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Belgian intelligence puts Huawei on its watch list – POLITICO

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Belgium’s intelligence service is scrutinizing the operations of tech giant Huawei as fears of Chinese espionage grow around EU and NATO headquarters in Brussels, according to confidential documents seen by POLITICO and three people close to the case.

In recent months, the Belgian State Security Service (VSSE) has requested interviews with former employees of the company’s lobbying operation in the heart of Brussels’ European quarter. Intelligence-gathering is part of security officials’ activities to examine how China might use non-state actors — including high-level lobbyists at Huawei’s Brussels office — to advance Chinese state interests and of his Communist Party in Europe, said the people, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The scrutiny of Huawei’s European operations comes as Western security agencies are sounding the alarm over companies with ties to China. UK, Dutch, Belgian, Czech and Nordic officials – as well as EU officials – have all been told to stay away from TikTok on work phones due to similar concerns to those surrounding Huawei, namely that Chinese security laws require Chinese tech companies to transmit data.

The review also comes amid growing evidence of the influence of foreign states on EU decision-making – a phenomenon clearly exposed by the recent Qatargate scandal, where the Gulf state sought to sway Brussels through bribes and gifts through intermediary organizations. Belgian security services are responsible for supervising operations carried out by foreign actors around EU institutions.

The state security service declined to comment when asked about intelligence gathering.

A Huawei spokesperson said the company was unaware that staff at the company’s Brussels office were being questioned by intelligence services.

China link

Belgian intelligence officers want to determine if there are direct links between the Chinese state and Huawei’s Brussels office, the sources said. Of particular interest are Huawei representatives who may have previously held positions in Brussels institutions with access to a network of European contacts, they added.

At the heart of Western concerns about Huawei – which is headquartered in Shenzhen, China – is whether the company can be instrumentalized, pressured or infiltrated by the Chinese government to access critical data in Western countries.

Huawei’s EU lobby offices – one located between the European Parliament, European Commission and Council buildings and the other a “Cybersecurity Transparency Center” near the US Embassy. United States – has been a major lobbying power in EU policy-making over the past decade. The most recent company declarations place the company among the top 30 companies that spend the most on European lobbying in Brussels, with a maximum declared expenditure of 2.25 million euros per year. In 2018, at the very beginning of the geopolitical storm that hit the company, it entered the top 10 for lobbying spending in Brussels.

The company’s Shenzhen headquarters has also tightened its control over the activities of its Brussels office over the past decade. In 2019, he replaced his former EU office chief Tony Graziano – who had a long EU lobbying background and had headed Huawei’s Brussels office since 2011 – with Abraham Liu, an EU loyalist. company that had risen through the ranks of its international operations. Liu was then replaced by Tony Jin Yong, currently Huawei’s main EU representative. It has also regularly called on Chinese personnel to support its public affairs activities.

Last year, the Chinese telecommunications giant began to scale back its presence in the EU, consolidating its operations across Europe into its regional headquarters in Düsseldorf, Germany, POLITICO reported in November. Part of that shakeup was to ditch some of the company’s Western strategists, who had worked to push back against bans and blockades on its equipment for the past few years.

The scrutiny of Huawei’s activities in the EU comes as Western security agencies are sounding the alarm over companies with ties to China | Tobias Schwarz/AFP via Getty Images

Huawei has continuously emphasized that it is independent from the Chinese state. “Huawei is a business operation,” a spokesperson said. When asked if the company has a policy of verifying which staff members are members of the Chinese Communist Party, the spokesperson said, “We do not ask about employees’ political or religious beliefs or don’t interfere with them. We treat every employee the same, regardless of status. their race, gender, social status, disability, religion or anything else.”

One of the main concerns raised by Western security authorities in recent years is that Huawei, as a China-based company, is subject to Beijing’s National Intelligence Law of 2017, which requires companies to “support, assist and cooperate with national intelligence efforts” as well as “protect national intelligence working secrets of which they become aware.”

When asked how it handles legal requests from the Chinese government to hand over data, the spokesperson referred to the company’s frequently asked questions page on the subject, which states: “Huawei has no never received such a request and we would categorically refuse to comply if we did. . Huawei is an independent company working solely to serve its customers. We will not compromise or harm any country, organization or individual, particularly in matters cybersecurity and user privacy protection.

An eye on the EU

Huawei has been pushed back by Belgian security services in recent years. In 2020, the country’s National Security Council imposed restrictions on its use in critical parts of 5G networks.

Belgium – while a small market – is considered strategically important to Western allies due to the presence of EU institutions and the headquarters of NATO’s transatlantic defense alliance.

The Belgian State Security Service’s interest in Huawei follows growing interest in Chinese operations in the EU capital. In 2022, the service published an intelligence report outlining its findings on the operations of China-backed lobbyists in Brussels. In it, the VSSE denounced the Chinese state for operating in “a gray area between lobbying, interference, political influence, espionage, economic blackmail and disinformation campaigns”.

In response to the study, the Chinese Embassy in Belgium said that the intelligence services “slandered the legitimate and legal business operation of Chinese companies in Belgium, seriously damaging their reputation and causing potential harm to their production. and their normal functioning”.

It’s not just China. “Undue interference by other powers also continues to be a red flag for the VSSE,” the intelligence service said in its report. “The recent interference scandal in the European Parliament is a good example of this.”

In relation to the case, Belgian authorities have so far charged several people as part of the ongoing criminal investigation into allegations of corruption between Qatar and EU officials, with police raids reporting 1 .5 million euros in cash.

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