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Foreign Policy

China is aware of the facility of 5G. Why not the US?

Last month, US President Joe Biden gave the G-7 a so-called “wake-up call” to defend human rights in the face of China’s growing global influence. At the group’s summit in England, he unveiled the Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, a global infrastructure plan that aims to mobilize investment for low and middle income countries in four major areas: climate, health and health security, digital Technology, as well as equality and gender equality. The plan is a fairer and more sustainable alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s foreign development strategy that has already reached more than 70 countries. As the plan suggests, G-7 member countries can no longer ignore the risks China’s infrastructure technology poses to human rights, individual security and democracy around the world.

Biden’s plan is an important step in combating China’s growing influence. But it needs to give more priority to technology, especially 5G, which carries the world into the next era of internet. The B3W plan makes no explicit mention of 5G, although this technology is beginning to transform our communications and lives by expanding access to information, automating everyday services, and driving smart cities and policing forward. In essence, 5G has the power to affect all four areas of the B3W plan, and how it is built, used, and managed can make the difference in favor of authoritarianism or democracy in any country. The G-7 should recognize the power of 5G – and the risks it poses in the wrong hands – by making 5G a central thread that ties their infrastructure plan together and promotes it in B3W.

Last month, US President Joe Biden gave the G-7 a so-called “wake-up call” to defend human rights in the face of China’s growing global influence. At the group’s summit in England, he unveiled the Build Back Better World (B3W) Partnership, a global infrastructure plan that aims to mobilize investment for low and middle income countries in four major areas: climate, health and health security, digital Technology, as well as equality and gender equality. The plan is a fairer and more sustainable alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s foreign development strategy that has already reached more than 70 countries. As the plan suggests, G-7 member countries can no longer ignore the risks China’s infrastructure technology poses to human rights, individual security and democracy around the world.

Biden’s plan is an important step in combating China’s growing influence. But it needs to give more priority to technology, especially 5G, which carries the world into the next era of internet. The B3W plan makes no explicit mention of 5G, although this technology is beginning to transform our communications and lives by expanding access to information, automating everyday services, and driving smart cities and policing forward. In essence, 5G has the power to affect all four areas of the B3W plan, and how it is built, used, and managed can make the difference in favor of authoritarianism or democracy in any country. The G-7 should recognize the power of 5G – and the risks it poses in the wrong hands – by making 5G a central thread that ties their infrastructure plan together and promotes it in B3W.

In recent years, the US security community has become aware of the threats posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s technology agenda. The party’s approach focuses on two tactics: a series of laws that oblige Chinese companies, including those that provide services abroad, to allow Beijing unrestricted access to data and the worldwide export of 5G hardware. Chinese business leaders travel to other countries with cheap hardware and the promise of economic progress, all for the price of control over data accessible by Beijing or local authoritarian regimes.

5G is a simple tool for the gun. As demand grows worldwide, citizens and infrastructure increasingly rely on it. In February, 131 countries announced that they would invest in 5G, which will lay the foundation for future internet technologies. Like the internet and social media, 5G promises better access to information. But it also enables more data to be collected than ever before, and any 5G-powered technology can accelerate and expand the scope and breadth of what people – and governments – can do with that information.

Adopting 5G in a country prone to authoritarianism makes autocrats more efficient. In these countries, decision-making to adopt 5G takes place almost exclusively in government executives, who have little to no oversight, giving executives broad control over data flow and governance. As a result, mass surveillance and massive human rights violations through automated discrimination, censorship and persecution can occur – similar to what is happening against Uyghurs in the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Executives with access to 5G-powered artificial intelligence capabilities and real-time citizen intelligence can deploy larger-scale subversive disinformation campaigns to encourage violent polarization. Meanwhile, internet shutdowns are only increasing in frequency, targeting political opponents, dissidents and journalists, which has already occurred in Myanmar, Kashmir, Chad and Nigeria.

The export of Chinese technologies and tools to Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia is already coinciding with a surge in digital authoritarianism. It has given dictators including Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela and Yoweri Museveni from Uganda greater control over everything from the flow of data to the airwaves. Parliament buildings have been wired, political opponents have been threatened, and citizens have been monitored and censored using technology produced and maintained by Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE.

But that doesn’t mean that 5G is fundamentally 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 services. Public utilities could, for example, become greener through automated regulation with 5G technology. Perhaps the biggest promise of 5G, however, is that it will enable more people to access digital technologies. By delivering 5G to marginalized communities facing a growing digital divide, particularly affecting women and rural areas, countries can increase opportunities for better information flow, access to educational tools and other societal benefits.

In healthy democracies, surveillance of these technologies should respect human rights and privacy and not take place behind closed doors. Businesses, civil society actors and the public should work with government to regulate data in a transparent way. The good news is that Biden’s B3W plan makes it clear that he understands the importance of technology in shaping the norms of the international human rights system and decision-making into the hands of many stakeholders. But the clock is ticking.

At the moment, China is offering cheap technology to telecommunications providers in countries with few regulations for transparency and multi-stakeholder engagement. The G7 cannot simply subsidize companies that respect their rights and expect them to compete in these markets. Instead, they must work together regionally to implement global standards and practices related to the security of 5G devices and 5G ecosystems, as well as the flow and control of data, particularly those related to data protection, internet freedom and human rights. They also need to increase investment in future technologies and incentivize 5G development in marginalized communities around the world to address current digital, social and economic inequality. If you act too slowly, you leave the digital landscape to Beijing and its authoritarian friends. It is an enormous challenge, but the G-7 democracies face great success when they work together.

For now, however, there is no effective global plan to influence talks about technology and democracy – and the role of 5G in it. For example, there are no clear international consequences for digital violations. A promising framework for the United States’ approach to technology leadership and global collaboration was set this week at the Global Emerging Technology Summit by US Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. In the autumn, the UK 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 moving the world towards a collaborative, values-based approach to technology governance. As the international community continues to take these issues seriously, the United States and regional leaders need to set global standards around the world and ensure that the technology infrastructure market offers more diverse providers, affordable equipment options, and investments in research and development that create safe technologies. Governments need to work with private companies, think tanks, and civil society to ensure these changes are more than a pipe dream.

Technology is inextricably linked to the future of democracy, and Biden’s B3W efforts are the first step in the long road to developing these global technology standards that prioritize and protect privacy, open digital spaces, and human rights. What Biden has to acknowledge is that technologies and infrastructures in particular that rely on insecure 5G networks have great potential to damage democracy. A central question of our time is how successful democracies can be maintained and strengthened while the Internet is increasingly permeating the everyday life of citizens. Focusing on 5G will have the most immediate impact – and limit the worst results.

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