Author: Zeno Leoni 09/ 03/ 2019
5G is the upcoming new network of wireless technology, a more powerful and efficient broadband compared to 4G. At the moment, the most refined of this kind of technology is owned by Chinese companies – Huawei. This is the cause of several security concerns.
The Internet is becoming a world economy infrastructure with the Internet of things (IoT), and everything from smart cities to hologram calls will run through 5G. This means that control of this new space is going to intersect with geopolitical wrestling between great powers. Currently, there is a broad opposition to the adoption of a China-led 5G with the widespread concern that Beijing will be able to gather great quantities of data or attack Western public infrastructures. The US has convinced Japan, Australia and New Zealand not to buy Huawei technology.
To what extent, however, the thesis of the “China threat” is justified? And what does this mean for American world hegemony?
To understand the rhetoric of the “China threat” thesis one has to go back to the fundamentals of American hegemony. The historical uniqueness of the US imperial experience is that rather than occupying and alienating countries, it managed to create a global sphere of influence – an oxymoron to 19th century geopolitical thinkers. This means, a sphere of influence allegedly dethatched from any territorial formation, within which the United States claims to pursue an international interest: that is, the interest of all.
Because the US was very successful at doing this, if Washington, D.C. argues that a China-led 5G does not respect the “international standards”, many governments agree with that.
However, rather than being a matter of standards this is a matter of industrial policy and geopolitical competition to the extent that those international standards – free-market, peace, and democracy – have historically favoured the competitive American economy.
As China is catching up on I.T., robotics, and other technologies – those technologies that allow the US to keep its hegemonic edge – the US is logically flexing its diplomatic muscles. However, this article’s author do not find the China “threat thesis” credible since there is plenty of evidence about the dangers of using Facebook, Google, and other online platforms. Because these are not directly funded by the American government, there is a tendency to perceive them as independent and benevolent, contrarily to Huawei. But substantially the these monopolistic actors play the same game for their respective governments.
The second issue that is worth highlighting is that the US opposition to 5G is a crucial test for Washington, D.C. international hegemony. According to The Washington Post, the US strategy to dissuade a Chinese 5G “is facing a chilly reception among European allies”. In particular, while everyone is aware that there is a degree of risk in adopting 5G, European allies believe that this risk can be contained. This could be seen, for instance, in the UK. As reported by The Guardian, the “National Cyber Security Centre” has stated that the security risk is “manageable”. The Washington Post instead revealed that in February only “in defiance of the U.S. warnings, carriers [companies] in at least six countries, including U.S. allies Iceland, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, entered 5G partnerships with Huawei”. Germany is at the forefront of this opposition as its government considered the Huawei ban “legally impossible”.
Given that the current world order is facing a historical transition of systemic magnitude, the opposition of European allies signals the increasing difficulty for the United States to keep together the Atlantic front. Its main rival, China, has become an indispensable economic partner for many Western countries. But the number of countries facing the dilemma of moving economically closer to Beijing while maintaining the military ties with the US is much higher than that. Only the time will tell how such a tension will be resolved.
Zeno Leoni is Teaching Fellow in ‘Challenges to the International Order’
Defence Studies Department – King’s College London
Defence Academy of the UK – Ministry of Defence