Lately Europe has been reconsidering its technological dependence from China. Britain is thinking of banning Chinese tech from its communications infrastructure, France has advised citizens against buying it, and now TIM, a major Italian telecoms company, ignored tech giant Huawei in a bidding race to build its core 5G network in Italy (and Brazil).
These events follow pressure from Washington, which has been relentlessly lobbying its European allies to stifle the Chinese espionage threat – and perhaps Beijing’s economic expansionism – in the Old Continent.
The US believes that installing Chinese tech in telecoms networks poses serious security issues and has been urging allies to refrain from adopting it. As more European countries side with Washington in this “tech Cold War”, Italy’s government remains undecided even as it takes steps to address the controversial matter.
Italian ministers recently armed themselves with the State’s “golden power” on 5G, meaning that when they will eventually take a decision on Chinese tech, they will be able to prevent telecoms companies from buying and installing it – even if it has already been bought and installed. In this regard, TIM may have sought to anticipate the government in refraining from considering Huawei.
Tom Wheeler chaired the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for four years and is currently a Visiting Fellow at Brookings Institute. He told us he was happy about TIM’s decision and hoped that other Italian market operators would follow suit. As he put it, we are “strong as our weakest link” when it comes to interconnected networks, and excessive reliance on Chinese proprietary tech is simply too risky.
As 5G is a software-based network, the next big security threat could be hiding in an update, said Mr. Wheeler. He stressed that “software is by definition hackable, so we must make sure that we work with providers who won’t put backdoors in it.”
Mr. Wheeler explained that once a telecoms operator ties itself to one tech provider, it’s very hard to walk back from depending on it, as the UK-Huawei saga proves. The solution, according to him, is to build the next-gen telecoms architecture following O-RAN (Open Radio Access Network) standards: a more modular system, less dependent on single providers, capable of fostering an open market while also providing additional security thanks to reciprocal checks between operators.
Beijing has dismissed accusations of espionage and encourages European countries to accept its tech. However, independent reviews carried out by several European states – including Italy – acknowledged the existence of some degree of risk, as Chinese law requires companies to support intelligence authorities – even if that means disclosing sensitive data.
Commentators have called the European 5G race the digital front of a proxy war in the ongoing “Cold War” between the US and China. However, the Cold War analogy is not particularly successful in describing what’s going on, according to Nigel Inkster, who was second-in-command at British intelligence agency MI6 and is now senior adviser to London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
“The USA and China are deeply entangled in ways never true for the Soviet Union and the USA,” said Mr. Inkster, “[they are] on a more equal footing in terms of economic performance and technical capabilities. China [is] seeking to supplant US technology dominance by becoming the global supplier and standard setter for 5G. The US has dropped the ball on 5G and is now looking to slow China down while it catches up.”
According to Mr. Inkster, the US is effectively pushing European countries towards a binary, us-or-them sort of choice; but if the West were to decouple from China, he argues, it would risk suffering the most. The US is losing interest in global hegemony as it turns inwards, and in coming years it could theoretically aim for complete self-reliance – with heavy consequences for Europe, which cannot sustain this level of isolationism.
“Like other European countries Italy risks becoming collateral damage in the US-China contest,” he concluded; however, “[Italian politicians] may think they can sit out this contest, in which case they will be wrong.”
“The hard truth is that [Italy] must pick a side in the tech Cold War,” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group and New York University professor. Going straight to the point, he argued that technological independence is simply not an option – and that Europe should side with the US on the 5G matter, regardless of how cheap or advanced Chinese tech may be, as adopting it would be too dangerous a geopolitical bet.
Commenting on Italy’s indecisiveness, he assured us that Washington isn’t particularly worried about it, but that he wouldn’t be surprised if some Italian companies that chose to maintain ties with Beijing incurred in secondary sanctions from the US Treasury.
Regardless of prime minister Giuseppe Conte’s inaction, half of his coalition government is already fighting to align with the US and keep Chinese tech in check. We spoke to Enrico Borghi, MP and member of parliamentary security commission COPASIR, who wholeheartedly approved of TIM’s decision to refrain from considering Huawei.
“The awareness of what’s at stake is growing. The timing is not casual,” Mr. Borghi told us. He has recently called for the institution of a delegate authority to deal with Italy’s 5G infrastructure. The Democratic Party, which he is affiliated to, is pushing to side with the US in its rivalry with China.