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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

The Great 5G Fracture

Over the past few years, the US has stepped up its efforts to contain China's technological ambitions and global influence, not least by attempting to block the Chinese 5G giant Huawei from global markets. But, on the whole, this effort has failed, suggesting that global bifurcation of network technology is in the offing.

SYDNEY – “Vote for Europe! Vote for a smarter future with 5G!” boasts the Huawei public-relations campaign aiming to convince Europeans to allow the company into their 5G market. These messages were designed to combat US efforts to engineer a backlash against the Chinese telecommunications giant, which has been placed at the center of a new great-power competition.

Following similar decisions in Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, the United States formally banned Huawei from its communication network last May. But other US allies in Southeast Asia and Europe have not followed suit. While the United Kingdom has placed restrictions on all “high-risk” 5G vendors and excluded Huawei from core sections of its network, it did not submit to US demands for an outright ban.

The countries that have banned or restricted Huawei are worried that it and other Chinese tech giants could be subject to directions from the Chinese government either now or at some point in the future. In weighing this risk, Australian intelligence officials asked themselves what they would do if they had powers, like those enshrined in China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, to access Australian 5G providers’ networks. According to one former senior official, “We concluded that … no one would know and, if they did, we could plausibly deny our activities, safe in the knowledge that it would be too late to reverse billions of dollars’ worth of investment.” Best of all, he adds, “our targets would be paying to build a platform for our own signals intelligence and offensive cyber operations.”

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