5G & the US-China Tech Rivalry: A Test for Europe’s Future in the Digital Age

Written by | Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

Until late last year, most Europeans only knew Huawei as one of many smartphone manufacturers gaining ground in stores across the continent. But in recent months, the tech giant has turned into a symbol of a high-stakes wrestling match between the world’s premier superpower, the United States, and its increasingly ambitious and capable challenger, China. Indeed, the impending rollout of 5G infrastructure has become a key battleground in a broader struggle for control over the industries of the future. Europe has meanwhile been caught on its back foot and urgently needs to develop a strategy to not only guide it through the current 5G debate, but also the tech rivalries that are still to come.


With dramatically higher data transfer speeds and decreased latency, 5G carries the promise of revolutionizing all spheres of daily life: from self-driving vehicles to healthcare to the “internet of things” and the digitalization of industrial production processes and so-called smart cities. Huawei currently leads the field in 5G infrastructure and as such, for the first time in modern history, China is in a prime position to lead the world in the rollout of a potentially game-changing technology. This prospect has caused fierce pushback from Washington and jitters across Europe and much of the West.


For months, the United States has been pressuring its European allies to enact an outright ban of Huawei from the rollout of 5G infrastructure on the continent. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even warned that allies who deal with the company will no longer be privy to American intelligence. China, in turn, threatened retaliation against European countries inclined to give in to US demands. China’s ambassador to the European Union, Zhang Ming, spoke of “serious consequences” for economic and scientific cooperation, whereas China’s ambassador to Poland warned of “steep costs” for Poland if it decided to ban Huawei.


Caught between the two powers, Europe’s vulnerability is clearly visible: On the one hand, European countries depend on China’s central position in the value chain for information and communication technology (ICT), in particular regarding hardware; on the other hand, the United States dominates software development and remains Europe’s prime security guarantor.


Complicating matters further, the Trump administration announced on 15 May that Huawei would figure on the “Entity List” of the US Department of Commerce, effectively placing sanctions on the Chinese tech giant and banning all access to US technology (from microchips to critical software). This decision constitutes a major blow to the company that has the potential to severely affect its operations. It is also a clear signal to Western allies that the United States is serious in its campaign to stop Huawei’s growing influence. For its part, China has responded with its own broadly defined “unreliable entities list” of countries, companies, or persons that “seriously damage the legitimate interests” of Chinese companies.


In this situation, Europeans risk becoming mere objects in a geopolitical struggle for technological leadership that will significantly shape our future. The defense of European interests and values in this context will require Europeans to develop a common political strategy – based on sound principles and objective criteria – for navigating the geopolitical conflicts that new technology will bring. The 5G debate adds a sense of urgency to this quest.


All over Europe, the deployment of 5G networks will soon begin. In the coming months, Europeans will have to settle on what their approach to the issue will be. The recent decisions by the US administration have made this even more difficult. If the United States upholds its export restrictions, this may seriously impact Huawei’s ability to offer its products and services, particularly (but not only) in Europe. Thus, being a mere bystander, at least for the moment, if Europe wants to defend its own interests – not only in this particular case, but also with regard to the larger tech rivalry between the United States and China.


To that end, EU member states will have to be very clear about their interests as well as the adequate means to pursue them – and also ultimately address these four key questions: 1. What is the cost of security?; 2. How can “political trustworthiness” be objectively assessed?; 3. Can Europe find consensus and forge its own path?; and 4. What lessons can we draw from other partners on hedging geopolitical risks?


‚5G and the US-China Tech Rivalry – A Test for Europe’s Future in the Digital Age‘ – Commentary by Tim Ruhlig, John Seaman, Daniel Voelsen – Institut français des relations internationales / IFRI.

(The Commentary can be downloaded here)

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