The United States must lead the global development of 5G infrastructure in order to establish norms of use consistent with democratic values, according to a former White House official. To do so, it will need to compete vigorously with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
“Beijing has proven time and again their willingness to leverage tech production capabilities for economic and strategic advantage,” said Robert O’Brien, former national security adviser.
“We’ve seen enough from [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping and the CCP in recent years to understand that Beijing cannot be trusted to lead this critical industry.”
O’Brien, who served as the fourth and final national security adviser of the Trump administration, delivered the remarks on March 4 as part of a virtual talk on the challenges of 5G development put on by the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
5G is the newest technical standard for cellular networks. Its associated technologies will form the basis of telecommunications infrastructure for the near future and widely affect internet-oriented products and services.
O’Brien said 5G stood to contribute more than $500 billion to the U.S. economy in the coming years, noting that its potential use in powering smart cities, enabling new AI technologies, and modernizing the power grid has made it a centerpiece in the ongoing great power competition between the United States and China.
“As we acknowledge great power competition between the United States and China, we must renew our focus on maintaining U.S. technological and global leadership, and support continued innovation in this country,” he said.
“5G does not come without its own security issues. Global networks and technology [are] a key area of competition among nations.”
As such, O’Brien considered it vital that the United States lead 5G development globally—ahead of China—to ensure that it’s used according to the principles of democratic societies and to prevent its cooption by authoritarian regimes.
“As is the case with the adoption of any new technology, early adoption of 5G will allow the U.S. to establish the normative behavior, the rules of the road so to speak, across the spectrum [from] repurposing, regulation, supply chains, and broader cyber strategies,” he said.
“How the U.S. approaches access to the spectrum required to operate successful 5G networks will do much to determine the outcome of the technological competition with China, and this is a competition we cannot afford to lose.”
Losing the Advantage
While it may not be losing the 5G race, the United States is certainly losing its advantage. O’Brien highlighted that less than 10 years ago, China housed only two of the world’s top 10 tech firms by market value. By 2018, it controlled nine of them.
Moreover, the rise of 5G offerings by companies such as Chinese telecom giant Huawei, which shares close ties to the CCP, raises serious security concerns for nations throughout the world, O’Brien said, noting that all of the infrastructure created by Chinese-owned companies could be coopted by the CCP.
“There’s ample evidence to suggest that no Chinese company is independent from the Chinese government and the communist party of China,” he said.
The comment appeared to allude to the CCP’s national security and cybersecurity laws, which give it the authority to demand any company’s data for national security purposes.
He pointed to the actions of other nations to curb the authoritarian impulse coming out of Beijing. India has banned 239 separate Chinese apps over fears of data harvesting following violent border clashes with Chinese forces in 2020. The total number of Chinese apps banned in India is now 321.
It’s imperative that the United States work to prevent the CCP from achieving “global domination” of such technologies as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems, according to O’Brien.
“What we can’t do is allow the Chinese Communist Party to assume a role of leadership over the global tech industry,” he said. “It’s not only dangerous for the United States, but it’s dangerous for the world and especially dangerous for our allies.
“China is not communist in name only. It’s a Marxist-Leninist communist ideology that Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership practice. It’s truly everything for Beijing.”
Unlike the economic challenge posed to the United States by Japan in the 1980s, O’Brien said the threat of the CCP went far beyond economics and into issues concerning the very nature of the American way of life and the continuation of individual liberty.
As such, he called for the creation of a national 5G policy to create new infrastructure using diverse spectrums of 5G broadband to ensure usability and resiliency.
In all, he underscored that 5G was just one key battle in a much larger struggle between the United States and the CCP. It’s a struggle to gain dominance of the technological industrial base and to govern the future use of information, he said.
“We must thwart the CCP from taking up the torch of innovation and leaving our nation, our national security, weakened,” O’Brien said. “Our economic security will be entirely disrupted if China’s desire to displace the United States [led] order is realized.
“We cannot afford to lose this race.”