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Africa could be the winner as the US attempts to stifle Huawei


Dr Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher in the Foreign Policy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. His research focuses on China-Africa relations.

The adoption of 5G technology, powered by Chinese tech giant Huawei, has become a game of international geopolitical football with Donald Trump as the self-appointed referee. Africa is set to become an early adopter – but there are political, economic and security risks attached.

This much is clear: 5G is coming. About 100 times faster than current mobile speeds, it will deliver faster internet to more people. One square kilometre of 4G can support about 4,000 devices. With 5G that jumps to about one million devices. But this doesn’t only mean more video on more phones. The jump from 4G to 5G is an exponential one, unlocking whole new generations of technology. It could bring a promised future of the internet of things, driverless cars, and smart cities. It also has the potential to open a Pandora’s box of military applications.

So, 5G is coming, but the question of how and where raises many political problems, ones that touch directly on Africa’s future. The problem is, of course, China, more specifically the Chinese tech company Huawei.

Since it started in 1987 as a sales agent in Shenzhen for Hong Kong-based switch and cable businesses, Huawei has become the world’s foremost provider of data network equipment. Its rise was certainly helped by support from Beijing. But the specific nature of that support remains controversial. It is now one of the most important companies in China, central to the Chinese government’s ambitions of escaping the middle-income trap by becoming a global tech leader. It currently works with most of the world’s largest mobile data providers. By most counts it is years ahead of its competitors in rolling out 5G, and is therefore central to many providers’ dreams of launching 5G in markets around the world.

Huawei is a private company (unlike its state-owned Chinese counterpart ZTE, another major player in the 5G revolution.) But it is close to the Chinese government. This closeness makes Washington nervous. At issue are US allegations that Huawei is (or could be) harvesting data from its networks and transferring it to China. The Trump administration has raised the possibility of Huawei networks being used to pilfer government and business secrets. It is putting pressure on countries around the world to stop working with Huawei. The company has repeatedly denied these charges and says it is independent of the Chinese government.

The result is a classic between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma, which reveals much about the shifting blocs of political and economic power in the 21st century.

Take the UK. The Boris Johnson government recently announced it will allow limited cooperation between its telecom companies and Huawei. Huawei will only be allowed to provide “non-core” equipment, and its proportion of the total equipment making up a mobile network will be capped at 35%. This compromise managed to upset almost everybody.

The big four British telecom operators complained about the cost of replacing large amounts of Huawei equipment, and how the change will set back their position in the race to bring 5G to consumers. Meanwhile, the decision has also upset the US government, which has been lobbying very hard for a complete ban on Huawei in the UK. This displeasure reportedly resulted in an “apoplectic” phone call from Trump.

China hawks in the US have already intimated that the decision could jeopardise intelligence sharing between the US and the UK. The UK is a member of the Five Eyes group, which shares intelligence with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While Australia and New Zealand have joined the US in refusing to cooperate with Huawei, the UK and Canada are more equivocal. The UK is under additional pressure because its post-Brexit future relies on negotiating favourable trade deals with the US, and Huawei will definitely be on the table.

But Europe doesn’t only face pressure from the US. When the Huawei issue came up in Germany, China quickly made clear that it is willing to hit where it hurts to protect its tech sector. This meant Germany’s lucrative car sector, for which China is a crucial market. This pressure immediately pitted core German constituencies against each other: Germany’s car sector on the one side, and its intelligence community on the other.

The EU has advocated a similar non-core compromise as decided by the UK, and this week conservatives in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union also opted to limit cooperation with Huawei to certain non-core sectors, but stopped short of an outright ban. This is unlikely to satisfy Washington, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made very clear late last year. For Germany, the question is further complicated by the fact that its car companies already collaborate with Huawei frequently, and most high-end German cars already contain Huawei equipment. BMW, VW, Daimler and the like also probably haven’t forgotten Trump’s joking threat to impose 25% tariffs on German cars.

While Washington has framed the Huawei fight completely in terms of cybersecurity, it actually extends much wider. At issue is who will set the specifications underlying the technology that will control the 21st century. The Trump administration is putting pressure on US tech companies to set engineering standards for 5G and even suggested obtaining controlling stakes in Nokia and Eriksson, the only non-Chinese companies that could potentially provide 5G. 

The problem is that Huawei is so far ahead, that getting other countries on board essentially means forcibly holding up the global rollout of 5G to allow other companies to catch up – not an attractive option for global consumers. In the process, many of the US’s traditional partners in the developed world could be forced into wishy-washy non-core deals like the one chosen by the UK.

The result could be that Africa becomes an early adopter of 5G. African governments have so far refused to comply with US pressure to kick out Huawei, not least because the company has built the vast majority of data networks on the continent, supported by Chinese government funding. While the Huawei controversy stalls progress in rich markets, closed tests have already taken place in several African countries. The South African company Rain already launched 5G data services in 2019, and Vodacom will launch 5G calling this year. Both use Huawei equipment.

Africa’s choice constitutes a calculated gamble: that the development gains of 5G outweigh the potential security risks of working with Huawei. How the gamble will affect the continent’s relationship with the Trump administration remains to be seen. DM


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