A man holds a sign calling for China to release Wang Bingzhang and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, who was detained in China on Monday night, at the B.C. Supreme Court bail hearing of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada December 11, 2018. (Pic courtesy REUTERS)
odern wars of all nature which led to the advancement of technology, military technologies became part of civil techno infrastructures, and are more dual use technologies especially with information, computation and Artificial intelligence leading the way in the late 20th to early 21st Century.
The mantra of the late 20th century was Geo-economic rivalry, it seems more and more the 21st century will be of the Geo-Tech battles, this article will take the case of Huawei, the largest network provider in the world and how America is responding to it as a security challenge shaping a new type of Geo-Tech rivalries generating global implications and shaping the 21st century security landscape.
American Tech Dominance
When the American Congress convened for the first time, one of the founding fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton, brought forward a proposal with a report which was called, ‘Report on Manufactures’, where he urged the congress to build a strong manufacturing base fir the country. This visionary foundation made the US the most advanced industrial nation by early 20th Century unknown to the rest of the world, was the secret behind its rise, leading to victories in the second world war and its dominance of the world ever since.
New realities in the 21st Century
Air power is seen as an essential component in any form of major power projection. It all began in 1911 when the Italian Army Air Corps, dropped a bomb using an air platform on Ottoman Army base in Ain Zara, Libya revolutionizing how war would be conducted using air platforms. A hundred years later French Jets start bombing campaign against Libyan leader Muammer Al-Gadhafi in 2011, a war based on invoking the very controversial responsibility to protect (R2P) procedure, yet the first target was the newly established communication centre done by the Chinese networking giant Huawei.
The focus in this analysis is how techno wars in the military domain have slowly migrated into the geo political domain. Power used to be projected by great powers utilizing their economic and military foundations. The US for most part used its military dominance to safeguard its economic interests simultaneously providing cover for expansion of American corporations and Western corporations from banks, pharmaceuticals, agricultural to techno giants. With technological integration and internet driving the economic growth, information technological companies are seen as the
most strategic entities above banks or energy companies.
"With technological integration and internet driving the economic growth, IT companies are seen as the most strategic entities above banks or energy companies"
The Donald Trump administration, released its National Security Strategy in 2017 and in it clearly outlined that the US was entering a global strategic environment of big power competition. Deeper analysis of the document suggests that the US is accepting that it has to compete in the global stage an implicit acknowledgment of its reign of dominance is coming to an end. The document places American policy of competition against China as rival number one a clear departure from early administrations which saw Russia as the key State rival.
The ritualistic White House departures continue with Defence Secretary Mattis stepping down on December 31 and former senior Vice President of Defence and Aeronautical giant Boeing, Patrick Shanahan taking over as acting Defence Secretary. Shanahan has made it explicitly clear that he is in line with Donald Trump’s position on China, as the administration elevated China to be the number one security challenge to the US. As a secretary of State who has no public service or military service behind him Shanahan brings the experience as a corporate boss further strengthening Trump’s Trade War and war by all means except using the military option against China.
War on Huawei
In October 2018, US vice President Mike Pence, made a speech at the conservative American think tank, the Hudson institute, it was widely given coverage globally and in Sri Lanka, as he specifically mentioned Sri Lanka as a Chinese staging ground. He also provided an elaborate picture of US’s policy on China amidst the growing trade wars and geo-political tensions. In the same week Bloomberg came with a report of how China because of its access to the mass supply chain of computers and mobile phones, as 90% computers are manufactured in China, of Chinese industrial espionage such as planting of microchips in critical devices that are used from Defence Department Data Centres to Apple equipment in the US.
On December 1, Canadian law enforcement arrested Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver. Meng is the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the global giant Huawei, the world’s largest supplier of mobile network equipment. The arrest was made on the request of the US, for a possible violation of sanctions against Iran. The arrest was widely seen as an escalation of tensions between the US and China, and the United States’ increasing strategic anxiety of Chinese techno dominance in the global stage and successful Chinese companies challenging the established American computer and allied technological giants.
Chinese analysts see the move as a long-expected US offensive on China’s high-tech industry. According to Chinese international relations think tank, China institute of International Studies (CIIS) analysis, it was seen as part of a move established by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at the Justice Department known as ‘China Initiative’.
China sees the move as a preemptive strike by the USA on its tech industry parallel to the new US security strategy where Chinese tech industry is framed as a national security threat. The US has also reached out to countries where it has military bases and urged them not to procure Huawei equipment.
- Out of Huawei’s 1,80.000 employees 80,000 are in research and development
- CFO Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada was at the whims of USA
- China sees the move as a long-expected US offensive on its high-tech industry
- The mantra of the late 20th century was Geo-economic rivalry
China argues America is concerned about the next stage of mobile communication, which is commonly known as 5G technology. 5G will increasingly be used in all sectors including military and will boost data exchange speeds considerably. This next generation technology will accelerate the shift to internet-connected devices and which will lead to implementation of autonomy in civil industries such as self-driving vehicles creating a whole new tech industry and demand.
Huawei story though not the story of Apple and Steve Jobs is inspiring and it’s a narrative that Asia can produce entrepreneurs, though not a celebrity like Jack Ma of Alibaba.com, Ren Zhengfei the founder of Huawei carries an important success story leading from his rural upbringing, enduring the long famine, military service in PLA, life crashes still invest and create the world second largest mobile company and the largest network company is the new China success story. Huawei understands power of research and development like Google, Amazon and Apple. Out of the 1,80.000 employees 80,000 are in research and development. Such strengths translate as political power and influence in a time of great power rivalry.
"This next generation technology will accelerate the shift to internet-connected devices and which will lead to implementation of autonomy in civil industries such as self-driving vehicles"
World renowned American Professor Jeffrey Sachs from University of Colombia, wrote an article against the arrest of Huawei CFO claiming the US was being hypocritical while shielding its own companies that manipulate the sanctions it was punishing Huawei as a means of starting a war on Chinese tech firms. His views started a firestorm of a debate forcing the Professor with more than half a million twitter followers to close his account on January 1, 2019.
From a Sri Lankan perspective the war on Huawei maybe far from us, yet the opening up of a new front in the technological realm as a domain of geo-political rivalry will seriously challenge the country’s development and infra structure upgrading in the future. If America succeeds in an all-out exclusion of Chinese tech firms and use its extra territorial sanctions to force countries to stop procuring Chinese technology it will have serious repercussions on small states that are trapped between competing geo-political rivalries.
The Writer is Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)