Germany orders ban on Chinese companies from its 5G network

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Germany has ordered a staggered ban on Chinese components in domestic 5G networks by 2029, in a compromise decision that seeks to end a long-running dispute in Berlin over the danger of Beijing’s involvement in critical digital infrastructure. 

“We are protecting the central nervous system of Germany as a business location, and we are protecting the communications of citizens, companies and the state,” interior minister Nancy Faeser said on Thursday.

Praising a “clear and strict agreement” with German telecommunications companies, Faeser said Germany had to avoid “one-sided dependencies” amid a rising threat of espionage and sabotage by hostile foreign governments.

The decision, nevertheless, falls short of calls from many ministries, including her own, for a faster timetable.

Under the compromise agreed by the German cabinet, Chinese components will be removed from German 5G networks in two phases. 

First, telecoms companies will have until 2026 to remove equipment, mainly supplied by Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE, from “core” facilities such as 5G data centres, where concerns about potential Chinese access to data and vulnerable infrastructure are particularly acute. 

In a second stage, companies will have to remove Chinese equipment from the broader network and transmission sites, such as radio antennas, by 2029. 

The five-year grace period reflects the gulf within the German government between those troubled by security threats and those who prioritise good relations with China, the country’s largest trading partner.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz has often interposed himself as the deciding force in such disputes, favouring measures he sees as beneficial to the German economy.

Government security officials had argued in cabinet discussions for the removal of Chinese components from the core 5G network by 2025 at the latest.

“Prioritising economic policy considerations over security policy in this way borders on negligence,” said Konstantin von Notz, chair of the parliamentary control committee, responsible for overseeing German security and intelligence. 

“The current compromise had been in the works for weeks. Unfortunately, in [my] view, it is not a good one. Five years is an extremely long time, especially considering what has happened in terms of security policy in the past two years.”

Despite downplaying the significance of Chinese technology in their services, providers such as Deutsche Telekom and Telefónica have long resisted pressure from Berlin for components to be removed, arguing the costs of doing so would be unnecessary and prohibitive. 

They have also warned of potential disruptions to Germans’ already-patchy data connections if forced to act too quickly.

As well as Scholz, they have found an ally in German digital minister Volker Wissing, who was also opposed to a swifter timetable.

Germany’s slow decision-making on this matter has led to mounting pressure from allies, particularly the US, which has long warned of the dangers of involving Chinese companies in critical infrastructure. 

The EU has also considered whether it should legislate to ban Chinese technology.

Countries that adopted bans have sometimes struggled with their implementation, however.

The UK banned Chinese equipment from its 5G network in 2020, but also gave telecoms companies a staggered phaseout plan to adhere to.

An initial order to remove Chinese technology from the UK’s core network by the end of 2023 was extended to the end of 2024 amid complaints from telecoms providers about the difficulty of meeting the target.

The British government still expects its 5G network to be completely free of Chinese components by 2027. 

“There is still no comprehensible evidence or plausible scenarios that Huawei’s technology would pose any kind of security risk,” a spokesperson for the Chinese company said in response to the German announcement on Thursday.

The company’s long record of business in Germany proved it was a “reliable supplier”, it added.

Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin

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