Lawmakers fret as China funnels coronavirus aid to Europe

By sending Huawei to Europe’s rescue, experts say Beijing hopes to remake the embattled telecom company’s image as it deflects blame for its early handing of the virus.

AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
March 23, 2020, 8 p.m.

As the rest of the world battens down the hatches amid a rising tide of COVID-19 cases, Beijing is in the midst of a major charm offensive.

In the past few days, both the Chinese government and Huawei—China’s largest telecommunications firm and a global leader in 5G wireless equipment—have provided Europe with huge amounts of personal protective equipment to help combat the coronavirus’s spread.

The aid is being welcomed by European governments, many of which are already reeling from massive spikes in infection rates. But as the United States confronts its own shortage of face masks and other protective gear, lawmakers and experts worry that Beijing’s charity is designed to deflect blame for its poor initial response to the virus, boost Huawei’s faltering prospects in Europe, and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies.

“I don’t know, in the long run, how effective this will ultimately be,” said Martijn Rasser, a senior fellow in the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. “But for the near-term optics, it definitely sticks a thumb in the eye of the United States, because we’re largely not able to respond in kind.”

Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, blamed the Trump administration for allowing Beijing and its corporate allies to show up the United States.

“This administration’s retreat from multilateralism has been a boon for Chinese soft power,” Warner told National Journal in a statement Monday. “The U.S. has historically been a global leader in responding to global emergencies, including health crises like the 2014 Ebola outbreak. With President Trump’s retreat from the world stage, we’re seeing the Chinese government, and its proxies, fill the void. This latest display by Huawei, almost certainly done in coordination with the Chinese government, is no exception.”

Rep. Michael McCaul, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told National Journal that China intends to “redirect” blame for the outbreak by leveraging donations of medical supplies through its “belt and road” network.

“It’s a propaganda machine, on the part of the Chinese Communist Party, to … weaponize medical-supply chains to really punish enemies and reward compliance,” said McCaul.

“They’re using their belt-and-road initiative, which Italy was a part of … the interesting thing about Huawei, is in addition to medical, they’re sending telecommunication devices,” he added.

McCaul sponsored House-passed legislation that directs the president to form an interagency task force on 5G, and ultimately to send technology advisers to standard-setting bodies in Europe. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has not taken up the bill.

While there’s been no official announcement of coordination between the Chinese government and Huawei, the two appear to be working hand-in-glove to bring critical medical supplies to Europe.

The Chinese government began sending coronavirus supplies to Europe as early as March 12, when its embassy in Madrid announced a shipment of 1.8 million masks and other medical equipment to Italy and Spain. In the following weeks, France and Greece also received major shipments directly from Beijing.

But in the past few days, Huawei has become the face of China’s coronavirus charity in Europe. After offering Italian hospitals video-conferencing tools and enhanced connectivity last week, on Friday the company announced plans to send a shipment of medical equipment to Ireland. Huawei sent 800,000 face masks to the Netherlands over the weekend, with its president, Ren Zhengfei, donating an additional 1 million masks to Spain.

Other major Chinese tech firms, including Alibaba and Baidu, are also reaching out to Europe with AI tools and algorithms to help combat the coronavirus. But the scale and scope of Huawei’s shipments to Europe are so far unmatched by anything other than the Chinese government’s own efforts.

James Lewis, senior vice president and director of the technology policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Huawei is clearly following instructions from the Chinese Communist Party.

“Why would it occur to a Chinese phone company to send face masks to Ireland? Because they were told to do so,” said Lewis. “This isn’t out of the goodness of their heart. This is because they are part of a larger political campaign by Beijing.”

A spokesperson for Huawei did not respond.

Both Huawei and Beijing are eager to get back in Europe’s good graces after a long back-and-forth between the company and U.S. allies over its inclusion in Europe’s buildout of 5G wireless infrastructure. Washington has long warned of the espionage threat posed by the inclusion of Huawei equipment, limiting its business options even in those nations that chose to allow the company into less-sensitive networks.

“Huawei needs to rebuild its reputation in Europe, because it’s been badly damaged,” said Lewis. “And so they see this as a way to do it.”

Experts also saw self-interest in the nations that Huawei has chosen to assist. That’s particularly true of the Netherlands, which has yet to decide whether to include Huawei in its own 5G buildout. The Dutch are also blocking the transfer of state-of-the-art computer-chip-manufacturing technology to China at the U.S.'s behest, an ongoing source of frustration for Beijing.

“It’s not surprising to see where they’re focusing their efforts,” said Rasser. “Subtlety is not one of Beijing’s strong suits.”

Congress has also allocated significant funding toward an international response to COVID-19. Lawmakers included roughly $1 billion in foreign assistance for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the first COVID-19 package, which the department is figuring out how to spend. The military has also begun delivering supplies to affected European nations.

“I think that it’s going to get worse before it gets better, [and] that we may be looking at another foreign-aid assistance package,” said McCaul.

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