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5G instead of missiles

The crucial weapons used to be rifles and cannons in the First World War, tanks and planes in World War 2. In the third global war these were supposed to be ballistic missiles - but it may turn out that this role will be played by... the 5G technology. What is more, maybe this war is already in progress, and we simply missed its outbreak

In the competition taking place before our eyes, the stake is not only Huawei’s access to specific markets and the security of average Joe’s sensitive data, even if (completely by accident) this Joe is actually the Polish Minister of Defence. The result of the great game between the governments of the PRC and the US will probably largely determine the global balance of political, economic and military (and maybe civilization) forces for the rest of the century. Therefore, we should look at the starting positions and strategies of the main antagonists.

Endangered hegemon

We could also add the power of intelligence to the mix, which the Americans had begun to appreciate relatively late (as a matter of fact as late as at the end of World War II), but when they finally decided to catch up with the Old World in this respect, they pulled ahead very quickly thanks to almost unlimited funds and excellent scientific and expert capabilities

The first of them – until quite recently considered a super-hegemon by almost everyone, with unprecedented advantage over the rest of the world – is the United States. It gained this position through the combination of the following factors: historical (including economic and strategic/political benefits from the results of two world wars), geographical (favourable location, relatively safe land borders, easy control over key sea routes, plus a large wealth of strategical raw materials and fertile land), and finally social and cultural (dynamics and innovation of the “young” society with the immigrant-pioneer mentality, attachment to the principles of economic and personal freedom, plus the benefits of an effective education model liberal in its spirit, justice system and politics). The strength of its economy and military force should be regarded as simple consequences of these advantages, which (supported by fairly lucky circumstances) allowed the USA (and more broadly, the civilization model it represents and promotes) to thwart the Soviet empire and at least temporarily take the said position of the global hegemon.

We could also add the power of intelligence to the mix, which the Americans had begun to appreciate relatively late (as a matter of fact as late as at the end of World War II), but when they finally decided to catch up with the Old World in this respect, they pulled ahead very quickly thanks to almost unlimited funds and excellent scientific and expert capabilities. Let’s not forget about technological power: the same two factors – money and people – meant that USA could (in controlled cooperation with smaller allies, such as Japan) start imposing the pace of innovations in this area, obviously benefiting and multiplying strategic and competitive advantages, somewhat similarly to the control of major financial markets or taking advantage of cheap credit granted to the US by the rest of the world, using the dollar as the payment and reserve currency.

However, life (especially political) hates stagnation. Naive dreams of the final triumph of the US (and the American system of values, liberal economy and democracy) and the “end of history” soon crumbled. It was no great surprise that neither Russia nor Islamic radicals dreaming of New Caliphate could now challenge America.

Naturally, the US do not fight the third world war with Iran.

The real challenge for the USA comes from the People’s Republic of China. Since the symbolic (both for the West and for China) date of 4 June 1989, the Middle Kingdom, although still under the rule of “the same, yet not the same” communist party, has made an incredible leap. Its symbolic illustration was the incident of 2006 (underrated and little known outside a group of specialists), when the Chinese submarine 039 Song fooled the electronic defensive systems of the escort and unexpectedly surfaced near the aircraft carrier USS “Kitty Hawk”, within the range of an effective torpedo attack. Many experts have considered it a signal of change more meaningful than the successive stages of the Chinese space program, for example.

For years China has no longer been a country supported only by countless cheap labour engaged in mass production of goods invented by others. It is also no longer just a great market for profitable sales by Western producers. As a result of its unprecedented economic growth, the PRC has become an assertive political player, with natural consequences in hard and soft security. And this is not changed by the fact that this dynamic development is still based on some shaky foundations. Environmental costs, problems with social and demographic disproportions, the ongoing issue of administrative corruption, the lack of sufficient reserves of raw materials – these are just examples of reefs that at some point might break the Chinese growth. But the Chinese are moving forward with optimism.

It is no accident that the dragon challenged the lion in the field of technological innovation and the ability to impose its own solutions on the rest of the world.

The US defends its preferred position. China is attacking. At some point it apparently realised that, according to the classic art of war, an attack in a place chosen by the opponent and using the techniques and tactics he is familiar with usually has a poor chance of success; it is better to surprise the enemy by hitting at a place and time convenient for you, and above all to provoke a fight with a weapon in which you have a natural advantage

The terms of peace

So, the “folk” China is bringing to life something that with some fair winds may turn out to be a really new quality: a cultural, social, political and economic model competitive to the Western one. The USSR once had made such an attempt, but as a universal offer its model went bankrupt ideologically somewhere in the 1960s and economically in the 1980s.

