US Ambassador Richard Grenell has threatened that the US will restrict intelligence with Germany if it builds 5G networks with Huawei. Such a threat isn't made lightly — and could have huge security implications.
German politicians from German Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) said Tuesday that they're in no need of "tips from US ambassadors" about the nation's competency to address cybersecurity threats.
The rebuttal from CDU politician Michael Grosse-Brömer comes after the US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell sent a letter to German Minister of Economic Affairs Peter Altmaier warning that the US was prepared to severely restrict intelligence sharing between the two nations should Germany allow Huawei or any other Chinese firm to build up state-of-the-art 5G mobile networks in Germany.
In response to the development, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Tuesday that security in the construction of 5G networks was "vital" to her government and that she will engage in talks with global partners on how to best define standards.
Though Grenell has faced much condemnation for his unorthodox comments on German state affairs since his appointment last year, security and data privacy experts contend that such a shot across the bow of an ally is rarely made without properly vetting a threat — the security implications for both countries are simply too great.
"Germany is really reliant on US intelligence to help clamp down on terror networks here. For America, it is useful as well to have allies that share information," Henning Riecke, an expert on US and German security policy with the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin, told DW. "I don't think that the Americans would throw around a threat so easily."
'Jeopardize nimble cooperation'
Grenell's letter — sent on Friday and first reported by The Wall Street Journal on Monday — underscored that secure communications systems vital for the continued effectiveness of defense networks like NATO could become compromised if underwritten by Huawei, a tech giant long suspected to be a puppet of the Chinese government.
Such suspicions have fed into Washington's efforts in recent months to have allies bar Huawei and other Chinese firms from modernizing their vital communications networks. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan have already announced bans on Huawei technology for sensitive communications and network revamps after cajoling from US legislators.
Grenell's letter to the German government, however, marks the first time that the US has stipulated that doing business with Huawei would lead to intelligence ramifications, the Wall Street Journal reported.
"To the extent there are untrusted vendors in the networks of an ally, that could raise future questions about the integrity and confidentiality of sensitive communications within that country, as well as between that country and its allies," a spokesperson with the US Embassy in Berlin told DW. "This could in the future jeopardize nimble cooperation and some sharing of information."
A spokesperson for Huawei Germany told DW that it "sharply and decisively" rejects any accusation that the company is a security threat to any nation around the world, citing the fact that more than 3 billion people worldwide — and roughly half of Germans — use some form of Huawei technology in their daily communications.
Grenell has received flak over the past year for his repeated involvement in German matters of state, including condemnations of Germany's anemic defense spending, its commitment to the controversial Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline with Russia, and his problematic vow to work toward "empowering" anti-establishment parties across Europe.
That Grenell "threatened German companies involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline earlier this year with a 'significant sanction risk' was a nuisance," Dieter Janecek, a member of the Bundestag for the Greens, told DW. "The US now threatening consequences for intelligence cooperation should Huawei be involved in the development of the 5G mobile networks in Germany significantly oversteps the mark."
Still, Grenell is only a "messenger," Riecke underlined. "The essence of this development is that this is putting a very important cooperation between the US and Germany in jeopardy."
Germany has historically relied on the US for intelligence sharing, particularly in weeding out terror cells linked to radical groups like the "Islamic State" that have the potential to engage in domestic terror attacks. One of its closest allies in Europe with advanced intelligence capabilities, the US also counts on Germany to share information in line with its own geopolitical objectives.
Meanwhile, it's no stretch of the imagination to believe that a Chinese firm — even one owned by individuals and not the regime itself, such as Huawei — may provide the undemocratic nation unbridled access to sensitive German and US intelligence.
"It is a known fact that Chinese agencies are active in political as well as economic espionage," Niko Härting, a Berlin lawyer specializing in data privacy, told DW.
Sincerity in doubt
On the other hand, the recent trade war between China and the administration of US President Donald Trump — as well as its actions against German automotive and steel firms — sheds doubt on the sincerity of the warning, said Riecke.
"Just imagine that a threat is issued, but it's an empty threat, and the Germans build up a cooperation with Huawei with numerous security checks built in," he said. "There will be less trust on the American side … But there will also be less trust on the German side because the Americans were willing to put our intelligence cooperation in jeopardy."