In an executive order Wednesday, issued not long before he called up Conrad Black to liberate the founder of this newspaper from decades of injustice at the hands of the U.S. legal system, President Donald Trump declared a “national emergency.” OMG! What could it be: Mississippi flooding? Another California wildfire? Iran attack? Korean rocket launch? Mexican border breach?
Nope. Here’s the emergency in a nutshell: U.S. No. 3 in 5G.
The wording of the order made no mention of its prime objective, which is laying the legal basis for banning China’s Huawei from participating in the transformation of America’s telecom system into a 5G network.
In the order, Trump raised the spectre of unnamed “foreign adversaries” that are “increasingly creating and exploiting vulnerabilities in information and communications technology and services, which store and communicate vast amounts of sensitive information, facilitate the digital economy, and support critical infrastructure and vital emergency services, in order to commit malicious cyber-enabled actions, including economic and industrial espionage against the United States and its people.”
It then went on about “the unrestricted acquisition or use in the United States of information and communications technology or services designed, developed, manufactured, or supplied by persons owned by, controlled by, or subject to the jurisdiction or direction of foreign adversaries augments the ability of foreign adversaries to create and exploit vulnerabilities in information and communications technology or services, with potentially catastrophic effects, and thereby constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.”
While China is not mentioned in the alarming language, the Trump message is clearly that America is under grave military and economic threat from Chinese telecom firms such as Huawei.
So far Canada has remained calm in the face of the U.S. national emergency. Finance Minister Bill Morneau said this week that we need to “take a measured approach to how we deal with companies in Canada and with our international relations.”
Ottawa is right to avoid jumping aboard Trump’s panic wagon over Huawei. The underlying American motives for declaring a telecom emergency include valid national security concerns, but the real driver of the anti-China and anti-Huawei campaigns is the very real possibility that America is not winning what Trump refers to as “the race to 5G.”
Trump keeps hyping the need for U.S. domination of the global wireless industry. The White House science and technology office talks about having to ensure “that America wins the global race to 5G and remains the world leader in information and communications technology.”
It may be too late. There is widespread agreement that the U.S. is not the global 5G leader Trump wants it to be. China has gained the upper hand along with companies in Europe.
A recent Wall Street Journal feature on 5G technology outlined the gap, based on an interview with an executive at Qualcomm, the San Diego firm that is part of the international corporate chain leading the wireless revolution. In its development, 5G became an international technological revolution that does not quite fit the familiar nationalist model.
Dino Flore, Qualcomm vice-president of technology, described for the Journal the evolution of 5G as a process led by private developers that began in 2015, involving thousands of companies as they set global standards and design. No governments involved.
For reasons that are far from clear, America fell behind. While 5G is being deployed, the Journal reported, “America is lagging far behind China, where telecom firms Huawei and ZTE have built about 10 times as many new cell sites. This advantage in 5G activation could allow Chinese companies to gain an edge in designing the next generation of wireless devices.” The Chinese edge comes in part from government support and a general indifference to security issues.
But Huawei has something else America does not have: The core technology, the main central systems through which 5G will operate. Bizarrely, the four major U.S. telecom carriers have signed an agreement that excludes Chinese hardware. That means U.S. carriers will have to adopt core systems from Nokia and Ericsson, even though these European systems are thought by some to be inferior.
In Trump’s America-first America, the idea that the U.S. is third behind China and Europe runs right up against the vision of making America great again. The United States “cannot risk lagging behind other countries,” says the White House. “We must protect the economic and security advantages that come from the Nation’s pre-eminence in wireless.”
Is this a worthy foundation for an international crisis? Do the trade and political battles between China and the U.S. justify converting competitive wireless development into a 21st century version of the Manhattan Project, the U.S.-led effort to develop the first nuclear bomb?
China is an abominable one-party Communist dictatorship, but America has been trading and doing a booming business with that state for more than two decades, to great advantage for both countries. In that context, the 5G security issues appear to be another form of old-fashioned corporate nationalism.
Robert Hannigan, former director of Britain’s security agency, said recently that “blanket bans on Chinese tech companies make no sense.” If there are security risks, then solutions can easily be incorporated into British telecom networks — as surely they could be into American and Canadian networks.
The technology issues can be fixed. It’s the insistence on national industrial and economic dominance that cannot. If the U.S. wants to be No. 1 in 5G, it should be able to get there by competing, without knocking out other countries.
• Email: firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: terencecorcoran
Join the conversation →