The Global 5G Roll-Out is a Geopolitical Turning Point

The Global 5G Roll-Out is a Geopolitical Turning Point

For the best part of two years, wireless carriers in the US and Europe have been hailing the imminent onset of 5G technology. In Europe, Switzerland, Spain and the UK have already adopted commercial 5G coverage in major cities. Beyond the obvious benefits of the new technology, however, most consumers remain wilfully ignorant to the geopolitical realities of the ongoing roll-out; 2020 presents nothing less than an existential crossroads for democracies around the world. 

Though a more complex and expensive operation than previous mobile technology upgrades, American and European consumers eagerly await 5G’s laundry list of offerings: data speeds up to 100 times faster than existing connections, internet-connected sensors, vehicles and household appliances, revolutionised healthcare delivery, and a host of other applications as yet unimagined. 

In Europe, 5G advertisements have coated the walls of major airports from Lisbon to Stockholm. The European Commission has set a target of 5G coverage in all urban areas by 2025, apparently unfazed by the €500 billion price tag. In 2019, spectrum auctions took place in Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal and Lithuania; this year, more auctions are set to follow in Spain, Malta, Lithuania, Slovakia, Poland and the UK. 

And yet, actual market demand has been described as tepid, at best. “We are yet to see significant demand-pull that could assure sales,” reads a report by the European Parliament, “[Mobile network operators] have limited capacity to invest in the new technology and infrastructure as their returns from investment in 3G and 4G are still being recouped.” 

All this paints a rather unusual setting for an ideological battleground between China and the West, but the current transition to 5G presents the greatest threat to democracy yet. Moreover, without a cohesive counter-strategy, the EU, US and the rest of the self-described “free world” risks total capitulation to Beijing’s interests. The networks that are set to create a world of self-driving vehicles and high-speed downloads should, first and foremost, be viewed with suspicion.

Some of 5G’s leading commercial proponents, including Huawei Technologies and ZTE, are Chinese companies with opaque ownership structures and intimate ties to the country’s authoritarian, one-party government in Beijing. Many security pundits fear that technology equipment made by these firms could allow the Communist Party of China (CPC) to access sensitive personal and corporate data from around the world, or utilise well-hidden kill switches to bring the West to its knees during an active conflict. 

It is for this reason that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is considering a ban on US rural wireless providers from buying telecommunications equipment made by Huawei or ZTE. Earlier this week, the White House called on the Netherlands to cancel the sale of chip manufacturing technology to China; if the sale between semiconductor equipment company ASML and China goes ahead, Beijing would have the keys to the most advanced microprocessor producer in the world. 

Regardless of US efforts to curb China’s rise, Beijing’s grasp on the 5G market seems only to be tightening. Despite US President Donald Trump placing Huawei on a nationwide blacklist, the firm recorded an 18% rise in sales in 2019 to a record US$122 billion. Huawei remains the largest supplier of communications equipment to telecom providers in the world, and is typically a cheaper option than the three suppliers based in democratic countries: Finland’s Nokia, Sweden’s Ericsson, and South Korea’s Samsung. 

At the same time, lawmakers in the West appear set on framing the global 5G rollout as a trade issue. Despite Trump loudly claiming his determination to starve Huawei of US technology and market access, the US President has also hinted at the possibility of waiving restrictions in return for concessions from Beijing during trade talks. Trump already handed ZTE a lifeline in 2018, lifting sanctions despite stern warnings from lawmakers, defence advisers, and his own economic officials. 

Western voices sounding the alarm over Huawei and ZTE are often dismissed as xenophobes or protectionists, but there is good reason to be cautious about China-based 5G suppliers. China’s National Intelligence Law requires all organisations and citizens to “support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work,” which includes handing over 5G data if requested to do so by Beijing. 

Moreover, Huawei is itself already suspected of undertaking a campaign of corporate espionage: according to a 2019 Justice Department indictment, the company’s headquarters in Beijing very specifically requested information from engineers in T-Mobile’s facility in Washington, and leaked email exchanges reveal Huawei employees under pressure to steal trade secrets and equipment. As per the Justice Department, the Chinese company even had a bonus program in place to reward individuals for valuable stolen property; one Huawei employee allegedly walked out of a facility with a robotic arm in his bag. 

Washington’s alarms over a Chinese-dominated 5G roll-out are so far being met with scepticism in Europe, and elsewhere. The Brazilian science minister this week rejected US pressure to exclude Huawei from bidding for its national 5G network; in Brussels, a campaign by Huawei to exploit European suspicion of the Trump administration seems to be bearing fruit

2020 will bring with it a slew of corporate bidding for 5G networks all over the world. Western lawmakers, especially in Europe, can no longer afford to perceive the global 5G roll-out as an issue of strictly consumer market proportions, and must instead use a coordinated discourse of protection. Democratic security in the coming era depends on it.

Joanna Eva is a London-based analyst and contributor with a range of clients in the risk consulting industry. She specializes in Asian political and economic analysis, having lived and travelled extensively in the region for close to a decade. She holds a Master of Law from the University of New South Wales and received her Bachelor of International Studies from the University of Sydney. She is proficient in English and Mandarin Chinese.

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