The Chinese model seems much more promising than the former Soviet one. It is based on very restricted democracy, but (as controversial as it may sound) that is what makes it more effective: in strategic planning and in solving many current problems. At the same time, by appreciating the role of private property, individual motivation and economic initiative, its potential for innovation and growth is much greater than in the previous version of authoritarianism. Added to this is an attractive, though not entirely honest offer of a multipolar international order, the promise of financial support for infrastructure, the use of force less assertive than in the American model, free economic, technological and cultural competition vs. (sic!) the increasingly apparent Western protectionism. This aspect should not be underestimated: Chinese expansion is based not only on economic factors, as many seem to still think. It will also not be based (at least not decisively) on military strength. It will rather offer a cocktail of various benefits and models, flexibly modified depending on the place and circumstances, to gradually and imperceptibly make its consumers addicted.

The line of people willing to taste the nectar is growing, while it is being served (and will be more and more commonly and intensively) not only on regional, but also on global scale.

Perhaps this is partially the result of China’s quiet revanchism; the desire to at last take revenge on the race of white barbarians for centuries of defeat and humiliation (at least according to some experts on the mentality of the Chinese political elite). But for sure and above all it is a consequence of quite obvious and pragmatic calculation: China is doomed to global aspirations, since self-limitation would push it back to weakness, crisis and chaos.

Firstly, because it needs resources located outside the region (by no means just oil) to feed the growth. Secondly, because the nature of current American hegemony (controlling global financial flows and imposing the rules of global economic game) does not give room for China to “tear off” its own local enclave, while leaving the rest of the world unchanged. It is either everything or nothing, and this “everything” does not necessarily mean the sudden disappearance of the USA and globally replacing the old American terms with the new, purely Chinese ones. In any case, it would be very unrealistic. For China, however, it is sufficient to force or negotiate with the US (after all, the difference is not really significant) to alter these terms and rules so that they equally take into account not only American, but also Chinese interest. Therefore, to replace the temporary unipolar order with a new “concert of powers”, or a bipolar order, if you will.

“It’s the technology, stupid!”

The US defends its preferred position. China is attacking. At some point it apparently realised that, according to the classic art of war, an attack in a place chosen by the opponent and using the techniques and tactics he is familiar with usually has a poor chance of success; it is better to surprise the enemy by hitting at a place and time convenient for you, and above all to provoke a fight with a weapon in which you have a natural advantage. For example, because you have invented this weapon yourself.

5G is such a weapon. Earlier generations of telecommunications tools were invented, implemented and put into practice under dominant American control. Until now, the West used to dictate the development of ecosystem of various types of networks, which has served its interests as a geopolitical unit and civilization area. Meanwhile, at some point, the US and its allies overslept – perhaps due to false complacency after the fall of communism, or perhaps, surprisingly, because of the advantage of a system based on new central planning and strategically focused, long-term government investments (by the way, another element of the challenge China has issued to both America and the liberal axiom). Or maybe both; anyway, Chinese who did not matter during the implementation of 3G and 4G, started working on the next generation of technology a few years before others, and pumped billions of public yuan and dollars into theoretically private companies. As a result, they have significantly imposed their rules on a new battlefield and pushed the US to a defensive role.

The change in strategic conditions caused by technological and social factors has undermined the sense of many simple historical analogies

For clarity – 5G is just one part of this large-scale operation. The Chinese authorities operate on a long-term basis, through a very good understanding of technological progress. The strategic document of the PRC’s State Council, published under the English title Made in China 2025, shows a detailed catalogue of actions that China is taking and intends to take to build and consolidate power in the “New Industry” – investing largely in critical technologies of the future, Artificial Intelligence, quantum computers, robotics, financial technologies (such as blockchain), augmented/virtual reality, gene editing, nanotechnology, biotechnology, etc. Advanced information technologies (including e.g. 5G) are also one of the most important elements of Chinese military doctrine.

Of course, the Americans are also not idle in this area. The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America directly refers to maintaining dominance in the field of high technology and consistent work on its development. The issue of technological development as a factor defining the operational environment of the US Armed Forces is also present in the strategy prepared by the Department of Defence (as indicated by the subtitle of its declassified summary: Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge).

The Chinese attack in the technological field – spectacular and potentially effective – is of very important symbolic significance in this context. This is a signal to the rest of the world, to potential new customers and acolytes of the Chinese Dragon, emphasising its qualitative change and announcing the perspective of further increase in its power. After all, until yesterday it was technological innovation that was the apple of the eye and focal point of the American empire.

