The international debate regarding the acquisition of Chinese 5G technology appears symbolic of the re-emerging Great Power Competition, and stark proof of the ongoing decoupling of the global ICT supply chain. Washington has been pressing its allies for more than a year not to adopt Chinese 5G technology and threatened drastic cuts in intelligence information-sharing with those procuring it. We cannot ascribe these developments to Washington’s hidden market-share considerations, as the US market does not yet offer a competing technology, nor can we consider them yet another example of President Trump’s tough positions on trade negotiations, especially with China, because it is since 2012 that the US Administration has prohibited several government agencies, on the grounds of “national security risk”, from acquiring products from Huawei and ZTE, two of China’s most successful high-tech exporters. Is Chinese 5G technology so dangerous, and if so, why is the ban on Chinese 5G technology so contentious?
5G networks will enable the Internet of Things revolution, which, together with the exponential progresses in computing power and advances in AI, will transform our everyday life in ways we can barely imagine. 5G networks will represent the nervous system connecting the political, strategic, military, informative, economic, financial, industrial and infrastructural dimensions at a personal, local, national, international and transnational level. In this scenario, there are at least three categories of risks that might arise from relying upon untrusted 5G networks. The first is the “classic” risk of espionage by foreign entities (be they governmental or private companies subject to a strong government’s direction), targeting governments’ confidential information, commercial or industrial secrets, our personal lives. This would certainly pose a direct threat to our freedom, to our independence and to our welfare. A 5G controlled more or less directly by foreign entities would also give them the power to profile users, to manipulate data and divert data flow, and eventually to influence our individual perceptions and our public opinions. Cyber-enabled information warfare already appears to be one of the instruments of choice in the ongoing international confrontation, and it has proven its destabilizing potential in several international crises. Developments in deep-fake technology and in “automated propaganda” will certainly elevate the threat even further. Finally, in time of crisis, an untrusted provider might use the network to exert political and economic pressure and to acquire a military advantage, for instance if its operators denied an essential service to a critical national infrastructure, or if it voluntarily provided forged data, or sabotaged essential democratic or industrial processes, or hampered political decision-making on issues of national security and defence.
Against this backdrop, policy-makers must decide whether to allow Chinese off-the-shelf providers to prevail or if it is more appropriate to delay the fielding of 5G in order for trusted vendors to be able to offer a safer and more secure alternative. It is indeed an unprecedented dilemma for our policy-makers, accustomed to a Western technological superiority that is now increasingly challenged in every domain, and to free-market dogmas that mandated the globalization of supply chains. Responses have so far been diverse. Some Western countries delayed the acquisition of 5G technology altogether, while some others tried to distinguish between “core” and “non-core” parts of the networks, assuming it will be possible to procure Chinese 5G technology for the latter. Some states, also, decided to impose specific security standards for ICT components for specific sectors of national security importance. Many others have yet to say the final word, and have so far changed their position a few times.
National security concerns normally prevail without too much hassle over market or economic development considerations, especially where there is so much public attention. The issue of Chinese 5G, on the other hand, seems to be of a different kind. Is it because the West cannot accept delaying the digital transformation enabled by 5G, no matter what? Is it because of the very significant investments that Chinese providers are willing to make in Western infrastructure? Or is it because, after Snowden’s revelations, the public opinions of Europe believe that, since everyone hacks, it does not really make a difference who to trust, especially in the absence of concrete proofs that the Chinese government used its ascendancy over Huawei and ZTE to hack data? Maybe the answer is a combination of both these reasons, or maybe the fact is that there is simply a general lack of awareness about the threats stemming from cyberspace, and possibly also about the reasons, the bearings and the practical implications of the ongoing new Great Power Competition.
This lack of awareness is understandable: cyberspace is the domain of ambiguity, where it is impossible to understand and anticipate the motivation and the scope of a cyber campaign without considering the strategic, political and operational context in which it occurs. The difficulty in attributing the cyberattacks, together with the widespread recourse in cyberspace to falsely flag computer network operations, make it difficult to know “what is really going on” in the cyber domain, and to make sense out of it. Cybercrime, hacktivism, intelligence and military computer network operations, all share the same domain and they all use the same tactics, techniques and procedures, and they all exploit the same vulnerabilities. Cyberspace has therefore become the domain of choice for destabilising campaigns and engaging in hostile activities that would be simply unsustainable in the conventional realm. National intelligence communities usually are better placed and equipped to handle sensible information and grasp the complexity “behind the curtains” of the ongoing confrontation in the cyber domain – but this is also another reason why an in-depth understanding of cyber affairs is not easily accessible to the general public, or even at the institutional level.
If what happens “in and around” cyberspace is already difficult to know and to understand, and much harder is to picture how the world will transform in just a few years given the rapidly of technological progress, what complicates the picture even further on the issue of 5G is the traditional unfamiliarity of public opinions with matters of foreign affairs and international security. Questions of international security are rarely on the top of the political agenda or make headlines, and world public opinions do not seem very much concerned about the resurgence of the Great Power Competition or the comeback of strategic instability. It is little wonder, therefore, that the ongoing decoupling of the global ICT supply chain does not attract great attention outside of specialists’ circles. It is, instead, a crucial development in today’s international security environment.
We are undergoing a digital revolution that has already brought about paradigmatic changes to the theory and practice of international security – and we are just at the beginning. Progress in the field of Artificial Intelligence, for example, will soon permit the automation of weapon systems (even those of cyberspace) and the most efficient planning of operations; it will allow public opinion to be manipulated far more effectively through deep-fakes and cyber-enabled information warfare, and will exponentially increase the speed of future conflicts. Tomorrow’s hyperwars will be fought by machines with autonomous decision-making capabilities; “algorithmic warfare” will become the norm. In this new strategic environment, it is more important than ever to maintain the technological superiority historically associated with the Western hegemony over the international system, which is now threatened by the advance of political models alternative to, and in direct competition with, the West.
Mobilisation to maintain technological and cyber superiority is at the origin of the ongoing global decoupling of the hardware and software ICT supply chains. It is also provoking the gradual building of barriers to technology transfer and the proliferation of national safeguards against foreign technological products and services, resulting in a global normative patchwork. Not only in the West: Beijing, for instance, recently decided to replace all the hardware and software used by public bodies with domestically-produced technology. In this competition between Great Powers, even Internet traffic is segmented by different, interconnected – but, if necessary, independent - systems: China erected its Great Firewall, and Russian networks can now, by law, be segregated in case of need. These developments are the result of competition between opposing blocks, and they simultaneously intensify that same competition.
The more important privacy, accessibility and integrity of data become to national security, the more urgent it is for states to bolster cybersecurity and the more potentially advantageous offensive actions in cyberspace and on the ICT supply chain become. Cyber power and the control over ICT networks and data are hence simply another dimension of 21st century sovereignty. In this sense, even if the Chinese 5G connectivity were demonstrated to be safe, secure and reliable, it will grant Beijing a valuable access to data which is, in itself, an enabler for cyber power. In times of Great Power Competition and digital revolution, this might be problematic.