EU holds off China telecoms trade probe amid US ‘cyber-espionage’ claims

Huawei engineer works in one of its Labs in Europe. [Huawei]

The European Commission has delayed a trade case against two Chinese telecom equipment makers that are under scrutiny in the United States for posing a national security threat to the country's telecoms infrastructure.

A US congressional report said on Monday (8 October) that Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp – the world's second- and fifth-largest makers of wireless telecoms gear – were potential security risks and should be shut out of the US market.

After a nearly year-long investigation, the US Committee's report concluded that the two companies had "potential ties" to the Chinese government, which they claimed is "already known to be a major perpetrator of cyber-espionage."

"China has the means, opportunity and motive to use telecommunications companies for malicious purposes," the US report states.

Huawei and ZTE have rejected the accusations and denounced cyber-security threats as an excuse for closing the US telecoms equipment market to Chinese investors.

"When someone says that for reasons of network security governments can only use one national provider, I believe that is unfair," said Jingwen Tao, president of Huawei’s western European region, in a May 2012 interview with EURACTIV.

"We do not want to foster insecurity in the networks. We are equipment providers and we think that security problems originate from individuals rather than equipment," he added.

EU trade probe underway

In Europe, where Huawei and ZTE have had greater success in selling equipment and the concern is over prices rather than security, the two Chinese companies can expect some respite – probably until the middle of next year, EU diplomats and trade experts say.

EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht is gathering evidence in order to launch an anti-dumping or anti-subsidy case, but his efforts have been hindered by the fact that no European producer, such as Ericsson and Alcatel-Lucent, has complained. A formal complaint is normally a prerequisite for an investigation.

Analysts say European telecoms gear makers would be reluctant to cut themselves off from China, where demand for telecoms equipment is growing.

Nokia Siemens Networks and Alcatel-Lucent, globally No. 3 and No. 4 telecoms gear makers, have shown no willingness to do so, while market leader Ericsson has even said it does not want a case to be brought.

China subsidies 'nearly everything': De Gucht

China is the European Union's second-biggest trading partner after the United States, and the bloc is China's biggest trade partner. Trade between the two is forecast to hit a record €500 billion ($397 billion) this year.

Despite this, relations have been tense, with De Gucht complaining China subsidises "nearly everything", distorting competition.

The EU suspects that the Chinese producers are hurting European telecoms equipment suppliers through artificially low prices, which are at least in part funded by the massive credit lines from the Chinese government.

A Reuters eyewitness has seen an offer from a Chinese gear maker to replace the whole network of a European carrier for nothing.

An own-initiative trade case?

De Gucht said in May the Commission was considering launching a case on its own initiative, without the need for an industry complaint. It last took this approach in a case against India in 1997.

Trade experts say such cases are awkward because the Commission appears to be both complainant and judge and still needs co-operation from EU producers and EU member states, which ultimately vote on Commission proposals to impose duties.

"It's clear a number of member states are not in favour of this," an EU trade expert said.

The Commission also wishes to hold fire after starting an investigation last month into suspected dumping of solar panels by Chinese producers, the largest sector ever targeted.

The move, albeit following a complaint by European companies, drew a warning from China.

Trade experts and diplomats believe the Commission is awaiting Beijing's response before launching a telecoms case and hopes the solar panel case impresses upon China how serious it is about tackling dumping and subsidies.

Without action by June, the EU would impose duties on Chinese solar panels and probably launch its own action against Huawei and ZTE, trade experts say.

The global ICT solutions provider Huawei said in a statement:

"The ranking member of the Committee stated at the hearing that the investigation by the committee “is not political jousting or trade protectionism masquerading as national security”. Unfortunately, the Committee’s report not only ignored our proven track record of network security in the United States and globally, but also paid no attention to the large amount of facts that we have provided. Even before the investigation began, the Chairman of the committee advocated to media that “I stand by my caution to the American business community about engaging Huawei technology until we can fully determine their motives”.

"The report released by the Committee today employs many rumors and speculations to prove nonexistent accusations. This report does not address the challenges faced by the ICT industry," Huawei added.

The European Union is set to establish a dedicated cybercrime centre at the beginning of 2013 aimed at tackling online operations of organised crime groups, ranging from e-banking fraud to online child sexual exploitation.

As a part of a bigger strategy to encourage e-commerce, Brussels announced in March year the establishment of a cybercrime centre to counter the online activities of organised crime.

The European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA), based in Heraklion, Greece, was set up in 2005 as an advisory body on network security.

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