If the diplomatic spat between Portugal and the United States is anything to go by, Lisbon will be among the European capitals with most to lose on Tuesday.
Another four years of Donald Trump in the White House could see Washington follow through on its threats to the Portuguese.
Washington has put pressure on Lisbon to ban Chinese telecoms giant Huawei from its future 5G network infrastructure.
European countries have been trapped in the middle of a geopolitical battle over Huawei and 5G infrastructure, with the US alleging Beijing could use the networks for cyberespionage. The company denies the allegations.
In June, according to Portuguese press reports, Lisbon decided not to place any restrictions on who could bid to supply its 5G infrastructure.
In an interview with the Portuguese newspaper Expresso (subscription required), published on September 26, the US ambassador to Portugal, George Glass, said the Portuguese have to choose between “its allies and the Chinese”. He warned that choosing China on 5G may have consequences for Portugal, such as the defence relationship between the two countries.
Glass’s statements upset Lisbon. Foreign affairs minister Augusto Santos Silva did not take long to respond: “In Portugal, the decision-makers are the Portuguese authorities, who take the decisions that interest Portugal.”
Some days later, Keith Krach, the US Under Secretary of State for Growth, Energy and the Environment visited Portugal as a part of a European tour that had 5G on its agenda.
In an interview with the Portuguese agency Lusa, Krach stressed the US “respects Portugal’s right to make its own decisions”. But he added: “For the good of the Portuguese, I’m really hopeful that they are now following the European Union’s 5G toolbox, which is the same type of standards we use in the United States”.
In June, the Portuguese press revealed the Government would not apply any restrictions to the choice of brands that may supply components or equipment of the fifth generation mobile networks (5G)
‘Portugal suffers in US-China game of cat and mouse’
“The United States must realise that today Portugal and other countries have options on the table,” Professor Paulo Duarte, an expert on China and its relations with the European Union and the USA, told Euronews. “And a small state like Portugal, which was once a large empire, has to maximise its gains regarding different actors and China is one of them.”
Portugal, added Prof Duarte, from the University of Minho, “is doing what a small state does to take its interests forward” and Huawei is just one of the issues that interest both the United States and China.
Other mutual interests include the deepwater port of Sines, which the Americans see as a springboard for exporting liquified natural gas into Europe. The port also plans to grow its container terminal and that project has drawn the interest of China, whose ambitious Belt and Road strategy aims to build infrastructure around the world and increase Beijing’s influence.
“The USA has become the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas and it is not by chance that after China had expressed interest in the port of Sines, the United States sent a delegation to Sines to, in fact, show the relevance of the port to the USA, as a gateway to the vast European market,” said Prof Duarte.
“There is an action-reaction game between the USA and China, a game of cat and mouse. Portugal is another piece of that chess game and we also suffer. All the world suffers from the impact of the Chinese-American trade war, but I think we reacted well.”
Portugal and China signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on Beijing’s Belt and Road strategy in 2018. In the same year, Chinese businesses invested or committed to invest around €10 billion in the country.
Portugal also became the first EU country to issue government bonds in China’s currency, a sign of the relationship between the two.
“Portugal seems to be taking the opposite path and this bothers the United States,” said Prof Duarte.
“If this cooperation with China proves to be effective, other European countries will probably want to follow this model.
“If we see that China is replicating its attitude in Portugal as it does in other parts of the world – mere copy-paste, disrespect, lack of fair play in competition – then, that will give reason to the United States and other actors like Germany or France, who are highly sceptical about this Portuguese receptivity.”
Prof Duarte said if the Portuguese did not exclude Huawei and Donald Trump wins the US election, then Lisbon-Washington relations could be adversely affected. He also thinks Portuguese companies would face sanctions.
But if Joe Biden wins, prospects could be brighter. “The discomfort would remain, but eventually it [Biden administration] would not punish Portuguese interests as much or at least as intensely as the Trump administration,” he said.
‘We should be agnostic regarding technology’
“For me, it is inevitable that this material from Huawei will appear in our operators,” said Luís Antunes, director of the centre for competencies in cybersecurity and privacy at the University of Porto. “Even if it is not in Portugal it will be in NATO countries.
Prof Antunes said he understood the US argument that “in order to give classified information to the Portuguese government or Portuguese organisations, it will have to rely on the infrastructure that Portugal uses to support and store these documents.” But, he added, “the US should promote on a global scale what Ronald Reagan said: ‘Trust, but verify’.”
“I think we should be agnostic regarding technology, but we should completely audit all the material that we install in Portugal, whether it is American or Chinese because in order to trust, we have to check,” he said.
“Only [by] checking and doing an analysis can we have some level of confidence in what we are installing.
“This problem only shows that the European Union has lost the productive capacity of this type of material over the past decades, which is worrying.
“The European Union must have a strategy to recover this productive capacity and to try to have some cyber-sovereignty, otherwise we will always be hostage to geopolitics, geostrategy and commercial interests.”