This article aims to set a practical assessment of the geopolitical implications of the 5G System of Telecommunications’ development in the current International Politics’ dynamic, that is the foundation of our International System. It englobes two key-actors plus a peripheric country’s position on 5G’s geopolitical race and its effects on worldwide International Relations.
Initially, a brief elucidation of the technical issues is necessary to establish the impact’s dimension of this technology in international politics. In the past 30 years, a new generation of mobile communication systems has emerged every decade.
How did we get here?
The first generation was 1G, from the 1980s, which made calls possible via mobile phones. The vicissitude was the possibility of being able to make calls anywhere. The second generation, 2G, came in the ’90s. It allowed us to, in addition to talking on the phone, send text messages. 3G emerged from the 2000s. It was possible to use broadband phones, that is, faster internet, through which users could download files. Recently 4G was introduced. Our cell phones, now smartphones, have become pocket computers whose speed and available applications’ number has exponentially grown.
We are now reaching the 5G evolution, which will transform the use of mobile connectivity. Every technology with internet and data association, either fixed or mobile tools, is part of this new scenario. The crucial part of this transformation is not limited to the use of cellphones but instead encompasses a series of sensors, equipment, machines, and robots. In short, a vast range of different types of apparatus will be connected to (and ruled by) the same network. There are three characteristics of this new technology that makes it so forceful and unique.
The first one is the speed of broadband. The power of 5G era’s equipment can be up to 100 times greater than that of 4G’s. We are talking about information (from image and video quality to actual data) that can be obtained almost instantly. An example of it is the use of augmented reality. With this speed of information traffic, it will be possible to use augmented reality in a number of situations. Imagine apps can be used in medicine from e-medicine and remote consultations to sensors that send instant vital signs to a doctor, allowing him to monitor the patient’s health in a matter of seconds. Or even sports games’ broadcasting; being able to watch a match from multiple angles at the same time, through multiple cameras. It is only possible to access all of them with the incredibly high transmission speed that 5G systems provide.
The second characteristic of 5G technologies is their low latency time, that is, the amount of time it takes a machine to communicate with another on a network. This process will be so much lower that technology applications that do not function today, may work through these new devices. Examples are completely automated factories and auto driven cars. They are not possible without low latency; it is not possible to computerize an entire factory, with machines responding to new signals and new data, without this.
The third and last remarkable feature is the massive communication between machines. We are talking about The Internet of Things (IoT), within all the pieces of equipment we have, from smartphones to household appliances and all kinds of electronic equipment, every them connected to the same internet network.
Now that 5G’s technical factors are a bit more enlightened, let’s address its geopolitical implications.
Because countries are concerned about being politically and economically ahead of global changes, they have to be constantly aware of where the economy’s development is going and if they are well-positioned regarding these processes. This is the geopolitical game.
We are talking about a highly revolutionary technology that will completely transform the world’s economies, whether in job opportunities or in new businesses, new applications, new utilities that will emerge from this process. 5G will change the very structures of the world’s economy and industries.
The “geo” element here is the 5G infrastructure. It is a new technology that needs to be stationed on determined technological structures. This physical base is the key geopolitical dispute of the moment, and probably of the next decades. The issue does not involve the internet and telecommunications processes simply, but the several pieces of equipment and structures through which these processes are held – such as submarine cables, satellites, or antennas. New antennas are needed to transmit the different frequencies of radio waves. Here is where the role of those who produce them comes to consideration, and where the geopolitical chess begins more concretely.
There are five major infrastructure producers for this technology: Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung. Two of them are Chinese. Nevertheless, the Chinese corporations’ relations with the Chinese Communist Party’s government are different from those the other companies have in other countries. China operates in a State Capitalist system, that is, it is the government that controls economic activities and most companies.
Although Huawei – the world’s largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment – is a private company, its founder, Ren Zhengfei, was a member of the Chinese army. In this country, relations between the owners of large non-state companies are influenced, at least, by the fact that they are or have been part of the Communist Party, the government, or the army. This means that the relations that Chinese companies, even though they are private, have with the State are different from those that Nokia or Ericsson, for example, may have in their respective countries.
