Image Credits: The Washington Post
Despite all the efforts by the US and its allies, China still remains the top supplier of 5G equipment to the world. The geopolitics around 5G has bifurcated the world into two camps— one led by US and the other one led by China and this divide is only expected to deepen in the coming future.
5G is the fifth generation of wireless mobile networks designed to connect virtually everyone and everything: from tiny sensors and mobile phones to industrial robots and autonomous vehicles. Every new generation of wireless network brings with it faster speed and avant-garde functionalities. 1G brought us cell phones and enabled us to walk and talk, 2G allowed us to send texts, 3G got us on the internet and 4G introduced us to the unprecedented internet speed that we enjoy today.
Now 5G is all set to provide a whole suite of dramatic improvements. It is a step into a future filled with augmented reality. It is 20-100 times faster than the current 4G mobile network and will be the foundation for virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, Internet of Things (IoT) and other advancements that we cannot yet imagine. It is also projected that 5G will transform the health care sector, allowing doctors to perform surgeries from miles away with AI’s assistance. All of the data about our health and well being will be collected constantly, thus predicting the disease even before we get sick. It will also deliver up to 1000 times more capacity than 4G which means more room for the connected devices and users, thus reducing the traffic and providing better user experience with no buffering.
5G is expected to bring novelty and variance in almost all the facets of life, introducing us to smart homes, self-driving cars and improved health care and education. So, who emerges victorious in the 5G race is a crucial question that will have ramifications impacting the global power hierarchy.
The 5G network will act like a nervous system, connecting political, strategic, militial, economic, and infrastructural dimensions at national and international levels. The potential economic gains from 5G development and deployment, future reliance on 5G, its potential use for military application altogether make it a hot topic in geopolitics. Several governments are working hard to implement the new technology as quickly as feasible. If a country falls behind in 5G implementation, it might negatively impact its ability to survive and thrive in its daily operations, and trade and military endeavours.
This is why 5G is being rolled out at a quicker rate than previous mobile networks. It is projected that 5G will have around 3.5 billion users by 2026. By the end of 2020, it had already been deployed in more than 45 countries. Huawei, a Chinese mobile and telecommunication company, is leading the race for 5G and is way ahead of all European competitors. Currently, the leading players in the 5G Race are China, United States, European Union, South Korea, and Japan. China’s lead in 5G is a matter of concern for the US and its allies because if China wins this race, it will be a setback to US hegemony.
Image Credits: Evening Standard
China’s Lead in 5G
5G in China was commercialised in late 2019 and since then its use has increased significantly with over 260 million active users. Currently, China has the world’s largest 5G network with more than 792,000 base stations built across the country. Huawei played an important role in this successful roll out of 5G in China. Not only in China, Huawei has been successful in deploying it in other countries of the world as well and its market share has topped the global 5G communication equipment market.
China appears to be taking the roll out of 5G extremely seriously. In its 13th Five Year Plan, which outlines the country’s ambition of becoming the leader of the manufacturing industry, it vowed to make major breakthroughs in 5G and successfully followed through. In its current 14th Five Year Plan, China targets to complete the construction of 5G network throughout the country. It is steadfast in its approach to deploy the 5G network because it recognises the critical relevance of 5G in its economy in general and tech industry in particular.
When 2G was first launched, Europe dominated it and when 3G came out Japan pioneered it. When 4G was introduced, the US dominated it and became the leader of the tech industry. Because of the fast speed of 4G, numerous tech companies in the US started developing social networking apps like Instagram and other apps like Uber, etc. which became a global hit and helped US strengthen its soft power in the world. This time, China hopes to lead the wireless tech by pioneering the development of 5G. This will give an incentive to Chinese tech giants to experiment and innovate new things, which in future might dominate the world. According to a report by Chinese government run research institute ‘The China Academy of Information and Communication Technology’, 5G will create more than 8 million domestic jobs in China by 2030.
China’s Huawei is in agreement to deploy its 5G network to almost half of the world. This could work well for China in terms of its global dominance. Chinese government could also use this 5G network to further its political propaganda as 5G is expected to become a part of every sector of the country, ranging from military to manufacturing.
Is the US Losing the 5G Race to China?
5G roll out in the US, on the other hand, has been slow compared to China. The United States dominated the launch of 4G, but today does not have either the fastest 4G network or the fastest home broadband internet. And if China wins this race, the US might lose the ability to compete in the global tech market. In the US, wireless tech already supports 4.7 million jobs and contributes $47 billion annually to the US economy, a figure that is expected to double if the US wins the 5G race. According to a study by Qualcomm, 5G will generate up to $13 trillion revenue in 2035 and create 22 million jobs in the global economic output. Losing the 5G race would mean losing the opportunity of dominating a good portion of these jobs and revenue to China.
To slow down China's roll out of 5G in the world, the US banned the Chinese company Huawei in May, 2019 from procuring chips from US companies which are important in the Huawei built equipment for 5G. The US also pushed the Five Eyes Alliance (US, Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Canada) to follow suit and ban companies from using Huawei built equipment for 5G. However, it has been unable to provide any alternative to Huawei. So many of USA's allies are left with no option but to turn to Huawei for its 5G technology as they don’t want to lag behind in the race.
