Op-Ed: 5G: A symbol of competition to come

This commentary originally appeared in The Brussels Times, September 23, 2019

By: Doug Lute

European Union member states recently submitted assessments of the security risks incurred with the introduction of 5G and the newly appointed Commission leadership will take these into account as they shape a European policy and risk mitigation strategy due out at the end of this year. The main concern is that the world’s leading provider of 5G capability, the Chinese firm Huawei, promises this capability at a roughly 30% discount but has demonstrated vulnerabilities as well as potentially troubling ties to the Chinese government. Most importantly, Huawei is subject to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which states “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” 

Faster data

The attraction to 5G is clear: an order of magnitude improvement in both speed and decreased latency. Data will be uploaded 100 times faster and with much less delay between the data source and the destination. These features enable significantly advanced applications such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems.  In earlier generations of digital technology, we should have learned that the ability to connect exceeds the ability to protect; that is, we can connect users and pass data better than we can ensure the security of that data.

Data security concerns

This gap between connecting and protecting will only widen with the introduction of 5G technology, making data security a prime concern. So, while 5G promises game-changing advances for states, industry and individual citizens, it also promises increased risk of security challenges. This risk only increases when data can be placed in the hands of a strategic competitor such as China. Imagine the repercussions if China’s security agencies have access to government communications, systems controlling critical infrastructure and mass media. 

While the immediate issue of data security is critical, it may consume our attention and mask another, longer-term challenge highlighted in a recent report on NATO published by Harvard University’s Belfer Center. Europe and the United States are in a strategic competition with China that will dominate the next several decades. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is China’s attempt to broaden its reach beyond its immediate neighbourhood with ready access to transportation and communications infrastructure.  

China and the Belt and Road Initiative

China’s strategic objective, the destination of the BRI, is Europe’s advanced market of 500 million consumers and one-quarter of the world’s economy. The reach of China’s BRI is readily apparent, with projects stretching across South and Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Most recent are projects on Europe’s periphery, including seaports in the Mediterranean, Belgium and the Netherlands, and even emerging routes across the Far North. The pattern of Chinese investment is also clear. Initial commercial investment featuring attractive terms is expected to lead later to political influence. This strategic infiltration by China is the challenge facing Europe and its closest partner, the United States. Europe must place the ongoing competition for 5G in the broader context of the strategic competition with China. The EU and NATO can serve to raise awareness, collaborate among states, build common approaches and set standards.

Cybersecurity

Much has already been done in the area of cybersecurity to build resilience, but with the advent of 5G, much more is required. One principle should be that states require 5G technology, including network equipment, to be interoperable so that no one provider dominates the market, introducing monopolistic commercial risks as well as potential security risks.  This has the benefit of fitting the priorities that incoming European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has published for the next five years. In her Mission Letter to EU Commissioner Sylvie Goulard, who is responsible for promoting digital industries, von der Leyen charges Goulard with “enhancing Europe’s technological sovereignty,” which includes “jointly defining standards for 5G networks and new generation technologies.”

In the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014, such EU-NATO collaboration has raised the importance of resilience – the ability of member states to resist external attack and rebound from adversity.

Competition with China 

The main point is that 5G is not only an important capability in its own right, but also one dimension of the broader, more strategic competition with China that will dominate the next several decades. Europe and the United States have the tools needed to compete, especially with vital organizations in the EU and NATO. But the first step is to appreciate the long game that China is playing.

Douglas Lute was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. He is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and CEO of Cambridge Global Advisors.