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To exclude the Chinese from building 5G? The history of the technological conflict between the USA and China

przeczytanie zajmie 8 min

The development of 5G technology has become the subject of dispute between Europe and the United States with China. However, in the geopolitical rivalry the context of security policy is important. China has repeatedly been accused of espionage and foul play. On the other hand, the West has strong economic ties with the PRC, which forces the weighing of interests and makes it difficult to make decisions. Bartosz Paszcza talks to Joanna Świątkowska, PhD, AGH University of Science and Technology, about the challenges that the development of new technologies brings to inter-state relations.

In 2018, US services reported that Chinese components may pose a threat to cybersecurity. It seems that the West – and especially the United States – realized then that Huawei’s dominance of the 5G supplier market will be the starting point for a great technical competition. What were your reflections upon hearing about these reports?

Let me start by saying that everything I say today is solely my opinion and does not necessarily reflect the position of the institution I represent. I agree with your analysis only to a certain extent. When in 2018 it was first mentioned that 5G would be an issue of absolute political priority for the United States, it was presented as related mainly to security issues. We asked ourselves then whether it was really a matter of fighting for global domination and whether security was simply a good argument here, or whether it was actually about the cybersecurity of the key infrastructure of countries.

I think the answer is a combination of these two issues. First, the United States has taken a long time to realize that they now have a rival on the global stage that could seriously challenge their technological dominance. The United States experienced a second Sputnik effect, this time related to digital technologies. They realized that their strategic rivals – I mean mainly China – are no longer the world’s subcontractors. China is not a place where only simple components are assembled to make computer equipment, where solutions are copied, and where innovative developments of new technologies are not made.

So, there is indeed geopolitical competition but from the point of view of 5G and future technologies built on the basis of the fifth generation network, there is also the issue of vital security. 5G is a fundamental technology that will be responsible for the most vital processes of the country’s functioning in the economic, social, military and broadly understood national security dimensions. The very nature of the 5G network means that the suppliers of individual components are indeed of enormous importance for security.

When the suspicions of American services started to be voiced, a wave of disbelief swept through Europe. Of course, some countries cooperating more closely with the USA, including the United Kingdom and Poland, have not distanced themselves from these reports. But Germany, for instance, claimed that no evidence of such a risk had yet been seen, provided by the American services. How do you assess the reactions of various European countries at the beginning of 2019? Perhaps this fear in Europe was smaller because two large European companies – Nokia and Ericsson – are preparing their own 5G solutions?

Of course, relations between states are much more complicated. Security is at stake with, for example, economic relations. Some European countries and Europe as a whole have close economic ties with China. Therefore, it is difficult to take radical steps, especially when we have the handy argument that we have not been shown any evidence.

On the other hand, it needs to be remembered that the United Kingdom had already pointed out problems with the cybersecurity of Chinese devices a few years earlier. In an annual report, one of the institutions indicated that the cybersecurity components of one of the Chinese companies are not at the highest level.

However, we must make a distinction between the two issues. On the one hand, the report did not mention the presence of deliberately placed backdoors allowing China hidden access to these devices. We do not have hard, publicly available evidence of intelligence activity using backdoors in systems (however, services may have access to them). On the other hand, China has a tainted history marred by accusations of industrial espionage, illegal sourcing and transfer of technology as well as intellectual property theft.

So, the distrust of China has two foundations. Firstly, the aforementioned historical allegations that appeared far earlier than 5G itself. Secondly, the fact that the 5G network itself, due to its role, can be a dream tool in the hands of a country known to have an appetite for various activities, including espionage. I know that someone can use the counterargument that companies such as Huawei are not the Chinese state but private entities. It should be remembered that in China for several years legislative solutions have been used that give the possibility of influencing specific enterprises and forcing them to cooperate with the services. The former head of the Australian intelligence agency, Simon Goulding, once said that if you want to assess the risk of interference by State X’s services in different systems, three factors are to be taken into account: ability, motivation and capabilities. In this case, the ability is what counts. Unfortunately, historical experience shows that on the Chinese side motivation also exists. And when you are a supplier of the key components that make up the 5G network, that opportunity is at your fingertips.

Australia is an interesting example as it has decided to significantly increase its cyber defence budget following the recent cyber attacks it is accusing China of. Europe did not completely ignore this. The votes of all EU countries were collected and the so-called EU Toolbox was created, i.e. a set of recommendations on how European countries should create the 5G network. But is the European Toolbox really a tool that will decide for us, telling us step by step how to act?

