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5G Matters: (Geo)politics And Critical National Infrastructure – Analysis

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By Danielle Cave

Few people would have guessed that the ‘topic du jour’ for 2019 would be 5G. While telecommunications companies have long had their eye on the prize as the chief deployers of fifth-generation telecommunications, few world leaders, politicians, and key policy departments have had to pay much attention as we have slowly ticked over from 2G to 3G, and from 3G to 4G.

But 5G, which is still very much on the horizon for most countries, is different. And it is different for a range of reasons.

First, 5G is a departure from its predecessors, because we are no longer dealing with just telecommunications. 5G will not just give us extra connectivity and faster smartphones; it will connect billions of smart devices, increasingly sophisticated smart cities, and will enable developments like autonomous vehicles. It will provide a platform for advances in robotics and artificial intelligence. While its predecessors brought us text messaging, wireless internet connections, mobile broadband, and cloud technologies, the power of 5G lies in the fact that it will underpin and enable other technological advancements (including those still in the pipeline).

So instead of seeing it as just another step forward for telecommunications, states must also view 5G’s strategic technology as critical national infrastructure.

Second — and this is where policymakers start paying attention — 5G will not just enable new technologies, it will also enable critical parts of the economy. [1] Critical infrastructure, such as water supplies and electricity, will sit on top of 5G. The importance of 5G’s role in underpinning a state’s future economy was highlighted by Mike Burgess, the former head of Australia’s signals intelligence and cybersecurity agency, in a 2018 speech: “5G is not just fast data… 5G technology will underpin the communications that Australians rely on every day, from our health systems and the potential applications of remote surgery, to self- driving cars and through to the operation of our power and water supply. The stakes could not be higher.” [2] (emphasis added)

Third, 5G is different because the world we live in today is different.

5G is coming online at a time when western companies no longer dominate the global technology landscape. While American and European companies may remain market leaders in some tech sectors, they now face fierce competition from telecommunications and technology companies coming out of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These Chinese companies, many of which are heavily or partially state-supported, are playing an increasingly influential role as they expand overseas, contributing cutting edge R&D and enabling connectivity in developing regions. As a result they are also increasingly shaping global norms, rules, and standards. [3]

Importantly, because technological development in China is naturally focused on servicing China’s party-state system, as these companies go global, these technologies are going global as well. [4] The increasing export of Chinese smart city solutions and its underpinning sophisticated surveillance technologies — technologies originally built to service the PRC’s public security apparatus — provides a neat example of the challenges for states in balancing the risks and opportunities of ‘new’ technologies exported from China.

Often funded by China Exim Bank loans, these smart city and public security projects [5] — for example across the Philippines, Pakistan, Mauritius, Myanmar, Ecuador, Zambia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan — comprise a package that tends to include thousands of surveillance cameras, facial and licence plate recognition technologies, command and control centres, data labs, intelligence fusion capabilities, and portable rapid deployment systems for use in emergencies. Smart city technologies bring obvious benefits like improved traffic control and increased access to online services. But these loan-funded smart cities, which focus heavily on the introduction of digital surveillance capabilities, have prompted a range of concerns including their reported use in domestic spying, complaints about the lack of transparency surrounding their implementation, and warnings from critics that the introduction of such surveillance systems could help underpin a future of tech-driven authoritarianism. [6]

Given China’s key role in the global economy, these emerging challenges, including the marriage of China’s technological rise with the politics of its party-state system — add a layer of complexity and risk into the policy making process — complexity and risk that states will have to continue grappling with, and balancing, long into the future.

If we focus back on 5G, and specifically on Australia’s 5G experiences, there are plenty of lessons for other states to learn from as they make their own decisions.

In August 2018 the Australian Government banned “high-risk vendors,” including Huawei, from involvement in the country’s 5G networks. [7] While media from around the world have focused on the potential for “back doors” in 5G equipment, [8] because 5G is both a strategic technology and critical national infrastructure, the risk landscape is rife with many other challenges. Some of these challenges are outlined in statements by those involved in the decision, including current and former Australian politicians and government officials. [9] And it is clear from these statements that a suite of technical, economic, political, and strategic issues fed into the decision-making process.

The Australian Government’s 2018 media release on 5G Security Guidance, for example, published jointly by then acting Prime Minister and the Minister for Communications, included a telling passage that highlighted why a vendor’s home environment, including the laws and political environment governing that environment, was a key consideration: “The Government considers that the involvement of vendors who are likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law, may risk failure by the carrier to adequately protect a 5G network from unauthorised access or interference. This applies equally to all carriers, consistent with government’s long-standing commitment to a level playing field in the sector.”

