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Countries’ 5G networks have become the subject of intense debate—and the Australian government can take some of the credit for that. Its decision to exclude high-risk vendors in August 2018 was marked by a refreshing openness about the grounds on which it was made. The thinking about risk and security was very similar to that in the EU security assessment of 5G released in October 2019.


Two core factors in these assessments are that 5G providers that have legal and other imperatives to cooperate covertly and deeply with their home governments pose a greater security risk than providers without these obligations and imperatives—and that governments do not want to be beholden to the governments of states with which they do not share values or interests. Both these factors apply in the case of the Chinese state and its two 5G ‘national champions’, Huawei and ZTE.


If, as some experts predict, Huawei and ZTE win the race to build and operate much of the world’s 5G infrastructure, US tech firms will be dependent on them to transmit their services and products. American big tech will live in a Chinese walled garden of technology and be subject to the curators’ choices about what it can and can’t do, at least in major markets like Southeast Asia, Africa and chunks of Europe.


On the flip side, China’s non-5G tech giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent (BAT) will ride on the digital infrastructure of Huawei and ZTE. Given the Chinese Communist Party’s digital authoritarian model of fused state–corporate cooperation, this puts BAT in an advantageous position—not just in the China home market, but wherever the Chinese 5G champions provide the digital infrastructure.


The worst-case scenario for big US tech is that Apple, Facebook and Google in effect become apps inside a Chinese global information ecosystem. Chinese state policies and BAT, Huawei and ZTE would decide which of their products and services can be hosted on Chinese digital infrastructure and services. That looks like a very bad business plan, unless entering bankruptcy or becoming CCP-compliant in your global operations is the end goal.


Maybe they all think the competition between the US and China is just the business of governments and therefore doesn’t concern them. If so, they’re failing to see that the same factors which are driving renewed great-power competition mean that they too are in strategic and economic competition not just with BAT, Huawei and ZTE, but with their chief supporter, the CCP.


Or maybe they’re stuck in a mindset that governments around the world already know is dead: the idea that globalisation is a process that ‘de-states’ the world, rendering state boundaries and powers less relevant. According to this long-gone vision of globalisation, companies and consumers could be ‘country agnostic’ about where services and products came from because global supply chains and capital would move and reconfigure in ways that had no little or connection with individual nations.


That was the arc of logic operating in much of the world politically and economically until the return of assertive authoritarian power—Russia, and now, most particularly, the Chinese state under . And the truly globalised world was the dominant paradigm when many of the leaders of US big tech rose to prominence, so it wouldn’t be surprising if they’re finding it hard to let go. For all their genius, they too are products of their environment and their times.


and great-power competition—along with ‘Made in China 2025’, the Digital Silk Road and military–civil fusion—have killed that vision.


Even without supportive policies and regulation from their home governments, it makes sense as a simple matter of future corporate existence, success and competition for the US tech giants to be able to live on alternative digital infrastructure to that brought to them by China Tech Inc.


Who from Alphabet, Amazon, Apple and Microsoft will be the first to get this party started?