A geopolitical confrontation between China and other western nations led by the US is highly likely, in the wake of the rollout of the 5G network, the next generation of global communications. Huawei is the most prominent one amongst the few companies that are ready to deploy 5G on a large scale. Huawei promises to provide the most affordable and technologically advanced alternative. Having legal, political and economic concerns for sourcing the new communication infrastructure many countries have expressed their reservations. Apart from security issues, western nations, particularly the US do not want China to gain global and economic clout as the pioneer of next-gen technology. Thus is sown the seed of the latest flashpoint for geopolitical competition between the US and China.
Features of 5G Network
Exciting features of 5G network include data speed, ultra-low latency and near instantaneous, high-speed communication. It can also facilitate machine-to-machine communications and develop applications like driver-less cars, smart cities, and factory automation. It is expected that the 5G network will support a steady stream of sensitive information data. Further operational aspects of 5G like its reliance on artificial intelligence, cloud networking, and greater integration of core and non- core network infrastructure will make it difficult to impose tight cyber security controls. As 5G is all set to provide the backbone of the new digital revolution, there is a need to ensure that the network is not vulnerable to espionage and security breaches.
Resistance on Firm Grounds
“Five eyes” ie members of a cold war era intelligence alliance namely the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have spearheaded the movement against Huawei’s 5G network. Paradoxically measures taken by member countries have not been uniform. Australia, for instance, has outrightly banned Huawei and has recently introduced the Telecommunications Sector Security Reforms (TSSR). It has made mandatory for network carriers to adopt suitable measures to protect their networks and facilities from national security threats. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is mulling over restraining Huawei’s access to non-core networks.
The US, in particular, has approached the Huawei issue with unprecedented alacrity. It recently enacted a law to prohibit US government agencies from using or procuring Huawei equipment. The US is also actively dissuading its allies from including Huawei in their 5G network by proclaiming it as an “Unreliable Vendor”, and has gone as far as to assert that it would reconsider intelligence understandings with them, should they choose to allow it.
The Trump Administration perceives China’s thrust to reign the spectrum of emerging technologies from 5G and big data to robotics and artificial intelligence as a real challenge. One, which will not only establish China’s rise as the pre-eminent power of this era but will also facilitate Beijing to exercise influence beyond its borders to nations already in awe of its growing economic might. China regards its aspirations, regarding this technological sprint, as legitimate. Many in the West view them as a façade for consolidating digital authoritarianism and cyber-war capabilities.
The concerns regarding security surrounding Huawei’s 5G network are not mere paranoia. Although Huawei is a privately owned company, its founder Ren Zhengfei was an engineer with China’s military. He is said to have close ties with China’s Communist Party. The political environment in China is well known for close collaboration between the government and the industry. The recipe for possible industrial espionage is ready.
It is inherent in China’s framework of national security laws, such as the 2017 National Intelligence Law and the 2014 Counterintelligence law that companies, individuals and entities have to provide assistance and cooperation to national intelligence agencies. The situation is further complicated by the apprehensions that the network technology may be rigged with software contraptions which can bypass national security controls and access encrypted data.
China definitely stands to gain by playing a key role in not only setting standards for the network but also by securing required intellectual property rights for the use of 5G technology. The use of standard-essential patents (SEPs) to operationalize the network would mean that Huawei will receive royalties for licensing and will become a market leader in 5G technology. This will generate a steady revenue stream and further strengthen China’s economic rise and digital influence. It is also likely that the 5G network will form an important component of China’s proposed projects, such as the Digital Silk Road in Asian, African and Middle Eastern countries.
Washington’s actions so far seem to be driven by its larger design to contain China gaining the pioneer advantages with respect to this technology. Information and communications technology has long played an important role in geopolitics. In the late 19th century, the United Kingdom was the first mover of telegraphy and submarine cable systems. By building these extensive communications network it was able to maintain channels of communication with its colonies abroad, and consolidate the erstwhile British Empire.
The subsequent development of radar technology by the UK gave it an edge over the German challenge during World War II. Post-1945. British hegemony was directly challenged by the US as it made rapid advancements in telephony. The US was one of the firsts to deploy satellite communications system. America’s extensive satellite networks were used by the US and its allies to intercept and decode information during the cold war period.
While China stands to gain significantly by being the pioneer of this technology, the US will continue its agenda and exhort its allies against accepting Huawei’s telecommunications equipment. Western nations are also likely to give renewed impetus to developing alternative 5G networks. This can lead to the development of two politically and geographically divided 5G networks which may not be inter-operable.
It is the 5G contestation that will shape not only the emergence of the next generation of technologies but also the course of global politics in the coming years. As the world passes through a phase of unprecedented technological transformation, geopolitical competition among the world’s two most important powers is likely to become more evident. Other nations including Pakistan should well be aware of this unfolding dynamic and prepare accordingly to meet the challenges of the emerging geopolitics of technology.
09 May 19/Thursday Written by Naphisa