While this 5G Security Guidance, which was the first clear indication high-risk vendors would be banned, is country agnostic, it is clear that some of China’s laws, including its National Intelligence Law [10] and Counter-Espionage Law, [11] were carefully analysed as a part of the Australian Government’s 5G decision.

Other issues, publicly debated, that affected the Australian Government’s decision included the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) tightening grip on Chinese technology companies [12] and the role of internal Communist Party branches and committees within companies. [13] China’s Internet and technology companies have been reported to have the highest proportion of internal CCP party committees within China’s business sector (and Chinese media reported in 2017 that Huawei, for example, had more than 300). [14]

While it was not a major part of Australia’s 5G debate back in 2018, Huawei’s work with Xinjiang’s public security apparatus is gaining increased global attention. [15] According to China’s state media and local authorities in Xinjiang, for example, this includes projects with public security bureaus and police forces in the region. [16] As leaks about what is happening in Xinjiang continue to be reported by international media, [17] this new dimension to the global 5G debate places human rights concerns front and centre for the first time.

One issue that has not received as much public attention as it deserves, but that was central to the Australian Government’s decision-making, is the importance of mitigating against future risks. To again quote Mike Burgess: “This is about more than just protecting the confidentiality of our information — it is also about integrity and availability of the data and systems on which we depend. Getting security right for our critical infrastructure is paramount.” [18]

In the event of a future regional conflict, for example, disrupting a state’s 5G network — which would also disrupt the critical infrastructure sitting on top of it — is an obvious lever for states to use when they find themselves in an adversarial confrontation. This apprehension has found resonance in India, with a December 2019 Observer Research Foundation paper authored by Gautam Chikermane highlighting both geography and the “3,488 kilometre long volatile India-China border” as factors adding to India’s security concerns that deserve close attention in India’s calculus about its own 5G network. [19]

Because 5G is critical national infrastructure, decisions made about which companies to partner with really come down to a state’s risk appetite. And states across the world will assess the risks that matter to them and make different decisions. For many, decisions will not focus on the companies themselves. Rather, key consideration will be given to the rules, laws and norms that govern a company’s home environment and guide that state’s international behaviour.

Given the evidence available, Australia’s place in the world and our strategic outlook in the Indo-Pacific, Australia’s risk appetite had its limits. And that hard limit was working with high-risk vendors in a technological advancement critical to enabling the world’s next industrial revolution.


[1] See Elsa Kania, “Securing Our 5G Future”, CNAS, Nov 7, 2019.

[2] Director-General ASD speech to ASPI National Security Dinner, Oct 29, 2018.

[3] See, for instance, their role in shaping UN facial recognition standards.

[4] See “Mapping more of China’s tech giants: AI and surveillance”, ASPI.

[5] See ASPI’s Mapping China’s Tech Giants public database for details on smart city projects in all these cities.

[6] See https://www.wsj.com/articles/huawei-technicians-helped-african-governments-spy-on-political-opponents-11565793017;

[7] Government Provides 5G Security Guidance To Australian Carriers, Aug 23, 2018.

[8] “Government’s worries over backdoors in Huawei’s 5G tech castle”, Mar 8, 2019,

[9] See, for instance, former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s statements, cited in Danielle Cave, “Australia and the great Huawei debate: risks, transparency and trust”, ASPI, Sep 11, 2019.

[10] Danielle Cave, “Huawei highlights China’s expansion dilemma: espionage or profit?”, ASPI, Jun 15, 2018.

[11] Samantha Hoffman and Elsa Kania, “Huawei and the ambiguity of China’s intelligence and counter-espionage laws”, ASPI, Sep 13, 2018.

[12] Raymond Zhong and Paul Mozur, “Tech Giants Feel the Squeeze as Xi Jinping Tightens His Grip”, NYT, May 2, 2018.

[13] “Chinese tech groups display closer ties with Communist party”, FT, Oct 10, 2017.

[14] See ASPI’s Mapping China’s Tech Giants database: and https:// chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/#/company/huawei

[15] See for instance Anna Fifield, “TikTok’s owner is helping China’s campaign of repression in Xinjiang, report finds”, WP, Nov 28, 2019. and Zak Doffman, “Has Huawei’s Darkest Secret Just Been Exposed By This New Surveillance Report?”, Forbes, Nov 29, 2019.

[16] ASPI’s Mapping China’s Tech Giants.

[17] Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, “Exposed: China’s Operating Manuals For Mass Internment And Arrest By Algorithm”, ICIJ, Nov 24, 2019.

[18] See note 2.

[19] Gautam Chikermane, “5G infrastructure, Huawei’s techno-economic advantages and India’s national security concerns: An analysis”, ORF Paper, 6, December 2019.

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Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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