China’s 5G dominance could lead to a ‘dangerous’ internet split with the US, Donald Trump’s FCC chief warns

Jodi Xu Klein

China’s prominence in next-generation 5G wireless technology not only threatens US security but could lead to a “dangerous” US-China internet split, the chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission has said.

“You don’t need to look hard to find evidence that the Chinese government is willing and able to use its growing influence in global commerce to advance its own interest,” Ajit Pai said at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York on Tuesday.

Echoing a growing US concern, he said he worries “that the end result [of China’s technological advances] is essentially to create two different internets”, with a version built by the Chinese government being heavily censored.

“That will be something that’s unfortunate for consumers and something that’s potentially dangerous in the long run,” Pai said. “We don’t want the internet to be Balkanised.”

Pai alluded to the emergence of Chinese tech firms as global forces, in particular citing the rise of Huawei, the Chinese telecoms giant that has become the world’s largest 5G technology supplier.

The administration of US President Donald Trump contends that Huawei’s products are a national security risk and in May added Huawei to a trade blacklist, enacting restrictions that make it extremely difficult for the company to do business with its US counterparts.

Pai’s appearance at the think tank came soon after the publication last week of an article he wrote for The Wall Street Journal, in which he said “letting Chinese equipment into 5G wireless networks in the US would open the door to censorship, surveillance, espionage and other harms”.

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Superfast 5G internet connections are expected to change our lives, from smart cars bypassing traffic jams to interactive health monitors to home help in the kitchen.

China so far is winning the race to 5G and is on track to dominate it in the near term, analysts say.

China is banking on the might of the one-party state, making sure its state-run carriers have access to cheap airwaves and fast, inexpensive approvals for the hundreds of thousands of base stations the fastest wireless technology requires.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday. Photo: Jodi Xu Klein

Pai continued to highlight at the CFR event what he called the growing security threat that the US and its Western allies face in relying on Chinese products and services.

“Huawei positions itself as a private company, but it has significant ties with the Chinese government as well as with the Chinese military,” Pai said.

Echoing an oft-repeated concern of the Trump administration, he said Chinese law requires all companies under its jurisdiction to comply with requests from Chinese intelligence services.

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“That means China could compel Huawei to spy on foreign individuals and businesses,” he said.

“Recent cases reflect a disturbing and growing pattern of behaviour by the Chinese government, also raising concerns of the security of the US,” he said.

The US government has accused Huawei of stealing mobile phone-testing technology from T-Mobile, a mobile communications subsidiary of German telecoms company Deutsche Telekom.

The Trump administration also has warned that Chinese entertainment company Bytedance's US$1 billion acquisition of US social media app could allow the Chinese government to access Americans’ personal data.

The US government has proposed various regulations this year in an effort to restrict Huawei’s involvement in American 5G networks.

In May, Trump also signed an executive order prohibiting US networks from using Chinese products and services, effectively shutting out Huawei.

The Commerce Department was to announce new rules on this topic on October 12. Pai said at the event that the announcement would be made soon.

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A Commerce Department spokesman declined to provide the South China Morning Post with an update on the specific timing for the announcement.

The FCC is to vote on November 19 on a plan to prohibit companies that receive money from the FCC’s US$8.5 billion annual Universal Service Fund – a programme that offers subsidies to low-income households – from buying equipment or services from Huawei, ZTE, another major Chinese telecoms supplier, or other companies deemed to pose a national security risk.

For years, US government officials and other organisations have worried about the national security threat posed by certain foreign communications equipment providers, and specifically that back doors to the networks could allow a hostile foreign power to steal American private data and spy on US companies.

“5G networks will expand the number and scale of potential vulnerabilities, increase incentives for malicious actors to exploit those vulnerabilities, and make it difficult to detect malicious cyber activity,” wrote Robert Williams, executive director of the Paul Tsai China Centre at Yale Law School, in a paper titled S ecurity 5G networks, published by the CFR in July.

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The silver lining, Pai said, is that earlier, some critics had called tough US policies on Chinese companies “a smoke screen for protectionism”.

But now, “millions of Americans come to … understand [that] the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party is comprehensive and all too real”.

The FCC has dedicated its resources to “ensure that our nation leads the way in 5G deployment”, Pai added.

Washington has singled out Huawei as a security risk. Photo: AP

That strategy means doing more with the software in which the US is already dominant, rather than the tech in which China is fast becoming a leader, the FCC chairman said.

“If we can virtualise functions of the radio access network, we can not only reduce the cost of deploying 5G networks but reduce reliance on foreign equipment manufacturers,” he said.

“I am encouraged by the work that American companies are currently doing in this area and hope to see significant breakthroughs soon.”

The choice between 5G deployment and security “is a false one”, Pai said. “A country need not choose between the two and the US will certainly not do so.”

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