A global Manhattan Project to create an ethical future is certainly a tall order, but the status quo is not an option.
Huawei Technologies Co. is not a corporation but a weapon, subsidized by Beijing to install 4G and 5G telecommunications systems around the world. Its platforms deliver dramatically more bandwidth in order to deliver more data, faster. These networks will be the digital spine in a hyper-automated world filled with trillions of devices. In the race to the digital future, Huawei has left rivals behind. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s nations are in the process of adopting some or all of its networking technologies.
This, along with its $1-trillion Belt and Road Initiative, is an existential threat to the economies and democracies of the world. Huawei’s rise is not a mercantilist strategy but a martial one. Its 5G operating system is closed to competitors (like China’s military dictatorship is closed to political opposition), and is a top-down architecture designed to provide a plug-and-play framework tailor-made for autocrats to surveil, propagandize, and control societies. Huawei and the Belt and Road are the 21st Century’s Trojan Horses.
In 2017, the American government finally took action and targeted Huawei, along with China itself, for transgressions ranging from unfair trade practices to subsidies, data theft, and intellectual property theft. The counter-attack has escalated and, more recently, Washington has barred Huawei from its marketplace, forced the sale of Chinese apps like TikTok, pressured others to do the same, and blocked Chinese access to U.S. technology. Faced with such onslaughts, Beijing and Huawei argue that such measures are unfair and motivated strictly by economic competition.
America’s pushback is welcome, but global intervention is needed. Unfortunately, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization have been ineffective in bridling China, given its heavy influence there. And the Chinese have also attempted to politicize the international standards organizations that govern the Internet itself to award itself advantages. Without success—so far.
The tussle between the superpowers is front and center, but the collateral damage continues, involving corporations as well as nation-states. For instance, Huawei was founded by a former military officer, Ren Zhengfei, and one of its first targets was to acquire the advanced technology developed by Nortel, a Canadian company that had 20 years ago become a world pioneer in 4G and 5G networks. (The story of how this company’s technology disappeared into Huawei was described in a Bloomberg investigative piece in 2020.) In 2018, Zhengfei’s daughter Meng Wanzhou is Huawei’s chief financial officer and deputy chairwoman and was charged by American officials with fraud and sanctions violations. That December, she was arrested on an American extradition warrant by Canadian officials while changing planes in Vancouver and has been under house arrest as a series of extradition hearings are held in Canadian courts.
But China retaliated immediately after the arrest by jailing two Canadian businessmen. They are hostages and for nearly two years have not been charged or given access to families or lawyers. China demanded that Canada ignore its extradition obligation and, because it has not, has also retaliated harshly by abrogating billions in agriculture contracts. This is war. Zhengfei’s Huawei is an instrument of the Chinese government and hostages were taken in anticipation of a prisoner swap for his daughter.
Caught in the crossfire, the world’s nations must collaborate in order to provide an alternative to Huawei and Beijing. Discussions are underway, initiated by an anti-China push-back from the Quad nations—the United States, Japan, India, and Australia—to counteract China’s drive toward data dictatorship. There is also talk of collaboration with the Five Eyes security coalition, which includes the United States, the UK, Australia, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—as well as the European Union. Ideally, a coalition of technologically advanced, democratic nations and businesses could create an alternative open, transparent 5G operation system for the world that will shut out China’s closed model.
Without an alternative, most countries will be bullied, co-opted, or stranded. Rajeev Chandrasekar, a tech entrepreneur and Member of Parliament in India, was involved with Nortel before it was attacked by Huawei. “This is not just about technology, but about trade and economics. The biggest driver for economies in the future is technology. This is a challenge to all free people and open economies of the world,” he said at a recent Hudson Institute conference entitled the Geo Tech Wars. Since the People’s Republic of China’s military escalation in India’s Galwan Valley, the Government of India has taken bold actions, recently booting out Huawei and shutting down TikTok and 28 other Chinese apps. He believes that only a new construct between free nations’ governments and private sectors will impede China’s “Grand Strategy”.
Another conference participant, Australia security advisor John Lee, emphasized the need for a global digital economic co-operation system to hold patents, control laws, police data, and equipment imports and exports—and to impose rules and regulations that would ensure secure cross-border data and information transmissions.
He added that China has not “won” the Tech War yet. “There is time,” he said. “China is still a net importer of technology and know-how. They can be [impeded if] denied access to capital, markets, and technology. But the issue of technology leakage from Europe needs to be addressed and the U.S. is on that path now. The Quad and Five Eyes are natural coalitions to advance this. The Five Eyes is now starting to discuss geo-technology and geo-economic issues with the Quad, the G10, the G7, and South Korea, and the European Union.”
Discussions, however, need to include business as well as governments, with the goal being the creation of a digital architecture that guarantees universal access to users and vendors to foster innovation among suppliers to produce products and software. By contrast, China’s technology template—a closed system in all countries controlled by a state-owned enterprise—is stultifying and will lead to tyranny.
A global Manhattan Project to create an ethical future is certainly a tall order, but the status quo is not an option. Work must begin among the world’s free nations and their industries to design and build a framework for the future that is rules-based, accountable, and open to competition and innovation.