Let’s get one thing clear: The Toolbox is not a mandatory document, nor must it be used by all European countries. This is just a set of recommendations, so it does not have the driving force that would immediately unify the approach of all countries. However, this does not mean that it is a bad publication. In my opinion, the European answer to the issue of 5G is quite constructive. I myself have made a lot of critical remarks about EU actions and their impact on reality, especially in the short term. However, the reaction of the European Union regarding this subject was a pleasant surprise for me. You can see that it was done very well.

The European Union started with gathering the opinions of the Member States both on the functioning of the 5G network itself in individual countries and the threats associated with it. In this way, a common assessment of the situation was built. The threat analysis went beyond the obvious issues. A much broader context related to the political, legal and economic situation was also taken into account. It was an extremely valuable diagnostic process. The threats were indicated very broadly, which in my opinion reflects the complicated aspect of this new technology. Then the European Union went on to propose a recommendation. Here, again, solutions at the strategic and legislative level (e.g. granting new powers to various public entities) and the lower, purely technological level, have been combined in a very good way.

It would be ideal if European countries could give a united response and react in the same way, but that is not really possible. The telecommunications market differs from country to country, and there are different historical backlogs, so if only for this reason, there is not one answer for everyone. On the other hand, it would be great to build a common front of talks with business partners, for example with whom we want to define security requirements. Here, unfortunately, I come to less optimistic conclusions about the actions of the EU. The Toolbox is a great tool, but if we look at how 5G affects individual European countries , it will be difficult for us to reach a consensus.

What are the positions of various European countries? How have they changed since 2019?

The diagnosis remains the same but it’s difficult to answer this question. It is clear that we are in a moment of strategic uncertainty. I have a feeling that we are taking two steps forward and then three steps backwards. With the exception of a few countries, most EU countries have yet to decide how to tackle this problem in a way that does not undermine the economic and political ties too much. We are partly in competition with China, but we are also largely economic partners, and it would be easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Countries like the UK show that things are really changing from month to month. First, we heard from London about cooperation with Huawei and its maximum share of 35% of the network, and a month later we received information that the UK government was considering the complete exclusion of Chinese suppliers. I believe that Germany will play a very important role. They that took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union and for six months they will have the political tools to influence the atmosphere of talks in the Community. Their decision may inspire others.

Germany is quite an interesting case for me. They were one of the countries that initially sent many questions to the US about the evidence of espionage or security breaches by the Chineese. One and a half years later, the legislation introduced by the CDU, which mandated the diversification of component suppliers, was criticized for not going far enough. There were voices, also among German parliamentarians, with a sterner attitude towards China, that the proposed solutions were insufficient. Has there been a change in Germany?

Germany is an interesting case because its economic relations with China are very strong, also in the context of many other ICT solutions, particularly connected with the entire development of Industry 4.0. Germany really has a lot of economic interests at stake. This, of course, makes the decision difficult for them. At the same time, the German debate includes opinions that perhaps this is the moment when one should look at the matter from a larger perspective, think in the long term, that this is perhaps the last call in order to carefully settle interests in certain aspects crucial for security and the development of modern technologies, other than economic interests. It seems to me that Germany does not yet have a uniform view and some visions and diagnoses still clash there.

It seems to me that we are at a time when the Old Continent is awakening to strategic thinking. Europe has realized it is time to start looking ahead and anticipate the dangers of the future.

I agree with this; however, it is another matter if it can be realized. At the European level, I see an understanding that we are fighting for more than tomorrow and the long-term future is at stake.

In my opinion, Toolbox is interesting not only because it is a response to current problems, I see it as a strategic idea. Diversification of suppliers is important for the European Union not only from the security point of view but also for the development of its own resources, capabilities – what is already called 'strategic autonomy in the field of new technologies’. Maybe this concept is utopian in some areas, but I really support it and think we need to start this discussion.

Let’s talk again about Poland. Recently, the digitization ministry published its regulation on the 5G network. On the one hand, we have Washington’s declarations that only trusted suppliers are allowed, and on the other, a document focusing on diversification. What is Poland’s position in this matter?

I suppose we just don’t know everything yet. Of course, our position is a bit clearer than in many other countries, we have already signed a declaration with the United States stating that we will focus on trusted suppliers. This, of course, does not prove anything in itself, as it is only a kind of political declaration. The regulation of June 22 that you mentioned contains more details. In addition to the call to diversify suppliers, it includes other issues, like the need to use risk analysis. It also talks about one very important matter: telecommunications undertakings will also be obliged to apply, in the context of network security, those recommendations that will be issued by the Polish cybersecurity representative. The regulation itself uses this exact wording: „take recommendations into account”, which could be paraphrased as „taking recommendations into account or actually applying them”. Here, the interpretation can vary greatly. Nevertheless, it can already be seen that this regulation is in line with the spirit of the EU Toolbox, which means that in this case, we are following the direction of the Union.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.