Image Credits: The Washington Post
It is quite apparent by now that despite all the efforts, the US is losing to China and this was even acknowledged by the US itself. In January, 2018 United States National Security Council (UNSC) produced a report which included a dire warning: “In this race to 5G, the US is losing to China - If that doesn’t change, China will win politically, economically, and militarily.”
Geopolitics Around 5G
By now, it is evident that geopolitics around 5G is really complex. For instance, when Australia banned the Chinese company Huawei following USA’s footsteps, China retaliated by closing its ports to the Australian Coal imports which had negative implications on the Australian economy. China is a dominant player in the global market and has managed to leave its mark in almost all the countries. So saying ‘No’ to Chinese companies comes with a price. This is what makes the geopolitics around 5G very nuanced but interesting.
What usually goes unnoticed here is the role of the third key player - European Union (EU)- which has two companies and the only possible alternatives to Huawei: Nokia and Ericsson, in the 5G race. The European Commission had commissioned the 5G Action Plan in 2016 to make sure that it would possess the infrastructure for 5G by 2020 to deploy in urban areas and transport paths by 2025.
In early 2020, EU also published the “EU Tool Box” - a set of measures to mitigate the cybersecurity concerns of the new mobile network. The European Union realises the crucial importance of 5G as it is the key to boosting economic growth and a way to compete with the US and China. It has granted its member states the authority to examine the security concerns associated with Huawei 5G before deciding whether or not to ban it. It realises that it can’t go against China outright because the two major European Companies, Nokia and Ericsson, have their manufacturing bases in China.
One major country to ban Huawei is none other than one of the closest allies of the US — the United Kingdom. It had initially restricted Huawei’s 5G technology from some crucial sectors but in July, 2020, it placed a complete ban on Huawei and asked its telecom providers to get rid of Huawei equipment by 2027. It has also proposed a new coalition of like minded states to counter Huawei and named it ‘D10’, which includes G7 countries (US, UK, Italy, Japan, Germany, France, and Canada), as well as Australia, South Korea and India. The whole purpose of this coalition would be to explore and invest in alternative 5G suppliers. Possible alternatives include the Finnish company Nokia, the Swedish telecom company Ericsson, and Japanese companies Rakutan and Samsung.
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China, on the other hand, has agreed to install 5G across all of Central Asia, Southeast Asia, several Middle Eastern countries, Africa, and major parts of South America. It has also deployed its 5G technology in some parts of Europe. This has bifurcated the world into two blocs- one led by the US and its allies and the other one led by China. It is most likely that China will win the 5G Race and if it does, USA’s fears of espionage may well come true.
Security Concerns: Fear of Espionage
There will always be a concern of espionage if China wins the 5G race. Huawei has been accused of pilfering private data, which is why countries have banned the Huawei-made 5G equipment. However, Huawei has denied these accusations and made clear that it has no ties with the Chinese government. To date, no proof of espionage has been found against Huawei.
But, there are laws in China that could force Huawei to submit to the Chinese government in the future. For instance, Article 7 of Chinese Intelligence Law states that ‘any organisation or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work in accordance with law’ and article 22 of the ‘2014 Chinese Espionage Law’ states that ‘during a counter espionage investigation, relevant organisation and individual must truthfully provide information and must not refuse’. So, this means that even if Huawei denies the accusation, China can and will eavesdrop on other countries if need be.
Image Credits: The Things Network
However, the US is not making stringent demands for an international regulatory framework to tackle the fear of espionage. This may be in part because the US has also been found guilty of industrial espionage against European companies, with the Snowden revelations being a good example of the same. So, it is unlikely that the US would push too hard for a framework that may prove its own undoing.
In a world where everything would soon be connected to the internet, there are bigger risks than espionage. For instance, in a hypothetical serious conflict between China and any other country using Huawei’s mobile network equipment, China could control the whole nation and effectively paralyse it by simply shutting off its access to its 5G network.
Despite all the efforts by the US and its allies, China still remains the top supplier of 5G equipment to the world. The geopolitics around 5G has bifurcated the world into two camps— one led by US and the other one led by China and this divide is only expected to deepen in the coming future. However, US and its allies are at a disadvantage because they neither have any reliable alternatives to Huawei, nor do they have enough allies in the world. Even Europe is acting with greater neutrality than ever before.
China, on the other hand, has already deployed 5G in half of the world and has also won powerful allies, like Russia, on its side. The dominance of the new mobile network will also help China further its political propaganda and help its economy rise to a whole new level. The 5G has already set the ground for the 4th Industrial Revolution and with China controlling it, there can be a huge impact on the global power dynamics that might render a serious blow to USA’s hegemony.
So, it is almost clear that China will win the 5G race and the world should now be prepared to deal with China’s 5G and try to mitigate the security risks of this new technology, instead of fighting the Dragon headon. A regulatory framework for 5G on the global level should be prepared as soon as possible so as to lower the risk of 5G getting drastically misused.
By Aftar Ahmed
Aftar is an undergraduate student, majoring in Political Science from Hindu College. He loves engaging in rational discourses around social, and geopolitical issues.