Russia’s 5G Deal and the Tech Chess Game
Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Tai Wei Lim

Russia’s 5G Deal and the Tech Chess Game

Jun. 18, 2019  |     |  0 comments

Russia is moving ahead with the Chinese Huawei 5G system co-development. There are now discussions in the West about what this collaboration means. Some see it as an impetus for the West and the US to move ahead with their own collaborations, that is, use this as an motivation to move faster to catch up with the Chinese and Russians. Other narratives speculate about being left behind as Russia appears to go ahead with the Chinese system. It is important to note these are all speculations at the moment. Both big powers (Russia and China) are distrusted by the West (including and perhaps especially the US) and they appear to have gotten closer together as a result. Russia remains a major military superpower although its economic strength is not on par with the US while China is a formidable economic superpower but not a nuclear superpower. The US is the only comprehensive nuclear, economic and technological superpower all round.

Some consider the partnership between Russia and China in 5G systems to be a form of informal techno alliances, perhaps stretching the term a little far. There may be more strategic commercially based partnerships between tech firms from those countries (state-owned enterprises SOEs or private sector enterprises). Many see recent developments from a realist perspective — that competition between the two is inevitable (in fact, “inevitability” may be a perception rather than unavoidable reality, though at some point, it has the potential to become unavoidable and inevitable). Some call it the new techno “iron curtain” or even an electronic “Cold War”. In fact, US Vice President Mike Pence’s Hudson Institute speech was perceived as a speech similar or analogous to that given by Winston Churchill in the post war 1940s. It is perceived as a first salvo in this new great game where data is the new oil. Russia’s deal with Huawei is a game-changer as much as the discontinuation of Android platform for Huawei.

Realist views are holding sway as there is a rapid deterioration of the element of trust amongst the major powers of the world in each other’s system. In the US, liberals claim the hawks have won and the globalists were defeated in President Donald J Trump’s administration. The US conservatives argue that they are being gagged and discredited as the US has been taken advantage of and it is denied of a fair and level playing field. Western mass media claim that the hawks have taken over the agenda in Beijing causing a trade deal to be whittled down after months of hard work, while the Chinese argue that they want to cooperate in a win-win manner, but are not afraid to talk and still keeping the door of negotiations open.

Others argue that countries need to be more interdependent and have their economic interests intertwined more elaborately in order to avoid breaking up into techno blocks with systems that are incompatible with each other and viewing other systems as mutually exclusive rival systems. The idea of interdependence flies more with the functionalists and constructivists who are perceived to be in some form of retreat in the face of advancing nationalism, populism and mercantilism. Mercantilism and economic nationalism have influenced countries in the world to erect barriers for global competitors muscling in and also formulate their own ways or erecting firewalls for their internet services. Censorship is also increasing amongst states in the international community.

A two systems approach may mean the emergence of an internet divided into two clusters (around the US and around China).

The US is working with allies to limit the use of Huawei equipment in the 5G networks. Washington has also been warning others that there are potentially espionage risks in using Huawei equipment. The US’ friends and allies have either moved to prevent Huawei equipment from entering their market, ban them or place them under some form of monitoring or restrictions. Spying is probably a serious charge leveled at Huawei. It is a charge that Huawei and its founder vehemently deny. As a technological leader and leader of the free world, the US wants to keep the global system open and also where it has a strong stake in future development. Silicon Valley remains at the top of the game. Most of the world’s most advanced digital technologies still comes from Silicon Valley. Many are confident it has the capabilities to match up or even overtake the competition.

Of course, China is no pushover either and is currently ahead in some areas of the race and is determined to make indigenous hardware and software. Huawei is currently the world's largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer. Its founder insists it has capabilities to produce its own chips, unlike ZTE (Zhongxing equipment) which nearly permanently collapsed due to dependence on other chip suppliers. The affordability of Huawei’s equipment, its implementation speed, state support and head start are often cited as reasons for its competitiveness. Huawei also enjoyed a vacuum in competition when Nokia and Ericsson were still trying to step up to the competition in telecoms equipment.  Even some major Western countries are arguing that Huawei equipment is still usable in non-crucial parts of the telecoms infrastructure, including the towers.

Other countries watching these large powers compete are facing difficulties in making choices. They want to avoid choosing sides in the tech competition. They are also afraid of the competition spinning out of control and veering into other fields as well. Just like other issues, they do not want to be in a position of choosing, while some are urging countries other than the two giants to rally together and create an international environment that can prevent a clash. Malaysia is probably one of the most vocal in using Huawei systems, arguing that the government will continue to use Huawei systems in accordance with its needs. This prompt a warm message from the Chinese representative to Malaysia. Malaysia appears to be open to using the Huawei systems it deems useful for its national telecommunication infrastructure development. Malaysia’s 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed also shrugged off espionage charges by highlighting that Malaysia was an open country and had nothing to hide. Some other countries are saying they will be open to all systems.

It also places countries like South Korea (a major US ally and a neighbor of China with stakes in working with Beijing for peace in the Korean peninsula) between a rock and a hard place. The deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system resulted in Chinese unofficial embargo against South Korea’s companies and reduction of Chinese tourists to the country. The issue only died down when the South Korean President Moon Jae-in agreed to suspend the deployment of a second THAAD missile system. Now, South Korea finds itself caught in between again. Huawei is a major purchaser of South Korea chips (Huawei’s founder claims this is despite the fact they can manufacture those chips themselves). Yet, if South Korea strays from the West, it may face other ramifications. It is not in an enviable position. US will always remain a major important strategic ally and consumer market for South Korea.

A two systems approach may mean the emergence of an internet divided into two clusters (around the US and around China). The prospects of intensifying globalization may then diminish with this dichotomy, resulting in a permanent division in the worst case scenario. Behind the story of competition, it appears the will and determination of humankind to invent and create technologies are limitless. Some wondered if humans and their state units can come together to cooperate, then it can make a better world for all as technologies enhance human functions. Others feel strongly about the decoupling in order to level the playing field or risk falling behind in a disadvantaged competition. Right now, some are concerned about preventing the tech competition from infecting other strategic and military areas.

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