Foreign Policy

China Is aware of the Energy of 5G. Why Doesn’t the U.S.?

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden gave the G-7 what has been referred to as a “wake-up call” to defend human rights in the face of China’s rising global influence. At the group’s summit in England, he introduced the Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, a global infrastructure plan that seeks to mobilize investments for low- and middle-income countries in four major areas: climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality. The plan is a more equitable and sustainable alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s foreign development strategy that has already reached more than 70 countries. As the plan indicates, G-7 member countries can no longer ignore the risks that China’s infrastructure technology poses to human rights, individual security, and democracy worldwide.

Biden’s plan is an important step to combating China’s rising influence. But it needs to prioritize technology more, especially 5G, which is carrying the world into the next era of the internet. The B3W plan doesn’t explicitly mention 5G, even though that technology is beginning to transform how we communicate and live by expanding information access, automating everyday services, and advancing smart cities and policing. Essentially, 5G has the power to affect all four areas of the B3W plan, and how it is built, used, and governed can tip the scales in favor of authoritarianism or democracy in any given country. The G-7 should recognize 5G’s power—and the risks it poses in the wrong hands—by making 5G a central thread that ties its infrastructure plan together and promoting it in B3W.

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden gave the G-7 what has been referred to as a “wake-up call” to defend human rights in the face of China’s rising global influence. At the group’s summit in England, he introduced the Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, a global infrastructure plan that seeks to mobilize investments for low- and middle-income countries in four major areas: climate, health and health security, digital technology, and gender equity and equality. The plan is a more equitable and sustainable alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s foreign development strategy that has already reached more than 70 countries. As the plan indicates, G-7 member countries can no longer ignore the risks that China’s infrastructure technology poses to human rights, individual security, and democracy worldwide.

Biden’s plan is an important step to combating China’s rising influence. But it needs to prioritize technology more, especially 5G, which is carrying the world into the next era of the internet. The B3W plan doesn’t explicitly mention 5G, even though that technology is beginning to transform how we communicate and live by expanding information access, automating everyday services, and advancing smart cities and policing. Essentially, 5G has the power to affect all four areas of the B3W plan, and how it is built, used, and governed can tip the scales in favor of authoritarianism or democracy in any given country. The G-7 should recognize 5G’s power—and the risks it poses in the wrong hands—by making 5G a central thread that ties its infrastructure plan together and promoting it in B3W.

In recent years, the U.S. security community has woken up to the threats of the Chinese Communist Party’s technology agenda. The party’s approach centers on two tactics: a series of laws that require Chinese companies, including those providing services abroad, to give Beijing unfettered access to data and the global export of 5G hardware. Chinese business leaders go to other countries bearing inexpensive hardware and the promise of economic advancement, all for the price of control over data that can be accessed by Beijing or local authoritarian regimes.

5G is an easy tool to weaponize. As demand for it grows worldwide, citizens and infrastructure are becoming increasingly reliant on it. As of February, 131 countries announced plans to invest in 5G, which will be foundational for future internet technologies. Like the internet and social media, 5G promises greater access to information. But it also allows more data to be gathered than ever before, and any 5G-backed technology can expedite and expand the scope and scale of what people—and governments—can do with that information.

5G adoption in a country inclined toward authoritarianism makes autocrats more efficient. In those countries, decision-making around 5G adoption occurs almost exclusively in executive branches of government with little to no oversight, giving leaders broad control over data flow and governance. As a result, mass surveillance can ensue, as well as large-scale human rights abuses through automated discrimination, censorship, and persecution—much like what is taking place against Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region. Leaders with access to 5G-backed artificial intelligence capabilities and real-time citizen information are able to employ subversive disinformation campaigns with greater reach to fuel violent polarization. Meanwhile, internet shutdowns only increase in frequency and target political opponents, dissidents, and journalists, which has already happened in Myanmar, Kashmir, Chad, and Nigeria.

Already, the export of Chinese technologies and tools to Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia has coincided with a rise of digital authoritarianism. It has given dictators, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, broader control over everything from data flow to airwaves. Parliament buildings have been wired, political opponents threatened, and citizens surveilled and censored using technologies produced and serviced by Chinese companies, such as Huawei and ZTE.

But that doesn’t mean 5G is inherently dangerous. Democracies have every reason to pursue the technological promise of 5G, as increased data capacity can make states more efficient and help governments deliver on services. Public utilities, for instance, could be made greener through automated regulation with 5G technology. Perhaps the greatest promise of 5G, though, is that it enables more people to access digital technologies. By delivering 5G to marginalized communities, which face a growing digital divide that especially affects women and rural areas, countries can increase opportunity for greater information flow, access to education tools, and other societal benefits.

In healthy democracies, the oversight of these technologies should respect human rights and privacy and shouldn’t be conducted behind closed doors. Companies, civil society actors, and the general public should work with the government to create rules around data in a transparent way. The good news is that Biden’s B3W plan makes clear that he understands the importance of technology in shaping the norms of the international system to embrace human rights and putting decision-making in the hands of many stakeholders. But the clock is ticking.

Right now, China offers cheap technology to telecommunications providers in countries with few regulations around transparency and multi-stakeholder engagement. G-7 countries can’t simply subsidize rights-respecting companies and expect them to be competitive in those markets. Instead, they must work together across regions to implement global standards and practices around the security of 5G equipment and 5G ecosystems and the flow and control of data, especially as it pertains to data privacy, internet freedom, and human rights. They also need to increase investments into future-generation technologies and incentivize 5G development in marginalized communities worldwide to address current digital, social, and economic inequality. If they act too slowly, they’ll cede the digital landscape to Beijing and its authoritarian friends. It is a tremendous challenge, but the G-7 democracies are poised for great success if they work together.

For now, though, an effective global plan to influence conversations around technology and democracy—and 5G’s role in them—remains absent. For instance, clear international consequences for digital rights violations are nonexistent. One promising framework for the United States’ approach to technology leadership and global cooperation was laid out at the Global Emerging Technology Summit this week by U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In the fall, the United Kingdom will host the Future Tech Forum, the Danish government will hold a technology conference, and the Czech government will convene a 5G conference. These events will be invaluable in the fight to drive the world toward a cooperative, values-based approach to technology governance. As the international community continues to take these issues seriously, the United States and regional leaders worldwide will need to set global standards and ensure that the technology infrastructure market has more diverse vendors, affordable equipment options, and research and development investments that create secure technologies. Governments must work with private companies, think tanks, and civil society to ensure that these changes are more than a pipe dream.

Technology is inseparable from the future of democracy, and Biden’s B3W effort is the first step in the long road to developing these global technology standards that prioritize and protect data privacy, open digital spaces, and human rights. What Biden needs to acknowledge is that technologies and infrastructures reliant on insecure 5G networks in particular have great potential to harm democracy. A central question for our time is how successful democracies can be maintained and strengthened as the internet pervades more and more of citizens’ daily lives. Focusing on 5G will have the most immediate impact—and curtail the worst results.

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