China, 5G, and NATO Security

October 27, 2021
Julia Pallanch
Amy Yanan Zhang
7 min read
Photo credit: Alexander Supertramp /
From the major trifecta of summits around President Joe Biden’s visit to Europe during the summer, it has become clear that China will occupy a central role in the transatlantic relationship in the years ahead.

China now intersects with NATO’s agenda in several ways and occupies a far more entrenched part of the discussion. While NATO is not in a military conflict with China, Beijing remains a key geopolitical competitor to the West. Moreover, the United States sees China as a direct national security threat, and several plausible contingencies could draw the two sides into military confrontation.

The Right Role for NATO

While there are still debates about how far Europe and the United States should be aligned on China, the European NATO members have traditionally assumed part of the U.S. security and defense agenda in exchange for security guarantees. However, China also poses a set of distinctly security risks for Europe, particularly relating to resilience and critical infrastructure and to the considerable dependency of Europe’s digital infrastructure on Chinese technology. The current debate lies in whether NATO is the optimal platform to address those issues, if the EU should take a more active role instead, or if there is an appropriate division of responsibilities between them. For resilience to be the catalyst of closer NATO-EU cooperation, a balance must be found in which the roles of both sides are explicitly defined.

While NATO is adopting a more robust framework in the non-military dimension, it ultimately remains focused mostly on political coordination and consultation, crisis management and collective defense, and interoperability. The EU, on the other hand, has a range of regulatory instruments at its disposal, including the 5G Toolbox and the European Democracy Action Plan, to address some of the wider resilience issues. Future NATO­–EU cooperation should be established on the basis of closer linkages between traditional military-capability planning and resilience requirements, as well as a clear understanding of common ground and shared responsibilities.

Defense of Civilian Telecommunications

Strong, modern telecommunications infrastructure capable of intercepting and withstanding hybrid interference is a prerequisite for NATO to deliver on its key mission of collective defense. Yet, this infrastructure in Europe is largely privately owned, and as such is left exposed to the risk of external interference and susceptible to economic decisions that can neglect national security aspects if not clearly regulated by law. Russia is no longer the only state actor resorting to various types of hybrid tactics on NATO territory: China, too, has been using various sophisticated political and non-military tactics to advance its political and economic influence. In the face of these existing threats, it is imperative for NATO and the EU to delineate their scope of action, especially in instances—such as telecommunications—where the line between civil and military infrastructure is not clearly marked.

Technological dominance ensures not only battlefield supremacy but also supremacy beyond it. Such dominance is contingent on a robust and constantly advancing industrial base that integrates civilian and military innovation, research, and development.

Telecommunications play a central role in the functioning of societies and economies, and provide the basis and future of innovation. These two dimensions are subsequently linked in the race for technological supremacy. Technology has been and will be the key to deterrence and defense. Technological dominance ensures not only battlefield supremacy but also supremacy beyond it. Such dominance is contingent on a robust and constantly advancing industrial base that integrates civilian and military innovation, research, and development. Joint innovation initiatives across the Atlantic are essential to maintain and heighten critical capabilities on and off the battlefield. In the interest of maintaining NATO’s competitive edge and strengthening the alliance’s resilience, new political channels integrating the economic dimensions underpinning elements of security policy, particularly with regards to industrial strategy, need to be established.

Prioritize 5G

Given that cyber threats have long been an area of concern for NATO, 5G networks have naturally become a focus for NATO discussions, even if its defense dimensions have only been slowly put on the agenda. In addition, how data is processed and stored is a key security area that must not become a blind spot. Protecting the public sector and industries, along with ensuring that companies, citizens, and government institutions have the possibility of sending their traffic end-to-end to a non-Chinese network, is at the heart of the matter.

In 5G, for instance, cloud infrastructure will play a significant role. Under Chinese law, the government can request and be granted access to the data of any private company in China, putting at risk all data on a Chinese 5G cloud. To take the example of Belgium, all of its telecommunications infrastructure was previously reliant on Chinese equipment, including mobile communications used by the EU and NATO administrations. Similarly, Chinese equipment today permeates Germany’s networks, meaning that the mobile traffic of all NATO troops based in Germany goes, at some point, through networks reliant on Chinese technology. Deutsche Telekom’s cloud, built and run by Huawei, had the Nuclear Research Center (CERN) in Switzerland as a key reference customer upon its launch. While it is clearly a minimum requirement to have scrutiny in place for networks that fulfill functions for government networks, defense industry, and internal security, networks that fulfill critical functions for society, such as in utilities and pharmaceutical industries, healthcare, banking, or transportation and communication, must likewise not rely on Chinese equipment.

The cost of replacing Chinese telecommunications infrastructure in Europe will not be prohibitive: as operators upgrade from 4G to 5G, all aging equipment will be replaced regardless.

The cost of replacing Chinese telecommunications infrastructure in Europe will not be prohibitive: as operators upgrade from 4G to 5G, all aging equipment will be replaced regardless. As such, a total ban on new Huawei equipment in Europe could “naturally” take about six years before the installed untrusted base is simply phased out. The question then, is rather one of ensuring a faster transition towards trusted technology on national security grounds, where short-term commercial considerations regarding phaseout times do not determine the pace. Chinese vendors are neither more technologically advanced, nor more competitive than their European counterparts: they simply rely on a system in which  the combination of subsidies for homegrown companies operating on global markets and a heavily protected domestic market continue to distort the playing field. The issue is most acute for the smaller operators across Europe, Latin America, and Asia, which have weaker credit scores and thus must resort to Chinese loans unless alternative financing mechanisms are offered. The United States and South Korea are considered leaders in 5G network rollout, yet their infrastructure has been deployed without using any Chinese equipment, instead relying mostly on European technology. One commonly suggested long-term alternative is Open RAN, but, in practice, Chinese presence and influence in its development structures requires a comprehensive risk assessment.

The EU Toolbox for 5G security offers a good framework for initial action, but its non-compulsory nature allows for different interpretation and implementation across EU members, leaving vulnerabilities. One step in the right direction would see the stricter implementation of the toolbox across the EU, but this is only a starting point. Networks connecting critical assets via fiber optics, transport, and undersea cables require the same scrutiny and strict implementation of safeguards. The joint development of toolboxes for these network perimeters could then be envisioned too.

China and NATO

Despite the nuanced language adopted at the NATO summit, the perceived threat to the security interests and democratic principles of the alliance have raised the China issue to the status of a major NATO agenda item. The alliance’s policy towards China will be solidified in the upcoming Strategic Concept, which is expected to be adopted at the next summit. The difficulty then will be for NATO to address the various and diverse security threats at once: hybrid deterrence, disruptive and emerging technologies, and vulnerable critical infrastructure. Given the fast-changing security landscape and the rapid development of technology, its ability to adapt to this new scenario and act effectively on all these fronts will be crucial to NATO’s future.

This article reflects the conclusions drawn from a roundtable held under the Chatham House rule by the German Marshall Fund this summer, which brought together experts from Europe and the United States to explore how broad questions around China, 5G, resilience, and critical infrastructure were being addressed in the context of NATO.

Amy Yanan Zhang is a junior associate with International Conflict and Security Consulting and a former trainee at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Julia Pallanch is a program assistant with the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.