A new face of war

The change in strategic conditions caused by technological and social factors has undermined the sense of many simple historical analogies. For centuries, war meant a set of kinetic operations combined with the use of physical violence to paralyse the political will of the opponent by inflicting sufficient bloody losses or causing damage to the infrastructure important for their existence. Today, similar objectives can also be achieved “the old way” – by stabbing people with bayonets, shooting rifles and cannons at them, or massacring whoever you can with bombs and rockets. But you can also (hypothetically) cause earthquakes or other natural disasters in their territory, preferably near important structures. You can cause epidemics. You can incite social rebellion or mass panic. Finally – you can paralyse the information networks or (even better) take control of them to spread chaos. Classic military means are not necessary to achieve the same old objective, which is to deprive political opponents of the ability to perform their functions. In many imaginable scenarios, it is cheaper, more efficient and faster than running over arable fields and copses with tanks, for example.

For a long time, cyberspace has been widely and officially recognised as another operational environment alongside traditional ones, such as land, sea and air. Space is less traditional in this role, but has recently joined the group.

The truth, not yet internalised by politicians or even some experts, is that there is no equivalence between these environments. Cyberspace is the most important among them from the point of view of strategy and operational art. For example, it used to be possible to dominate the seas with the simultaneous superiority of another entity on important lands, and then, somehow manage on land despite someone’s superiority in the air – now it is practically impossible to effectively operate in any of the other spaces when the opponent controls the cyber environment. Who determines the terms of implementing 5G will probably be crucial for the cyberspace of tomorrow.

Americans also have to offer both juicy carrots and, if necessary, a thick stick

Many analysts believe that the United States are currently not able to win the military conflict with China, as US aircraft carriers and military transports will be successfully attacked on their way from the US to operational bases located in the immediate vicinity of Chinese territory. This is probably true. If even “not quite”, then it seems unrealistic to “win the conflict” in the traditional sense, for example, to have the US Army occupy the PRC territory or inflicting losses sufficient to break the will of the opponent. It also works the other way around. But these are assessments that do not take into account one aspect. Namely, the fact that “the will can be broken” by paralysing or taking over information systems, both those directly necessary for military operations and those responsible for controlling production processes, communication, energy distribution, or even temperature in refrigerators of millions of Smiths in the USA and Lius in China. Let us repeat this again: thanks to 5G, the universal Internet of Things, remote online control of billions of devices that are currently completely autonomous, becomes a very near perspective…

Newer espionage

One more thing. Both modern American hegemony and Chinese attempts to undermine it largely rely on the power of intelligence and information services, including their ability to aggregate and process huge amounts of data collected from a wide variety of sources: from mobile networks and e-mail operators, public and private CCTV systems, databases of financial and healthcare institutions, or even spy satellites. The possibilities created by 5G will dramatically increase the intelligence agencies’ ability to obtain data (yes, yes, we are talking about our own vacuum cleaners spying on us!) – but also to take specific actions using more and more devices and entire systems connected to the network.

The game for an advantage in cyberspace is therefore fought and we will see if the Americans with their National Security Agency can remain the dominant actor in this extremely important field or will they be forced to at least share the pie. This was publicly articulated less than a year ago during the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona by Guo Ping, one of Huawei executives: “The Snowden leaks shone a light on how the NSA’s leaders were seeking to ‘collect it all’ – every electronic communication sent, or phone call made, by everyone in the world, every day. Clearly the more Huawei gear is installed in the world’s telecommunications networks, the harder it becomes for NSA to ‘collect it all’. “Huawei hampers U.S. efforts to spy on whomever it wants.”

According to the “Ericsson Mobility Report” (November 2019), the 5G-based network will cover up to 65% of the global population at the end of 2025 and will support 45% of global data flows from mobile devices. Smartphone users are expected to consume around 24GB of data per month in 2025 (with an average of 7.2GB in 2019). The total number of mobile calls from IoT devices is estimated at 5 billion at the end of 2025 (1.3 billion in 2019).


So, the stake of the game is extremely high, and its final result difficult to predict. Both sides have significant assets. On the Chinese side – undoubtedly an advantage resulting from the earlier start of working on the new technology, meaning that many domestic telecom operators around the globe have already begun preparations based on components supplied by the Chinese, before the Americans awoke and organised a boycott of Huawei. We should also bear in mind that virtually nobody is building the 5G infrastructure completely from scratch, but the commonly used components are associated with earlier technologies – including devices of Chinese provenance. If we add the cleverly constructed Chinese system to support seemingly commercial foreign investments with huge money remaining at the disposal of the government and its agencies, plus a multi-level system of financial incentives and lobbying in other sectors of the economy and politics, we will get a picture of the dilemma faced by a large number of countries all over the world. For example, Germany has recently been threatened with restrictions on the export of its cars to the Chinese market, while Denmark could lose a lucrative trade agreement important for the Faroe Islands.

