– What Washington’s campaign of targeting Huawei tells us about the U.S.-China tech war and its consequences
By Emanuel Skog
The countdown to the 5G revolution has already begun. The rollout of the more advanced 5G mobile networks is not a question about whether it will materialize, but instead when it will happen. The main advantage of the new mobile networks is that they will have substantially greater bandwidth in comparison to 4G, enabling higher download and upload speeds . Download speeds at least ten times faster than today will fundamentally alter the way we work and communicate . Its long-term ramifications will impact the development of smart cities, robotics, and self-driving vehicles. Furthermore, it will function as an innovation catalyst within diverse sectors such as health care, education, and agriculture . 5G networks can therefore be viewed as the vital “digital arteries” for commerce and development of the 21st century just like the railroads were in the 19th century. The importance amongst countries and firms to lead in the development of 5G, and exercise control of the information flowing through these “digital arteries” will only increase in prominence.
The U.S. gets tough on Huawei
The rollout of 5G is also a story about the technologically pioneering Chinese firm Huawei. It has now found itself embroiled in an increasingly hostile environment – pitting the U.S. against China in a tech war over who will dominate this digital domain. This tech war will have far-reaching repercussions both on a global economic level, and for the balance of power between the U.S. and China in the years to come.
The company at the centre of this controversy was founded in 1987 by a former Chinese army officer and is now a global telecommunications leader. The firm is not only the world’s second-largest manufacturer of smartphones it is also a supplier of communications equipment for mobile phone networks . Additionally, it is a firm accused of functioning as a gateway for China to spy on other nations. Therefore, it should be viewed with suspicion according to Washington . Due to its already strong position Huawei is in a prime position to seize the lion’s share of the 5G market, valued by some estimates to be worth $123 billion within five years . The prospect of this happening has set off alarm bells in Washington. Even amongst Washington’s traditional allies such as the U.K. the argument has been made of the ‘close linkage’ between Huawei and the Chinese military . Huawei has consistently argued that it is independent from the Chinese state. Beijing has been explicit about its “civil-military fusion”, meaning private firms are subordinate to state military objectives . Irrespective of Huawei’s contentions the U.S. government has reached the conclusion that it is simply too risky a situation having a Chinese company control too much 5G infrastructure . Therefore, the Trump administration has dedicated significant time and resources trying to convince its allies that Huawei cannot be trusted not to spy for the Chinese government if it gains a foothold in 5G networks .
It is worth bearing in mind that in the 1950s the U.S. resorted to using export controls and visa restrictions to curtail the ability of the USSR to acquire scientific and technical knowledge . The prevailing reasoning behind this move was of course to assist in the undermining of both Soviet military power and the broader Soviet economy. Even though this attempt probably hurt the USSR more than the U.S., it unquestionably reduced the global pace of scientific progress by the compartmentalization of the countries’ researchers . It cannot be ruled out that the Trump administration’s decision on Huawei will have comparably similar ramifications for 21st-century overall global technology developments. However, at present, it does not seem to weigh too heavily on the Trump administration’s minds. Instead, the prevailing mindset is one of making sure to confront Huawei head-on, regardless of any potential long-lasting detrimental flow-on effects on global technology developments.
London’s sudden 5G U-turn
A targeted and persistent campaign orchestrated by Washington to get Huawei out of Europe’s 5G rollout paid off this July, with London’s announcement of an all-out ban on the firm’s 5G equipment . The decision by the U.K. government stipulates that no new Huawei 5G equipment can be bought after the 31st of December this year. Additionally, all the Chinese firm’s 5G equipment will have to be removed from all U.K. networks by 2027 .
The U.K.’s decision marks a substantial departure from the Prime Minister’s previous stance on Huawei, reversing a January statement to allow Huawei to supply up to 35% of the non-core 5G network . The previous decision was in line with the “the European way” allowing the firm to sell a limited amount of equipment for non- sensitive parts . The overriding reason given for the U-turn was the direct impact of new U.S. sanctions on chip technology, which according to Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, meant Huawei could no longer be considered a reliable partner . However, additional political and economic parameters have probably also played their part in London’s calculations. They include the U.K.’s desire to strike a trade deal with the U.S., increasing tensions with China regarding its handling of the coronavirus, and its crackdown concerning Hong Kong . The Chinese swiftly responded with a statement from the Chinese ambassador to the U.K. calling the decision “disappointing and wrong” .
London’s 5G reversal can be viewed as a foreign policy win for Washington. Washington’s all-out battle against Huawei clearly illustrates the importance of new technology to economic competition and even to national security. The battle about who should control the “digital arteries” of the 21st century is one which will last for years to come with many more battles to come. However, it is clear the initial salvo has been fired.
. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/jul/14/huawei-to-be-stripped-of-role-in-uk-5g-network-by-2027-dowden-confirms and https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-53403793
. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-huawei/uk-set-to-ban-huawei-from-5g-angering-china-and-pleasing-trump-idUKKCN24E30XPicture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huawei#/media/File:Huawei_1.JPG