Ever since Australia banned Huawei from its 5G communications network in 2018 and the United States followed the next year, technology has been front and center in the new geopolitical confrontation with China. Yet, the new technologies in contest will be critical to the global economic recovery post-Covid-19 and in future industrial transformations. To be sure, there are risks in how these technologies may be deployed and attacked. To take a proportionate risk-management approach, the world needs supplier-blind cybersecurity, including global rules, norms and standards to ensure that new technologies work for people and are not weaponized in a new Cold War.
The World Economic Forum estimates that opportunities for 5G connectivity to support new smarter autonomous learning and more sustainable technologies could be worth US$13 trillion by 2035. China has become a leader in 5G technology, a strong contender in artificial intelligence thanks to its unrivalled pool of big data, and a major investor in quantum computing and other technologies and applications such as fintech and ecommerce. Nevertheless, the US is a major player in tech innovation and is likely to remain so. That gives it a big stake in either pursuing geopolitical confrontation with China or finding a way to build an inclusive, rules-based order for the coming transformations of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
Remarkably, few are even considering the latter strategy. The world’s biggest tech firms, mostly from the US, prospered in building the digital economy in recent decades, a time in which it was unfashionable to constrain business with regulation. The regulatory failure in the financial sector that led to the 2007-08 global financial crisis could be regarded as a cautionary tale for efforts to regulate new tech, which has become the focal point of the rapidly deteriorating global political environment, particularly the relationship between the US and China.
To be sure, new technologies generate exponentially more points of risk – for example, a US firm harvesting social-media data, or a Chinese company managing a communications network. With future devices and networks connected at high speed and with more and more decisions made by artificial intelligence, the potential for bad actors to tap into information and, worse, to weaponize systems demands serious consideration about ways to protect networks, systems, corporations and individuals from cyber attacks. Those intrusions could come from anywhere, not just from unfriendly state actors. The Australian and US response, however, has been to blame and demonize China, an approach which warrants further investigation.
In 2018, Australia was the first country to ban Huawei from a 5G rollout. The decision was taken amid a heightened campaign by then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull to “stand up” to China. Turnbull was under siege from the right wing of his own party and was deposed soon after the Huawei move. At the time, the advice from the intelligence services was that Australia lacked the capability to mitigate the elevated risks presented by 5G connectivity. Rather than address Australia’s apparent inadequate preparedness for the new cyber world, it was easier politics (and useful alliance geopolitics) to focus the narrative on security risks from China. The rest, in terms of Australia’s relationship with its major economic partner to the north, is history. The rhetoric out of Canberra about Chinese security threats (topped off by Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s call in April 2020 for an international investigation into the origins of Covid-19) was part of a series of developments that triggered Chinese economic coercive action targeting key Australian exports.
Of global significance, though, were the subsequent decisions by the administration of then US president Donald Trump not just to ban Huawei on (as yet unproven) claims of espionage but to block supplies of advanced semiconductors to a range of Chinese firms and to pursue decoupling from Chinese tech. After taking office in January, President Joe Biden’s government appears to have carried on the confrontational and unrealistic strategy, despite widespread concerns in the tech sector. The unspoken irony of course is that the US and its Five Eyes intelligence network partners (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK) conduct the very same espionage that Washington worries that Huawei systems would enable China to perpetrate.
To be sure, China could require its firms to mount cyber attacks on a rival – just the way the US does, as American intelligence consultant Edward Snowden revealed to the world through documents he leaked and discussed with the media. Yet, cyber attacks are not usually conducted in collaboration with telecommunications carriers but by state agencies hacking into systems without invitation. All of the experts I have interviewed in my research on these issues warn that cyber attacks can come from any direction, underlining why top-to-bottom cybersecurity must be zero trust and supplier blind.