Author : Trisha Ray

Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Jun 10, 2020

Is being ‘anti-China’ a compelling enough driver to bring the ten disparate democracies together?

D10 or Bust? Finding purpose in the 5G club of democracies

This is the 97th article in the series The China Chronicles.

Read the articles here.

The disenchantment with Chinese 5G vendors continues to grow. In the eye of this perfect storm is the UK’s recent proposition to create a ‘5G club of democracies,’ or D10 — consisting of the G7 plus India, Australia and South Korea. The concept seems to have struck a chord in Washington, evidenced by President Trump’s statement a couple of days later, on 1 June 2020, calling for an expansion of the G7 to include these three countries.

Wishful thinking?

The exact purpose of the grouping remains hazy, with some analysts speculating that it would either fund a new market entrant to serve as an alternative, or fund existing 5G providers within the D10, neither of which will provide workable solutions in the short-term. It is unlikely that a new 5G entrant will be able to match Ericsson’s 24,000 R&D workforce, let alone Huawei’s formidable 96,000 R&D employees. Nor would mass investment in 5G vendors, currently concentrated in the United States and South Korea (Table 1) be palatable for countries like India that are stressing self-reliance in critical emerging technologies.

The D10 also have very little in common regarding 5G policymaking and ecosystem. The United States is in the process of comprehensively removing Huawei and ZTE from its 5G ecosystem, along with Australia and Japan, with the UK likely following suit. Meanwhile France has only excluded Huawei from its core network, and India, Germany, Italy, Canada and South Korea are allowing Chinese vendors to participate in 5G trials, despite US pressure, although it remains to be seen how spectrum auctions will play out.

GDP (PPP) Rank Official Stance on Chinese 5G Vendors Major Domestic Telcos 5G Vendors
Italy 11 Allowed to participate in trials Telecom Italia
Germany 5 Allowed to participate in trials Deutsche Telekom
France 10 Excluded from core network Orange, SFR, Bouygues Telecom, Free Mobile, Altice
United States 2 Total ban AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint Cisco Systems, Qualcomm, Altiostar
United Kingdom 9 35% cap; excluded from core network Vodafone, BT, Three
Canada 16 Allowed to participate in trials TeraGo, Bell Canada, Rogers, Telus
Japan 4 Total ban Rakuten, NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank Corp
India 3 Allowed to participate in trials Bharti Airtel, BSNL, Vodafone Idea, Reliance Jio Reliance Jio (test phase)
Australia 19 Total ban Telstra
South Korea 14 Allowed SK Telecom, KT, LG UPlus Samsung

Adding a further complication to the milieu is the US Commerce Department’s May 2020 update that bars not just Huawei but also its suppliers — Chinese, American and otherwise — from using US software and technology. <1> While US firms have been slowly de-linking supply chains from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant also has suppliers in Japan, South Korea and Germany, among others.

The D10 also have very little in common regarding 5G policymaking and ecosystem.

In the absence of a clear animating purpose for the D10, Beijing has deployed its usual deflection tactics. Ministry of Commerce Spokesman Gao Feng, with no hint of irony, called for a show of unity and cooperation, rather than protectionism, in light of the pandemic. Statements by Chinese scholars have dismissed the grouping as “wishful thinking.” A Global Times article labelled the D10 an “outdated Cold War” concept, accusing the West of unnecessarily politicising technology flows.

In search of purpose

Is being ‘anti-China’ a compelling enough driver to bring these ten disparate democracies together? Perceptions of the Chinese state continue to decline in the wake of its mismanagement of the initial outbreak of COVID-19 as well as its (continuing) opportunistic misinformation campaigns as well as threats to individuals and organisations that spoke out during the global pandemic that has followed. COVID-19 has also had an impact on 5G rollouts globally: Canada delayed a spectrum auction to 2021, India will likely delay its auction to 2021, as will Austria and Brazil, among several others. However, economic duress caused by the pandemic will also likely dampen any appetite for protracted trade wars or retaliatory sanctions, as the United States has done so far, to counter Chinese 5G providers.

The low-latency, high-speed connectivity enabled by 5G is foundational to many countries’ bids to leverage emerging technologies to remain competitive or establish a niche in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, Chinese analysts are incorrect in characterising D10 as a body that needlessly politicises technology flows. The low-latency, high-speed connectivity enabled by 5G is foundational to many countries’ bids to leverage emerging technologies to remain competitive or establish a niche in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology flows have become indelibly linked with national identity and sovereignty and technology giants are often co-opted — not unwillingly – into this framework. The Chinese state’s actions themselves are evidence of the “politicisation” of 5G. India’s ambassador to Beijing was reportedly summoned by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and told categorically to pressure his government to allow Huawei to participate in 5G trials, with the threat of “reverse sanctions” against firms. China’s ambassador to Germany similarly threatened “consequences” should Germany exclude Huawei from its market. Beijing’s threats to actors who have legitimate reservations about letting an allegedly state-funded provider from a hostile country into its mobile networks are driven by the same self-preserving, protectionist, sovereign instincts it accuses others of from its ivory tower.

Should Downing Street and the White House agree to push the D10 proposition to its partners and allies, they should learn from Beijing’s mistakes. Even those among the D10 who have allowed Huawei to participate in 5G trials and auctions have their own sets of conflicts with Beijing. Canada, for instance, has been at the receiving end of successive retaliatory measures over the impending extradition of Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou to the United States. India’s relations with China have continued to be plagued by PLA incursions into its sovereign territory, and while New Delhi has allowed Huawei to participate in trials, it does so with the caveat that it will still be evaluating security vulnerabilities in the process. Threats from supposed partners, with little understanding of their concerns, is unlikely to give way to a robust alliance.

<1> This rule applies only to technologies under the US Commerce Control List

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Trisha Ray

Trisha Ray

Trisha Ray is an associate director and resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s GeoTech Center. Her research interests lie in geopolitical and security trends in ...

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