The U.S. Must Offer a Substantive 5G Alternative to China’s Huawei

To maximize commercial output, encourage economic development, and introduce the newest industrial capabilities, ranging from agriculture to medicine, countries across the world are seeking access to the best information and communication technologies (ICT) that can accelerate economic development and safeguard national security.

Central to this process are fifth-generation mobile networks, or 5G, which promise increased bandwidth, lower latency, greater interconnectivity across platforms, and faster network times. Without domestic 5G providers, Southeast Asian, Middle Eastern, and African countries look abroad to procure and integrate this technology into their economies. Herein lies a great technological power competition between China and the West. If the United States is unable to provide competitive 5G alternatives to the financially attractive offers recently extended by Chinese company Huawei, the West risks losing its technological superiority and credibility to China.

In the same way that the United States has been convincing countries across the globe that Beijing’s increasing penetration into their financial and political institutions fuels its quest to erode freedom within the current rules-based international order, Washington must make the same effort on the technological front. This is ultimately the sphere that will play the most decisive role in shaping countries’ political inclinations, economic development, and educational opportunities. The fundamental challenge, however, lies in demonstrating to these countries that choosing the Chinese path to obtain this technological growth is prejudicial in the long run.

The argument is especially difficult to make when Beijing provides impressive short-term results. Malaysia is a case in point. It is one of many Southeast Asian countries that takes an open and global approach as it strives for technological development. It is willing to work with a variety of partners and does not draw distinct lines between the repressive tools deployed by China and the privacy-based alternatives offered by the West. Last year, for instance, Malaysia signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China on 5G digital cooperation intended to facilitate information sharing between both countries. This came after Swedish vendor Ericsson built its first state-owned 5G network after the company was awarded $2.5 billion.

Malaysia keeps its options open. This applies to its preeminent companies in the technological sector as well. For example, Ericsson signed its own MoU with one of Malaysia’s leading telecommunications and research accelerator companies with the aim of sending resources directly to businesses and private industry. However, Chinese companies have not remained inert while these processes move forward. To dissuade Malaysia from receiving training, infrastructure, and capabilities from European companies, Huawei is developing more advanced tools and applying forceful economic pressure. It tried to make Malaysia reopen the selection process to invest in 5G infrastructure by combining its influence in the region with forceful lobbying tactics.

The West’s strategy in response to these bellicose strategies has been to cite the national security concerns that emerge when working with Chinese companies. U.S., UK, and EU government envoys contended to Malaysian officials that they should not reopen the negotiating process. Brian McFeeters, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, wrote that Huawei’s rival network would expose the country’s “infrastructure to national security risks.”

As the Belt and Road Initiative makes all too clear, a good business deal almost always trumps such security concerns. One of Malaysia’s 5G providers, Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), could benefit from having a second 5G vendor that would reduce costs and accelerate the implementation of 5G nationwide. In addition, this would prevent Malaysia’s telecommunications infrastructure from having a single point of failure if one of the providers faces a network problem. In other words, Huawei would combat monopolization while providing citizens with access to fast connections. But perhaps most importantly, it would be cheaper for developing countries.

Read the rest at National Interest.

Axel de Vernou is a Research Assistant at Yorktown Institute and a senior at Yale Univerity.

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