• Nawal Ali

The Threat of Chinese 5G

One of the most promising technological trends today is the rollout and implementation of 5G networks around the world. 5G is the next generation of mobile internet connection networks that offer higher data rates, faster speeds, and larger capacity for use of the networks compared to its predecessors as well as enabling future advances in the Internet of Things technologies. China has taken the lead in developing 5G technology and infrastructure with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei becoming the world’s largest telecom equipment-maker in 2018 and a leading developer of 5G networks. However, in recent years, US officials have become increasingly concerned about Chinese dominance in 5G affecting U.S. interests and security. Fundamentally, a future Chinese hegemony in the 5G space will undermine U.S. national security and erode US economic advantages.

Chinese involvement in the development of 5G networks around the world presents a threat to U.S national security because of the possibility of infiltration of these networks by the Chinese government. Major global Telecom manufacturers and major adopters of 5G technologies such as Huawei and ZTE have extensive connections with the Chinese government such as the presence of Chinese Communist Party branches within these companies, state investments, and active party membership of many corporate executives at Chinese tech firms.

One way Chinese 5G companies present a national security threat is that through 5G networks, the Chinese government can conduct intelligence collection on Americans and other foreign citizens and businesses. This risk increases when considering the Counter-Espionage Law passed in 2014 and the National Intelligence Law passed in 2017 by the Chinese government which requires Chinese citizens and organizations like tech firms to support Chinese state intelligence agencies when requested. Furthermore, another way that Chinese involvement in 5G presents a risk is due to the military implications where if the United States conducts operations in a part of the world where Chinese 5G is prevalent such as potentially in Africa or if American communication systems are based on Chinese 5G technology, then China using Chinese 5G telecom companies could intercept, and deny U.S. communications as well as the U.S. military attempts to utilize precision in military operations could be undermined if U.S. signals intelligence collection is frustrated by Chinese 5G networks.

Chinese dominance in the 5G sector is also a problem for the United States because of economic competition. Mobile infrastructure and services are a major part of the economy and the spread of the adoption of 5G networks, the mobile sector will continue to grow in economic importance. In 2016, the mobile tech and services sector represented 4.4 percent of the global GDP, which is about $3.3 trillion in economic output, and would likely increase to $4.2 trillion and 4.9 percent of the global GDP by the end of 2020.

It is estimated that widespread adoption of 5G networks will contribute $13.2 trillion dollars in global output by 2035 as well as create 22.3 million jobs and the economic contribution is estimated to be 5% of global real output in 2035. With existing Chinese dominance in this field, most of the economic benefits of providing 5G technology and future technological leadership are likely to accrue to Chinese companies and China, thereby increasing their edge in technological innovation and economic advantage over the United States. This is especially concerning when considering that the predecessor mobile technology for 5G which is 4G is a technological sector that the United States is a leader in and has a substantial advantage in that field. It is estimated that the adoption of 4G mobile broadband has added $100 billion to the GDP of the United States. Over the next decade, as 5G becomes more common, American leadership in 4G will become more irrelevant leading to a loss of jobs and technological innovation.

This combination of national security and economic threats from Chinese 5G dominance has led to U.S. efforts to limit Chinese involvement in the development of 5G networks in the US and other countries. However, the recent announcement in the United Kingdom that the government would allow Huawei to be involved in the development of UK’s 5G networks indicates that efforts to lobby other countries to limit Chinese presence in the implementation of 5G networks in their nations have been unproductive so far. The increasing urgency to limit the Chinese 5G threat has even led to suggestions for more aggressive efforts such as Attorney General William Barr’s recent proposal for the US to support Huawei’s rivals; Nokia and Ericsson AB to counter Chinese competition in 5G. Regardless of the feasibility of this proposal, it is clear that the US if it wants to limit national security and economic threats from Chinese 5G efforts, it needs to take more active efforts to counter Chinese competition and hegemony in the 5G technological sector.

Nawal Ali is a second-year International Relations major in the School of International Service. He is an Editor for Foreign Affairs for the Agora.

Image courtesy Andy Wong, Creative Commons


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