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US takes showdown with Huawei on the road. First stop: Europe

Countries including Germany and Italy have to choose whether to follow in the footsteps of the US or forge their own path.

Omar Marques/Getty Images

The US has taken a stand against Huawei, and now it wants other countries to follow suit.

While countries across Europe prepare for the rollout of 5G, the US State Department is discouraging them from using equipment made by the Chinese tech company, according to a Tuesday report by Reuters.

The publication said US officials had met with representatives from the European Commission and the Belgian government to warn them that the Chinese government could use Huawei kit for spying.

"The US advocates for secure telecoms networks and supply chains that are free from suppliers subject to foreign government control or undue influence that poses risks of unauthorized access and malicious cyber activity," said a State Department spokesman in a statement. "We routinely urge allies and partners to consider such risks and exercise similar vigilance in ensuring the security of their own telecoms networks and supply chains, including when awarding contracts."

The move follows over a month of escalating tensions between the US and Huawei that's seen the arrest of the company's CFO in Canada (with possible extradition to the US on the cards) and 23 indictments thrust on the company by the United States. Preceding this was a year of warnings from the US against Huawei, for fear of the company's coziness with the Chinese government, which raised concerns over espionage.

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But though Europe recognizes the threat, it's not convinced that the US' approach of shutting Huawei out is the best way to deal with the problem. On Wednesday, as Germany was discussing how to handle the matter, government sources told Reuters that while the country wanted to ensure that rigorous security measures were in place, a blanket ban on Huawei might not be the way to go.

"It would narrow the choice of vendors," Dieter Kempf, head of the Federation of German Industry (BDI) told Reuters. "That could affect costs. More importantly, there would be political consequences -- China could be tempted to retaliate against German companies."

On Thursday, the Italian government shot down reports that it would ban Huawei, as well as rival Chinese phone company ZTE, in its 5G rollout, according to Reuters. "We have no intention of adopting any such initiatives," said a spokesperson in a statement.

Unlike in the US, Huawei has an established presence in Europe, not just as a network infrastructure provider, but also as one of the top phone manufacturers across the continent. Even before warnings from the US, however, the company was facing challenges in the region.

In December, UK telecoms provider BT said it would strip Huawei tech from its 4G infrastructure by 2020 and pledged not to make the firm's equipment the core of 5G. Similarly, both Andrus Ansip, the EU's technology chief, and UK spy agency GCHQ warned that Huawei and other Chinese companies could pose a risk to industry and security. But none have taken the same hardline as the US just yet, though Japan and Australia have.

Whether countries across the European bloc heed warnings from across the Atlantic and ban Huawei, US intervention in one of the company's biggest market is only likely to increase tension in the ongoing war between the two.

Huawei didn't respond to a request for comment.

First published Feb. 6 at 3:05 p.m. PT.
Update Feb. 7 at 4:37 a.m. PT: Adds details and quote about Italy.

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