High-tech Cold War - Martin Scicluna
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High-tech Cold War - Martin Scicluna

The geopolitical row between the United States and China is the great schism of our times. For Cold War warriors such as me, there is something very familiar about the current geopolitical mood. Western concern with the enemy’s new weaponry, its readiness to rewrite the very idea of deterrence and challenge the world order, the gripping fascination of the arms race.

Then, it was the Soviet Union and inter-continental ballistic missiles. Today, it’s China and its ambitions to become a cyber superpower.

There is deep uncertainty in the West about dealing with a country, China, that seems to embody a marriage between Big Brother and Big Tech. The initial fear that Trump would ratchet up the trade dispute with Xi Jinping has not gone away.

There is still a possibility that the 10 per cent tariff imposed on $200 billion worth of Chinese steel and aluminium will remain even after a trade deal is sealed. Business confidence everywhere has been rattled.

Crucially, though, Trump may shift his full attention to the battle for high-tech supremacy. The falling-out with Huawei, the world’s largest telecommunications equipment maker (with which Malta had struck a deal for Huawei’s use of the island as a testing ground for the fifth generation, or 5G, roll-out a few years ago), is already abrasive.

But many now expect an executive order from the White House that would in effect ban the use of Chinese equipment in strategically important telecoms networks. At present, Chinese equipment is only excluded from government networks.

That is all part of a typical shock-and-awe negotiating approach by Trump that involves not only tariffs, the scrutiny of Chinese investors and action against hackers, but also a large dollop of Trumpian rhetoric about the way China is “ripping off our country”.

It addresses the US’s fundamental anxiety that China is accelerating on all fronts in order to supplant the US as the sole superpower. Trump has said his national security adviser, John Bolton, was aiming not only to balance trade and ensure that China played by established rules “but also to prevent an imbalance in political-military power in the future”.

This might also explain the “serious concerns” that the United States has raised with Maltese government officials over the island’s plans for close collaboration with Huawei, which the US sees as a “national security threat”. Malta is also still considering the European Commission’s recommendation to carry out a national risk assessment of 5G network infrastructure.

The West just about survived the Cold War unscathed. What is happening now is altogether more complicated

Huawei, with its advanced research into 5G mobile telecoms networks is Trump’s běte noir precisely because it is ambiguous about whether it serves its customers or the Chinese State. It is a private company and a national champion, all too aware of Beijing’s 2025 target of closing the high-tech gap with the West.

The policy calls for domination of industries, such as robotics, information technology and electric vehicles. Huawei is doing its bit with 5G, as also in road and rail management, and above all in the security establishment. As the tech revolution rolls on in China, gathering speed, so the range of possibilities for hostile Chinese action grows.

As far as the Trump administration is concerned, Huawei is a nest of spies allowing agents to operate within its ranks, stealing intellectual property and, because of its unclear relationship with the State, possibly opening a back door on its products to let data be siphoned off by Chinese intelligence agencies.

There have been suspicions about Huawei and other Chinese concerns for well over a decade. Yet western politicians have tended to brush them aside, or considered that the security risks were worth taking in return for a prosperous long-term connection with the fast-growing Chinese economy.

In the West, there have always been two sides of the argument on Beijing as a partner. The first is that China is simply too large to be wished away and that there really is a way of ensuring that they do not make mischief. “Trust but verify” says a leading cybersecurity expert at Surrey University, Alan Woodward. “It’s correct to suspect China, but not to reject them out of hand. Why? Well, they are coming up with some innovations that we in the West are not. We could end up shooting ourselves in the foot.”

The second reflects the position of the large majority of the intelligence community which, without any prodding from Trump, is content that the earlier naivety has turned into something altogether more hard-nosed. For the head of MI6 in the United Kingdom, 5G and Huawei is something that should be carefully assessed rather than simply waved through because of the sheer pace of change.

The Chinese are also investing massively in high-speed quantum supercomputers. It has many more than the US and the gap is growing. Add this capacity to China’s rapid progress in quantum satellite technology – the first step towards hack-free global communication – and President Xi’s declared ambition to be a world leader in artificial intelligence (AI), and one begins to understand the country’s growing disruptive potential.

Although AI does not carry the same menace as a nuclear warhead, there is something unnerving about a great power rivalry unfolding at a time when new open-ended technologies are being tested. Despite proxy wars, the West just about survived the Cold War unscathed. What is happening now is altogether more complicated. The risk is acute of something turning nasty in the lawless cyber-jungle.

In its way it is more alarming than when nuclear-armed Red Army generals tried to calculate whether taking out Los Angeles would be a fair swap for a nuclear attack by the West on Leningrad. The Cold War never quite turned hot because frustrations were vented in proxy conflicts and because of the terror of mutually assured nuclear destruction (MAD). Spheres of interest were respected. Arms control accords eased tensions.

But the fifth generation of technology is being developed without laws or international understanding. When weaponised, 5G can be used without leaving a trace. How can the West deter that? Power grids, for example, are the softest of targets and every sprawling city is open to paralysing cyberattack.

That’s why it is essential that China and the US (the West) find a way of reaching a stable equilibrium such as the one that was more or less maintained between the Soviet Union, America and the West for over 50 years until 1992.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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