Security or trade? Thus far, the dispute between the United States and China over 5G technology (the new generation of Internet networks with speeds 100 times faster than the current ones) has revolved around a distinction that has been made clear in Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio’s statement during his visit to the U.S. “We share Washington’s concerns on security. Before employing the Chinese 5G technology, we will make sure that there are no issues. As for the rest, the mechanisms of competition apply.” However, the line between these two aspects is not that clear-cut.
It is not only important to understand whether Chinese firms, which are compelled by law to collaborate with their government on security, will allow Beijing’s intelligence services to employ as spying tools transmission networks that will spread everywhere – robot cars, homes, offices, operating theaters. One must also take into account the more political aspect concerning a possible change in the world’s balance, the switch from an old system based on ideological or military blocs to one built on technological blocs. It has been long discussed that Europe is falling behind on digital innovation, stuck between the two technological superpowers.
However, the uncertainties and delays that have been piling up in America concerning the development of new networks leave room for another scenario. Huawei, which already controls a third of the world’s 4G market, would be able to conquer half of the 5G market for which it currently has the most advanced standard and the only one that is inter-operable (i.e. it can work with parts supplied by different firms). Should it succeed, espionage or no espionage, China will be able to become the dominant power, in part also because it would be the one to set the standards for future systems.
This is not irrelevant, even at the political and social level. Every day, we criticize the Silicon Valley giants for their disregard of our privacy and for selling our personal data. China’s technological hegemony could result in its apathy toward the protection of digital rights spreading to us. Such rights are not only overlooked by the Chinese government but also by the majority of its population, which views a social control system that assigns a personal rating to every citizen as a useful meritocratic process. There is likely little that can be done about it. America’s decline (as well as the rifts caused by a secret clash over a possible nationalization of the 5G network) makes it difficult to give up on Chinese technology, which is nowadays better and cheaper. Nevertheless, it is best to be aware of the risks.