That tension is now set to play out in a very public fashion: The Czech Republic’s prime minister, Andrej Babiš, is to meet with President Donald Trump in the White House this week, just weeks before Zeman heads to Beijing for talks with the Chinese leadership.
“The Czech Republic and many other countries are now sitting in two chairs that are pulling apart,” said Martin Hala, the director of Project Sinopsis, a Prague-based think tank specializing in Chinese relations. “This schizophrenic position—when one part of the political establishment is looking east and the other west … will eventually need a resolution. Something will have to give.”
Fifth-generation wireless technology, which is in the early stages of being rolled out around the globe, promises to transform entire industries and economies, and would form the backbone of countries’ communications infrastructures. Few companies have both the technical know-how and the global reach to build such systems, though, and Huawei is one of them. The company insists it is a private enterprise, with no official links to China’s government, but officials in an array of countries—including the United States, but also India, New Zealand, and elsewhere—are skeptical. In Canada, Huawei’s chief financial officer, who is also the daughter of its founder, faces extradition to the United States on fraud charges.
In Europe, the divisions over Huawei are stark. British authorities have said they can manage any risks presented by Huawei, but Germany is eyeing tougher controls on the company. Indeed, even within the Central European countries known as the Visegrád Four—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—views differ. Hungary and Slovakia have said they do not see Huawei as a threat, but Prague and Warsaw have been more cautious, with Poland arresting a company employee in January on allegations of spying. (Underlining the stakes, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the region last month, to warn that China was targeting Central Europe in an effort to divide the West.)
Here in the Czech Republic, intelligence officials warned last year that the company and ZTE, another Chinese technology firm, posed risks to national security and were tools of Chinese espionage. Zeman—whose position has limited scope beyond some foreign-policy duties and the appointment of certain officials—dismissed that assessment, arguing that the national cybersecurity agency, NUKIB, has resorted to “dirty tricks” to undermine Chinese business ties that he had worked to cultivate. But Babiš, a populist billionaire, ordered his office to discard any Huawei equipment being used and has tried to court American investment instead.
“We put a lot of pieces together, and if we see a threat, we are obligated by law to report it,” Radek Holy, a NUKIB spokesman, told me. “When the risk is so high, we have to report it.”