The Trump team’s idea to counter China with nationalized 5G is just what China would do

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Copy that?
Image: AP Images/Matt Rourke
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The Trump administration is worried about China—its trade policies, its expansionism, and its growing technological prowess. After imposing tariffs and blocking tech acquisitions by China, the White House is reportedly mulling something much bigger: a nationalized next-generation wireless network to contain China.

A memo obtained by news outlet Axios from a National Security Council official in the Trump administration proposes the US government should take over the work of deploying a 5G network, with the aim of getting it done within three years. One key reason to do this, the document states, is a fear of China advancing in artificial intelligence faster than the United States.

“Data is the oil of the 21’s century and China has built the world’s largest reserve,” the memo reads. “Building a nationwide secure 5G network sets the condition for future success in the information domain. Not building the network puts us at a permanent disadvantage to China in the information domain.”

5G is a type of wireless networking infrastructure designed for fast connectivity of self-driving cars, virtual reality, the internet-of-things, and other technologies that are emerging after the smartphone-centric 4G era we’re currently in. To enable it requires a ton of new infrastructure, and many more transmitters, and the memo’s fears are driven by fears over who’s building it and what sort of reach that will give them.

“Europe led 3G deployment, the US led 4G, and with these market-altering practices the Chinese may be poised to lead in 5G,” it says, and even mentions China’s ambitious globe-spanning Belt and Road infrastructure project.

The strangely-written memo contains a number of metaphors for what 5G will mean to America. For example, 5G is not just faster 4G, it says, but akin to the Eisenhower-era highway network and the Gutenberg Press, and if deployed by the government, would also be like “concertina wire on a beach facing assault.”

The document also contains some holes—for one thing, while it names Chinese network equipment maker Huawei as a strategic threat several times and devotes an entire page to a graph showing its global market share, the company has already long been barred from selling its network equipment to US telecom providers. It can’t even get a US carrier to sell its phones. In addition, what actually will count as 5G hasn’t been globally defined.

T-mobile and Huawei declined to comment on the document. AT&T told Axios it couldn’t comment on the document as it hadn’t seen it, while stressing it was already preparing to launch mobile 5G service. Sprint and Verizon did not respond immediately to emails sent outside of US working hours.

Were the plan to move forward—and it’s not at all clear if it will—it would contain a hint of irony. China itself has a long track record of calling for nationwide development plans at the central government level, and then utilizing local governments and state-owned enterprises to carry it forth.

The nation’s three major telecom operators—China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom—are all owned by the government. These three carriers are expected to spend about $173 billion on 5G construction between 2019 and 2025, according to investment bank Jefferies. It’s likely that contracts for these networks will be won by Huawei and ZTE, both of which won the majority of network equipment contracts during China’s 4G rollout over foreign rivals like Ericsson. Huawei and ZTE have also been suspected of having close ties to China’s government—ZTE’s largest shareholder is a state-owned enterprise. Huawei meanwhile, was founded by a former People’s Liberation Army officer, and US officials have long suspected (.pdf) its ties to Beijing run deep (though they’ve publicized no smoking gun yet).

China’s telecom industry remains subject to some market competition despite the state’s involvement. But it’s still more tightly controlled than the US’s right now. Nationalizing a 5G rollout would mean the US is following the lead of China. That won’t necessarily fend China off.