PERSPECTIVE: Strategic Infiltration and China’s 5G Threat

This piece, by Douglas Lute, originally appeared in Homeland Security Today on October 21, 2019. 


The advent of fifth-generation digital communications – 5G – is a topic of hot debate across the world. 5G promises game-changing advances for states, industry, and individual citizens, but also introduces greater risk of security challenges. The excitement around the anticipated 5G network improvements can distract from an important, more strategic consideration.

European Union member states recently released a coordinated report in which they assess the security vulnerabilities associated with 5G, and their findings shouldn’t be ignored. Organizations and nation-states should avoid relying on a single supplier of 5G equipment, the report advises. The assessment goes further to warn against “threats posed by State-backed actors,” an inference to a specific supplier: China’s Huawei. Without any direct mention of Huawei in the EU report, the concerns outlined clearly characterize the Chinese telecommunications company.

The main warnings against Huawei’s presence in the global 5G network stem from the company’s demonstrated vulnerabilities, as well as its troubling ties to the Chinese government. Notably, Huawei is subject to China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which states that “any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with the state intelligence work.” However, Huawei is able to offer its software and hardware at a roughly 30 percent discount, so it remains an attractive option in the eyes of some of our closest allies – at least before the publication of the EU-wide 5G risk assessment.

The appeal of 5G is clear: faster speeds and decreased latency. Data will be uploaded 100 times faster and with much less delay between the source and its destination. These features enable significantly advanced applications such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. In earlier generations of digital technology, we should have learned that the ability to connect exceeds the ability to protect. In other words, we can connect users and pass data more easily than we can ensure the security of that data.

This gap between connecting and protecting will only widen with the introduction of 5G technology, making data security a prime concern. This risk only increases when data can be placed in the hands of a strategic competitor such as China. Imagine the repercussions if China’s security agencies have access to government communications, systems controlling critical infrastructure and mass media.

Though 5G is currently receiving the most attention, it only represents a small piece of a larger plan by the Chinese government to place strategic investments across the globe. By offering attractive opportunities for international investors, China is quickly expanding influence beyond its borders, boasting infrastructure projects stretching across South and Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Ownership of these valuable investments provides China with economic influence today and, perhaps more important later, political clout. This strategic infiltration by China is the key challenge facing Europe and its closest partner, the United States. In the near term, in order to contain growing Chinese influence, the EU and NATO must not only pay attention to the escalating race for 5G control, but also prioritize collaboration among states and the establishment of international standards for investments more broadly beyond 5G.

In the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in 2014, such EU-NATO collaboration has raised the importance of resilience – the ability of member states to resist external attack and rebound from adversity.

Much has already been done in the area of cybersecurity to build resilience, but with the onset of 5G, much more is required. One principle should be that states require 5G technology, including network equipment, to be interoperable so that no one provider can dominate the market, introducing monopolistic commercial risks as well as potential security risks. This has the benefit of fitting the priorities that incoming European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen has published for the next five years.

It’s clear that 5G is not only an important capability in its own right, but also one dimension of the broader, more strategic competition with China that will dominate the next several decades. Europe and the United States have the tools needed to compete, especially with vital organizations in the EU and NATO. A critical step is to appreciate the long game that China is playing and the broader challenges that China presents.


Douglas Lute was the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017. He is a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University and the CEO of Cambridge Global Advisors.