zhiqin, who studies European issues at the China-EU Relations at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy, said: “The US-China trade war, and now the tech war, is putting pressure on Europe and it is increasingly hesitant towards China.”

“China will, of course, take a critical attitude towards the US and say that it is pushing its concerns on others for its own benefit,” Shi said.

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