5G and compromised sovereignty
If the titanic battle for 5G dominance is confusing, it’s helpful to view it as China’s push to challenge the global world order established by the victorious allies of World War II. As World War II came to a close, the victors divided the world into spheres of political and economic influence. The Soviet Union reserved Eastern Europe for itself as insurance against its historical distrust of the West. The United Kingdom and France retained the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and former colonies in Africa and Southeast Asia. The United States, with 70 percent of global GDP and the major supplier of weapons that won the war, defined the Americas and the Pacific as its zones of influence.
As part of the global reset, the United States and her allies created the Bretton-Woods agreement and formed the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization. The victors hoped that these institutions, with their system of rules and conventions, would keep economic and financial rivalries in check and avoid the recurrence of another catastrophic global conflict.
The de-industrialization program of the United States quickly revitalized and reintegrated Japan and West Germany. In exchange for renouncing the use of military force for offensive purposes, Japanese and German brands, like Toyota and Volkswagen, were given unfettered access to global markets. This resulted in economic miracles and democratic principles flourishing in both nations.
The West engaged China in 1979 under the reform-oriented Deng Xiaoping. It had assumed that the sleeping giant would follow the economic and political trajectory of post-World War II Japan and Germany.
Why, then, is the United States systematically disrupting the business plans of Huawei and other Chinese telecoms hardware and software firms on 5G today?
Before the internet age, Chinese products were of no serious concern to the West. Today, however, the internet’s ability to connect and control disparate devices and services makes China’s technology push a potential existential threat to the world order. And 5G technology will make that possible.
5G is designed to connect millions of consumer appliances, industrial machinery, and utility services to the Internet of Things. Things will be able to “talk” to each other without much human intervention. Smart cars will talk to stoplights for efficient traffic flow. MRI machines will send scans to computers assisting doctors with diagnoses, air conditioners will talk to power utilities to manage peak loads.
The United States has drawn a bright red line because 5G heralds a step change to the way civilization will function, making it not only disruptive and transformative, but also potentially subversive.
The United States and its allies now believe that Huawei, ZTE, and other Chinese firms have developed 5G technologies designed to further the Chinese government’s agenda—from enforcing state security laws to enabling massive state surveillance and control of citizens.
If warfare is a means to rearrange the global world order, bits and bytes have now become weapons of mass chaos in their own right.
With tainted hardware and software, telecom networks allow themselves to become potential vectors for taking down a country’s critical infrastructure, similar to what happened to Estonia in 2017, when attackers remotely shut down power systems and bank networks.
In the face of rapidly changing technology, will the balance of power post-World War II remain? A cyberattack can completely cripple a country’s entire financial system. A small but technologically advanced country, even without a large military, can now aspire to influence in ways previously reserved for superpowers. Entire spheres of influence can now be dismantled as countries and entire regions are frozen out of their own systems.
The victors of 1945 have much to discuss.
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Gamaliel Pascual has a 40-year career fusing corporate finance and IT. He was involved in the advocacy to pass the Philippines’ E-Commerce Act of 2000 and the Supreme Court Rules on Electronic Evidence. He is part of Secure Connections, a cybersecurity project of The Asia Foundation-Philippines. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Asia Foundation-Philippines.
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