The 5G dilemma: Mapping responses across the world

The roll-out of the 5G network, the next generation of global communications, has not only emerged as a critical flashpoint in the emerging geopolitical contestation between China and western countries, led by the United States (US), but it has also engendered an interesting debate in India about its own choices. When it comes to adopting and deploying 5G networks, policymakers across the world are facing a critical choice—one that will require them to carefully weigh and balance a broad range of economic, political, technical, and strategic considerations.

Technology – particularly information and communications technology – has long played an important role in shaping geopolitical contours. In the late 19th century, the United Kingdom (UK) was the first mover of telegraphy and submarine cable systems. By building these extensive communications network, the UK was able to maintain channels of communication with its colonies and consolidate the British Empire. The subsequent development of radar technology by the UK gave it an edge over the German challenge during World War II. Following the war, British hegemony was directly challenged by the US as it made rapid advancements in telephony, becoming one of the first in the world to deploy a satellite communications system. Eventually, the US and its allies used America’s extensive satellite networks to intercept and decode information during the Cold War period. The US’ use of satellite technology to spy on the flow of information and communication through its satellites has also led to concerns which echo some of the themes of the current debate surrounding the 5G network of Chinese company, Huawei. What makes this debate particularly challenging is the growing distrust around the world over China’s rise because of its opaque decision-making system and its growing use of information asymmetry for geopolitical leverage.

While China stands to gain significantly by being the first mover of this technology, the US has continued to put pressure on its allies and partners against accepting Huawei’s telecommunications equipment. There are growing concerns about China in the wider West which are likely to lead western nations into giving renewed impetus towards developing alternative 5G networks. This in turn can lead to the development of two politically and geographically divided 5G networks which may not be interoperable, thereby leading to lower economies of scale and higher transaction costs. This important study by Aarshi Tirkey, Junior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation (ORF), is aimed at informing the wider policy debate in India on this important issue by explicating the responses of various nations across the world on the issue of 5G. It starts by comparing Huawei’s position vis-à-vis other major telecommunications equipment manufacturers across several verticals before moving on in the second part to delineate the responses of the US, UK, Australia and Canada. The third part of the monograph explores the responses of nations from Europe and the Indo-Pacific, while the final section broadly examines the Middle East, Latin America, Russia and Central Asia.

I would like to thank Aarshi for taking on this ambitious project, and Vinia Datinguinoo Mukherjee for taking this volume through to publication. If New Delhi is to make the best possible decision on this highly complex matter, then it needs to carefully study global responses to the challenge. While the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic might delay the 5G rollout in India for some time, there is no wishing away this question. The Strategic Studies Programme at ORF brings you this monograph to push an already animated debate on 5G in India towards a more serious policy conversation so that India and its policymakers can make prudent decisions at a time of enormous global flux.

Prof. Harsh V Pant

Director, Studies and Head of Strategic Studies Programme

ORF

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