Despite Coronavirus, China Doubles Down on Tech Dominance
So far, the last twelve months have been an annus horribilis for Xi Jinping and the Communist Party leadership in Beijing.
The regime’s heavy-handed attempt to retract its guarantees of autonomy for Hong Kong with an extradition bill resulted in bitter street clashes that proved resilient against China’s usual harsh authoritarian methods. Despite suffering and persecution after more than 7,000 arrests, Hong Kong’s masked millennials still managed to turn the tables on Beijing.
This spectacle resulted in the next disaster for Beijing, the reaction of the Taiwanese people. Early polls had Han Kuo-Yu, who favored closer ties with Beijing, in the lead. After seeing what the regime was doing in Hong Kong, however, the Taiwanese people re-elected their Beijing-skeptical president, Tsai Ing-Wen, in a landslide.
Then came the coronavirus, which emptied the factory floors of China, isolated the country and placed a spotlight on the regime’s mishandling of an epidemic.
You might be tempted to count out China, to imagine the regime will become more pliable or weaker after such a string of disasters. As China reels from these setbacks, however, expect Beijing to only double down on aggressive actions to displace U.S. leadership. The centerpiece of China’s strategy? To become the world technology kingpin by seizing global domination of 5G markets.
China correctly sees that 5G is at the commanding heights of the near future, providing near-instantaneous connections that will magnify the power of artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, virtual reality and other civilian, industrial and military technologies. Washington is campaigning with allies and friendly countries to exclude China’s national telecom champion, Huawei, from their 5G networks to keep China’s well-documented surveillance capabilities from extending around the world.
The reply from America’s friends is simple and blunt: “Fine, but where is your alternative?”
While Washington plans for national 5G coverage, and has just approved 280 megahertz for that purpose, China has already deployed more than 500 megahertz of mid-band spectrum for 5G. Beijing has built a national network of 350,000 operable base stations, while we lack a network for national 5G coverage. And China is using the weight of its projected internal market of 100 million subscribers by year’s end to subsidize its international campaign to corner the world 5G market.
The United States did take one bold step toward the future when the FCC approved rules for an auction for mid-band spectrum, C-band, for 5G. But second-level bureaucratic games stymie the needed next step — to free up another segment of spectrum, known as L-band, that can carry large amounts of data, travel far and penetrate walls. With C-band alone, more than 320,000 new cell sites will be needed. Obtaining the needed permits and constructing these base stations could easily take 10 years. The pairing of L-band and C-band, however, would cut deployment time to 18 months, allowing U.S. carriers to utilize 80,000 existing cell sites, while expanding our 5G footprint by four to six times.
Taking this next step should be a no-brainer. But bureaucratic infighting, delay and turf battles have so far won the day. While Washington wallows in indecision, China is moving ahead — coronavirus notwithstanding.
Just two weeks ago, China’s Yunnan province announced it is investing billions to quickly build 200,000 new 5G base stations to fully cover cities and rural parts of that region. As if to show a measure of defiance against Washington’s anti-Huawei campaign, that company announced plans to invest almost a quarter-of-a-billion dollars in building the first phase of a 5G equipment plant in France.
Attorney General William Barr has spoken eloquently of the need for the United States to move with speed to counter China on 5G. He is uniquely qualified to speak on this topic. General Barr is a former Verizon general counsel who holds a Master’s Degree in Chinese studies from Columbia University.
It is easy to see the weakness of an embarrassed regime trying to hide the truth, as China did in following the Soviet Chernobyl playbook by trying to hush up the coronavirus. Barr reminds us of the flip side of authoritarian unity, a dictatorship’s ability to skillfully execute a cleverly conceived plan.
In dealing with regimented adversaries, Barr also offers hope. At critical junctures, he said, free societies “have achieved the unity and purpose necessary to prevail, not because they have been compelled to do so, but because they freely chose to do so. We must make that choice today.”
Washington needs to quickly approve the needed L-band in addition to C-band, and clear every regulatory pathway for innovators to build out national 5G coverage for the United States, with a plan to compete with China in world markets. We must wake up and make that choice today.
Vinh Vuong is the chairman of Vuong Enterprises and President of NXT AI.