On the other hand, Americans also have to offer both juicy carrots and, if necessary, a thick stick. They use this tool all the time, not only towards third countries, but also directly towards China. Despite relatively good financial results in the last quarter of 2019, Huawei executives recently had to admit that 2020 will be “difficult” for this technological leader of the Middle Kingdom. This is influenced by both the scale of US sanctions decimating the chain of existing suppliers and anti-Chinese pressure on the important markets of Canada and Europe (in particular, Germany and Great Britain, which are still straddling).

However, it is hard to resist the impression that a certain weakness of the US in its relations with its allies – which may cost Washington dearly in the end – is the America’s dominant narrative on 5G. It is rather based on references to loyalty than on reflection on the actual risks associated with allowing Chinese companies to build networks or with the network itself. Instead of emphasising confirmation or restoration of its leadership in the technology race (in the style of Cold War leadership), the United States is clearly more willing to use threats, such as ceasing the exchange of intelligence information (which would be a serious issue for Great Britain or Canada, whose security policy is largely dependent on the so-called five eyes cooperation).

Separate Internet, separate worlds

Meanwhile, the two great rivals are building their 5G infrastructure quite smoothly at home. In the USA, the network is being implemented relatively quickly, and although the progress is uneven due to specific spatial, economic and technological conditions, it covers more and more cities. Work is being carried out by the following operators: AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, with the participation of European Ericsson and Nokia. However, the largest commercial 5G network already exists in China, where it was launched in November 2019, faster than originally planned.

Undoubtedly, the possible emergence of separate “Internets” increases the risk of a new type of conflict

The PRC has also introduced technological restrictions, despite repeatedly accusing Donald Trump of protectionism. These include control of data flow beyond geographical borders and hardware and software control in technology companies. To operate on the Chinese market, foreign companies must cooperate with local service providers in the data storage sector or build their own resources on site (using Chinese equipment). The fact that Ericsson and Nokia have been admitted to the market after signing (according to information from November last year) two contracts for the construction of the 5G network does not mean that competition in China is defined by demand and supply and the general profitability of offers. John Strand, Head of the Danish consulting company Strand Consult, stated openly: “The market share that Ericsson and Nokia get in China is not related to free market conditions.”

Meanwhile, in the face of the fight between America and China, for almost the entire “rest of the world” the question of choosing a company that will provide 5G has become a symbolic choice between two different “operating systems” to support “their world” in the future.

As usual, war not only does designate short-term winners and losers, but usually modifies trends and creates new realities. Many experts raise concerns that American-Chinese rivalry will lead to the creation of various “Internets” – the areas of influence of particular states, which will build exclusive infrastructure for their networks through the native enterprises. Hence, it may mean the reconstruction of the power zones known from history, but with more clearly marked borders (though not necessarily with tangible walls or barriers). There could be an additional risk of very strict regimes of state control over this fragmented cyberspace (by the way, another argument in favour of the fact that the state has not been disappearing, but is changing its role in the world of network, where it must compete with other entities; perhaps, 5G is a chance to create a completely new type of “non-territorial” power?).

Undoubtedly, the possible emergence of separate “Internets” increases the risk of a new type of conflict. Unfortunately, the hypothetical cyberwar, or rather its much “hotter” phase than what we are dealing with now, will not necessarily be less harmful to citizens than known wars of a classic, kinetic character.




Translation financed by the National Freedom Institute – Centre for Civil Society Development from the Civil Society Organisations Development Programme for 2018-2030

Tłumaczenie sfinansowano przez Narodowy Instytut Wolności – Centrum Rozwoju Społeczeństwa Obywatelskiego ze środków Programu Rozwoju Organizacji Obywatelskich na lata 2018-2030


politolog, doktor nauk humanistycznych, pracownik naukowy Uniwersytetu Jana Kochanowskiego w Kielcach; analityk w Fundacji Po.Int; specjalizuje się w studiach nad wpływem nowoczesnych technologii oraz zmian klimatu na system międzynarodowy i globalne środowisko bezpieczeństwa
Witold Sokała
Stały współpracownik „Nowej Konfederacji”, zastępca dyrektora Instytutu Stosunków Międzynarodowych i Polityk Publicznych Uniwersytetu Jana Kochanowskiego, przewodniczący Rady oraz ekspert Fundacji Po.Int. W przeszłości pracował jako dziennikarz prasowy, radiowy i telewizyjny, menedżer w sektorze prywatnym oraz urzędnik państwowy, a także jako niezależny konsultant w zakresie m.in. marketingu i wywiadu konkurencyjnego. Absolwent Wydziału Prawa Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego oraz Wydziału Zarządzania Akademii Górniczo-Hutniczej; stopień doktora w dziedzinie nauk o polityce uzyskał na Wydziale Nauk Społecznych Uniwersytetu Śląskiego.


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