Even though the world is locked in an intense struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the global crisis has presented a new opportunity to benefit from technology in ways that perhaps, would have taken some time to embrace but has over the past few weeks and months emphatically underscored the need for gainful investment.
What we are witnessing is a major technological revolution driven by 5G connectivity and new artificial intelligence applications. Countries across the world, but also closer home in the Middle East, are beginning to recognise digital transformation as a key enabler of national development. This has resulted in a surge of powerful digital networks and more intelligent, real-time applications — particularly in the healthcare and education sectors following the coronavirus outbreak.
The deployment of 5G connectivity has now moved beyond the interests of techno giants and into the geostrategic interests of governments across the world. As the latest ICT technology, 5G is raising the bar of international competition due to its key advantages to all industries in the new digital era. It is the pivot supporting unprecedented opportunities for digital transformation.
This explains why the development and deployment of 5G have become hot-button issues for many politicians, and a centrepiece of the wider trade deliberations between two of the world’s greatest economies — the United States and China. Being at the forefront of 5G connectivity provides a strong competitive edge to nations. The fact is — its possession can greatly influence the international balance of power.
The US reaction to the technology juggernaut coming from China betrays a sense of insecurity. It has led to sanctions imposed on the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which has since become one of the most important issues in the world of technology. Private Chinese companies have emerged over the past decade as global leaders in the ICT field, challenging the West’s historical technological leadership. Huawei, in particular, is one of the largest representations of innovation coming out from China.
The rapid spread of Huawei’s solutions and products into more than 170 countries around the world, culminating in its ability to both pioneer and then lead the world in 5G technologies, raised a level of interest bordering on astonishment. All this has predictably drawn negative attention as well, making the entity a target for countries with an interest in propping up their own national tech companies.
The coronavirus pandemic has thrown its own dynamic in this battle of attrition. In what is turning out to be a testing year for US President Donald Trump, whose enormous failure to contain the pandemic — with 2.9 million confirmed cases and 132,000 plus deaths, US leads the world count — has left him with his toughest challenge to retain office in this year’s presidential election.
In a studied gambit, Trump has chosen to deflect attention and in classic political brinkmanship blamed much of the ills on China, which made a remarkable turnaround to contain the outbreak. He also withdrew finances to the World Health Organization when it badly needed more to reinforce efforts to fight the pandemic.
Continuing in the same vein, the Trump Administration has further escalated the issue by imposing sanctions against Huawei last year. The administration’s campaign against the techno giant has become a historical landmark in the technology world as well as a hot topic for global discussion.
The Trump administration included the tech giant in a list of entities that American companies were prohibited from dealing with, citing concerns over national security last year. It has since ratcheted up the pressure by recently placing a ban on foreign companies’ sales of chips to Huawei if American equipment or software is involved.
But is this really about “security concerns” per se or protectionism resulting from falling abysmally in the technology race?
Many pundits suggest that the policies of the Trump administration are actually driven by a desire to prevent private Chinese companies from breaking Western influence, especially in the realm of 5G. The intended campaign has not actually shown evidence of the allegations about threats to cybersecurity regulation or any clear cybersecurity breaches.
Interestingly, US Attorney General William Barr appeared to be more introspective in finding fault with private US businesses for not doing enough to maintain American strength in the wider tech industry.
Bloomberg reported Barr as portraying parts of the US business community as ingrates because “they’re willing — ultimately, many of them — to sacrifice the long-term viability of their companies for short-term profit, so they can get their stock options and move into the golf resort.”
The attorney general advocated for cracking down on Chinese researchers “who are sent over to get involved in our key technological programs”, advocating to work instead with Western companies such as the Finland-based Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson when it comes to 5G.
“We’ve been the technological leader of the world. In the last decade or so, China has been putting on a great push to supplant us explicitly,” Barr pointed out. He would go on to advise how the Western world “has to pick” a Huawei competitor to invest in; perhaps its only strategy to stay technologically competitive.
A deader giveaway, lay in what US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had to say on the issue. On Fox News’ Sunday Morning Futures programme recently, he categorically asserted said that Europe “needs to get” Huawei “out of their system” as part of ensuring “that the next century remains a Western one.”
But what makes this argument — at least at this point in time — untenable is that the US is not leading the next technological era. To be sure, there is no American company competing real time in 5G technology. In contrast, the Chinese companies are championing that future with aplomb and at a time when the world is desperate for 5G connectivity that can meet the challenges of supporting massive surges in network traffic in a post-Covid-19 world.
The significance of 5G connectivity is apparent and explains why and how the Middle East, in general, and Qatar, in particular, have prioritised superfast technology for digitisation that helps boost national economic transformation plans that it can facilitate.
While this unhelpful drama plays out, it is important to draw the correct lessons and consider these beyond geostrategic gamesmanship. Obstacles to technology supply chains, 5G innovation and sanctions are counterproductive. It is instructive that governments and private companies come together from whichever part of the world — bereft of pride and prejudice — to bring advanced technologies for the greater good of humankind.
Insecurity and inability to match the Chinese juggernaut appears to be at the heart of Trump administration’s decision to impose sanctions.