- ‘This focus on getting there first is pretty short-sighted,’ one panellist says at China Conference USA: Competition or Cooperation?
- A senior US Huawei official says any security risks that concern the US and its allies can be addressed through well-designed safeguards
The US and China's race for primacy over fifth-generation mobile technology threatens to impede its rapid roll-out to consumers and broader society as well as inhibit innovation " but the rivalry is unlikely to end any time soon.
That was the view of technology experts addressing the future of 5G standards and the telecoms ecosystem at a conference focused on US-China issues in New York on Tuesday.
"It's not really productive or accurate to talk about the race to 5G in a binary context or as a US-China race," said Naomi Wilson, senior policy director with the Washington-based Asia Information Technology Industry Council, speaking at "China Conference USA: Competition or Cooperation?" sponsored by the South China Morning Post.
"This focus on getting there first is pretty short-sighted."
Panellists agreed that the ultimate objective is to see 5G technology " an advanced wireless technology that promises to greatly expand the amount of data available for a host of applications ranging from smart homes and autonomous vehicles to health care and entertainment " spread efficiently, safely and in keeping with different countries' data and national security requirements.
But Washington's concerns over the potential for data leaks and espionage created by Beijing working closely with Chinese telecoms manufacturers has seen the US balk at adopting Huawei Technologies' 5G network equipment.
This comes as the US and China face off in a massive trade war. The US has also pressured its allies to follow suit and ban the use of Huawei systems.
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Adding to the tensions, Huawei's chief financial officer, Meng Wanzhou, was detained in Vancouver, British Columbia, a year ago at Washington's request for allegedly breaching US sanctions on dealings with Iran. Meng, a daughter of Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei, remains under house arrest while fighting extradition.
Robert Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said at Tuesday's conference that the US-China 5G race involved two fronts: hardware and software.
On the hardware side, many Chinese assume that Washington's resistance to the use of Huawei products is aimed at bolstering a US "national champion", that is, a company that would lead the research, development and deployment of US-based 5G hardware technology.
But, Atkinson noted: "We don't have a national champion. It died." While at one point Western Electric and its successor, Lucent Technologies, occupied that space, both telecoms companies collapsed due to bad management and strategic mistakes, he said.
On the software side, however, the early US lead in broadband, wireless and spectrum allocation let it take a strong role in telecoms applications leading to the growth of such powerhouses as Amazon, Google and Facebook.
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From that perspective, the US " despite not having a hardware national champion such as South Korea's Samsung, Finland's Nokia or Sweden's Ericsson " is still very much in the software game. "That's really what this is about," he said.
"If we were 10 years behind China, that would be a crisis," Atkinson added.
"On the application side, I don't really think it's a big race," he continued. "I don't really worry that we'll fall dramatically behind China and lose this race."
Also on the panel, a senior US official at Huawei, the Shenzhen-based telecoms giant and world leader in 5G networks, said that the company often gets a bad rap, but that it is undeserved.
Donald Morrissey, Huawei's US director of congressional, state and local affairs, conceded that the roll-out of 5G networks expands the security risks associated with their use. But, he said, many of these issues were present in earlier generations and can be addressed through well-designed safeguards.
"Some of the software issues … were already present in 3G and 4G," Morrissey said. "They are growing exponentially with 5G, but it is not that they are an unsolvable problem."
Morrissey called on the global telecommunications industry to devise standards that meet data and national security requirements without regard to a supplier's country of origin.
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"Unfortunately, the (global strategic issues) are covering up some of the real issues that can be addressed," Morrissey added, saying that excluding Huawei from the US market would jeopardise a US$12 billion supply chain and upwards of 40,000 jobs. "Our products have been tested more than any of our competitors by governments around the world."
Panellists said that the Trump administration's calls for US technology companies to leave China, known as decoupling, are creating uncertainty, undercutting economic growth and denting innovation.
In recent months, some companies have moved operations to Vietnam, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian countries to hedge their bets as the US-China stand-off intensifies.
But Beijing has also played a role in convincing companies to leave, Atkinson said, by failing to follow global safeguards in areas such as forced technology transfers, intellectual property theft and rule of law standards.
"I think decoupling is a very real worry. And while complete decoupling may not be possible, we're certainly starting to see a modified decoupling through the policies and regulations that have been put forward by both governments," Wilson said. "That's potentially very damaging in the long run."
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