From then on, the connection between economy and politics is very clear-cut. First, because China is a dictatorship controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Since the CCP influences companies, the communication structures they manufacture will be, more or less indirectly, in the hands of this group, which iss, at the very least, very dangerous.
Nobody wants privacy, data, secrets, technologies, discoveries, and all the most important concerns in every country in the world to be in the hands of this group of people. In terms of cybersecurity, data security, and important strategic information, delivering the structure of global communication to two companies controlled by a single entity is extremely alarming. And that is where the geopolitical game intensifies.
Of course, China is not silly and wants to be ahead, to lead the new 5G technology, because it understands the importance that this will have for the world – not only China but also several other countries; that’s why the subject has become so relevant. It is important to highlight (1) the issue of pride for the Chinese in being the leaders and the first to implement and sell 5G – or, at least, their infrastructure – to the whole world.
In addition to the (2) Economic question of how much they will gain from the sale of this equipment. Furthermore, the (3) strategic issue of the next step in the technological frontier, since it was the technological innovations (such as the steam engine, telegraph, press, internet) that gave the countries advantages on their development. In short, these technological innovations provide resources to obtaining power, domination, and economic gains for the countries ahead in the race (something realist authors go crazy about).
Obviously, the Chinese want to be in that position, but other countries, especially developed ones, like the USA, are very concerned about the possibility of them accessing all the data of everything that happens in the world. Not only personal information from smartphones, but also from the IoT itself. Connecting equipment in your house that can be accessed by the CCP. Not only when people are on the move, or talking to someone, or even sending text messages, but as well as using every other electronic equipment, they will be vulnerable.
The Chinese government is investing heavily, with incentives and subsidies, for Huawei to produce the equipment necessary for the implementation of 5G. The CCP also ordered the country’s three state-owned telecommunications companies (China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Union) to install 5G, offering all the necessary resources.
In countries like Brazil and the United States, the launch of a new generation is usually done through government auctions, which sell to companies (such as, in the case of Brazil, Claro, Oi, and Vivo) the necessary operational frequency range. On the other hand, in China, it is the Government itself that is distributing the 5G frequency at will, eager to be ahead of this race.
The major concern is the possession by the Chinese Communist Party of an unprecedented tool to spy on the entire planet. Something never before seen.
Sun Tzu, one of the founders of Strategy and author of the famous book “The Art of War”, has, in his theory, as one of the main pillars, the intelligence, which is espionage, and the processes of obtaining information and data. He says you can only win the war with good intelligence. He attaches enormous importance to espionage in terms of policy.
Nowadays espionage and information collected via technology, therefore, are increasingly relevant, especially in a world where everything is digital.
The United States is leading a containment front to prevent Huawei and the Chinese Communist Party from having access to that much information from around the world. They imposed several sanctions on the corporation, prohibiting American companies from buying Chinese equipment, and putting pressure on allies to adopt the same stance.
In fact, many other countries have been adopting it not only because of American pressure but also because they are concerned about their data. The first was the British, who backed off with the process of buying Huawei’s equipment, then backtracked, receiving even more severe sanctions from the U.S. and, ultimately, choosing not to negotiate with Huawei.
The United States has also stopped sharing classified information with the intelligence services of countries still vulnerable to Chinese patrol. Factors like this are therefore changing the behavior of States around the world. Other sanctions, still implemented by the USA, include the example of penalties for companies that negotiate chips to the Chinese giant.
The Perspective of a Peripheric Country
This same controversy is also arriving in Brazil, which will hold a 5G auction. This country is not in the center of this geopolitical matter but can be heavily affected by it.
The weighting that Brazil has to do with not only an economic look but also strategic geopolitical thinking is the extent to which it’s worth paying cheaper for Huawei’s apparatus due to the risk of its data (regarding both individuals/personal and national security issues) in the hands of another country.
China is Brazil’s biggest trading partner. If the Latin-American country has its telecommunications infrastructure and technology all from China, will put itself in a position of vulnerability and too much dependence on the Asian giant. Besides the isolation from another great and important ally that the United States represents.
At the end of the day, this is the consideration that should be taken in by basically every actor in the current International System.