MUNICH ― U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Saturday called out China as America’s main adversary and warned allies that letting the Chinese firm Huawei build its next-generation, or 5G, network risks their security cooperation and information sharing arrangements with the U.S.
“Reliance on Chinese 5G vendors, for example, could render our partners’ critical systems vulnerable to disruption, manipulation and espionage,” Esper said in a speech at the high-level Munich Security Conference. “It could also jeopardize our communication and intelligence sharing capabilities, and by extension, our alliances.”
Adopting Huawei’s equipment on allies’ 5G networks, Esper said, “could inject serious risk into our defense cooperation." It was a tough statement partially at odds with other U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who offered assurances last week that U.S.-U.K. intelligence sharing remained strong despite Britain’s decision to include Huawei in some parts of its nascent 5G network.
A day earlier, the White House’s point person for international telecommunications policy, Robert Blair, told reporters: “There will be no erosion in our overall intelligence sharing.” But he added that Washington would take a “hard look” at the consequences.
If the messages were mixed on the response, Esper, Pompeo and U.S. lawmakers of both parties (including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.) were unified in their assessment that China will be able to use Huawei’s 5G participation for cyber espionage and other subversive aims, which they deemed a fundamental security threat.
“Huawei and other Chinese state-backed tech companies are Trojan horses for Chinese intelligence,” Pompeo said as part of a speech that claimed “the West is winning” against authoritarian regimes.
Germany hasn’t yet decided whether it would adopt an outright ban on Huawei or restrictions with the potential to exclude the Chinese telecom giant. The British government, two weeks ago, defied U.S. President Donald Trump when it decided to let the firm build parts of the country’s network.
The global community, Esper said, should be deeply concerned about Beijing’s use of artificial intelligence and technologies “to surveil and repress Muslim minorities, journalists and pro-democracy protesters."
Last December, NATO leaders agreed for the first time that they must as a group consider the impact of China’s rise to economic and military prominence on their security. Esper publicly presented America’s concerns about China when he met with allies at NATO headquarters on Wednesday and Thursday ― but he said Saturday that the alliance is still forming a China strategy.
“First and foremost, NATO should focus on the security of the continent, deterring Russian bad behavior,” he said.
During the question and answer portion of Esper’s remarks, former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves questioned what alternative the U.S. government is presenting ― prompting Esper to acknowledge it is a work in progress.
While the White House explores partnerships with firms like Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson, the Pentagon is inviting commercial vendors to test 5G prototypes at several of its military facilities.
Beyond Huawei and 5G, Esper called on the international community to “wake up to the challenges presented by China’s manipulation of the long-standing international rules-based order that has benefited all of us for many decades.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping, Esper said, is taking his country “faster and further in the wrong direction — more internal repression, more predatory economic practices, more heavy-handedness, and most concerning for me, a more aggressive military posture.”
Though the U.S. doesn’t seek conflict with China, Esper said, Washington is investing in both conventional and advanced missile defense capabilities as Beijing develops and deploys long-range fires “to intimidate and threaten its neighbors.”
As China develops directed-energy weapons and killer satellites, the Pentagon is standing up a new Space Force “to ensure freedom of use, commerce and navigation in, to and through space, for all.”
Esper also touted the size of the Pentagon’s proposed research and development budget for 2021, which potentially divests from certain legacy systems to instead fund nascent hypersonic missiles, artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.