Within the next year, major telecom companies plan to roll out technology capable of connecting the world’s billions of devices with speeds 1,000 times faster than LTE. This technology, called 5G, would provide the necessary networks to power the technology of the future. It would create new opportunities for blockchain, artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, military operations, connected cars, smart homes, and much more. The first country to implement a widespread network capable of facilitating 5G devices will effectively hold guaranteed control of the network and its data for the foreseeable future. China, through its rapidly growing and controversial company Huawei, currently outpaces the rest of the world in the development of this 5G network; the company is positioned to be the first to build a globally integrated network, reaching the majority of the world’s population. If allowed to roll out their 5G network, Huawei would hold disproportionate control over the global communications network and access to private information. Fearing this outcome, the Trump administration has banned the company from the U.S. and, unsuccessfully, implored its allies to do the same and reject the company’s 5G network. While this move tries to mitigate security concerns over Huawei, and by proxy, the Chinese government’s reach, it also hinders the potential for a globally integrated network and leaves the U.S. out of the new development, without our own 5G capabilities to adequately compete with Huawei.
The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, which lays the fiber and wireless foundation in order to roll out 5G networks, offers a clear strategy to assert China as a central global power. Founded in 2013, this initiative hopes to develop infrastructure and investment in eastern hemisphere countries. The Chinese government describes the initiative as a “bid to enhance regional connectivity and embrace a brighter future together.” It places China in a dominant position when it comes to building 5G networks, and gives China’s 5G technology a reach of over eighty countries and about 65% of the world’s population who have signed on to the ambitious initiative. With the capacity to build and implement the cellular network of the future, China will hold significant control over the world’s internet.
Though the Belt and Road Initiative and Huawei’s increasing global power boost China’s economic development, Huawei’s growth has come with significant controversy and scandal. Despite being the number one telecom supplier and number two smartphone maker, Huawei is known as an outcast in several countries, including here in the U.S. The FBI set up a sting operation at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2019 and has indicted the company on 23 counts surrounding theft of intellectual property, obstruction of justice, and fraud. Most problematic in the US – Huawei relationship, however, is the American fear that Huawei’s close ties with the Chinese government would give China the power to spy on U.S. companies and consumers. For this reason, the U.S. government banned Huawei networking equipment in 2012, meaning Huawei devices are virtually nonexistent in the U.S. despite their pervasiveness across the world.
Vice President Mike Pence reinforced this animosity towards the company in a speech at the annual Munich Security Conference this February. He urged allies to turn away from Huawei and delineated the ways in which the company poses a severe security threat to the U.S., stating that we must protect our telecom infrastructure from Huaei, which is required by Chinese law requires to give the Chinese government access to any data that touches their networks or equipment. Pence pleads for solidarity from our allies: “the United States is calling on all our security partners to be vigilant and to reject any enterprise that would compromise the integrity of our communications technology or national security systems.” If Huawei develops in the U.S., China would be able to surveil everything in the network for their own analysis and intelligence, giving China, a historically distrusted country, with power to influence global networks. However, the Trump Administration’s plea for solidarity from its allies in banning Huawei faltered as some of the U.S.’s closest allies rejected the notion that Huawei poses a security threat. Britain, Germany, India, and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries reluctant to completely ban Huawei. Without the support of our allies, the U.S. stance against Huawei is weakened, and as 5G technology spreads across the world, the U.S. will be left out of its innovation.
Without Huawei, the U.S. will be forced to rely on domestic companies to develop 5G networks. AT&T and Verizon lead the 5G charge within the U.S., however, their development is not proceeding at the same pace as China’s. Relying solely on private carriers to have profit incentives to develop the basic infrastructure is insufficient due to the high cost of deployment. Given the rest of the world’s expected reliance on Huawei, American telecom companies will not have the incentives nor the immediate revenue streams to develop the comparable networks. This foreseeably slow deployment, combined with our clear stance against integrating a Chinese network signals that the U.S. will be caught behind China, the rest of the Belt and Road countries, and allied countries who chose to partner with Huawei.
With the U.S. lacking the technological capacity to keep up with Huawei’s 5G networks, we face no clear path forward; either the U.S. must allow Huawei and its security risks into the country, or face the economic consequences of an insulated, unconnected internet network. Though the security risks are real, and serious, the U.S. must also consider the risks inherent in prohibiting Huawei’s networks. Without Huawei, Silicon Valley and tech sectors throughout the U.S. will be left without access to China’s networks in order to sell their services. 5G networks could help facilitate long-distance human services in all industries from health care, to education, to business. The lack of a globally integrated internet network will also damage worldwide connectivity, economic and trade opportunity. Paradoxically, banning Huawei in the US could actually discourage American competition in the 5G market, because domestic workers are restricted from accessing the technology and therefore developing their own competitive versions
The government holds no clear solution for how to encourage global integration and the development of 5G networks while restricting Huawei. The contention over 5G represents the broader political shifts that parallel technologically changing global markets. China’s rising economic power poses challenges to the U.S. economy and reverberates across domestic politics and policy, exemplified by Trump’s trade wars with China and the heightened fear of Huawei’s influence on the world. The contentious debate over ownership and leadership in the development of 5G networks epitomizes the U.S.’s continued struggle to keep up with growing global economies and highlights how U.S. technological innovation lags and how an inward-facing administration resists global integration.