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The Prague Proposals, and America’s Scramble for Technological Sovereignty

May 28, 2019
  • Tian Feilong

    Associate Professor, the Law School of Beihang University

On May 2 and 3, at the Prague 5G Security Conference, 32 Western nations passed a non-binding position document widely referred to as the Prague proposals. Their basic framework reflects core US concerns: due to global deployment of Chinese network technology, especially Huawei's 5G tech, a regulatory regime featuring coordinated positions as well as strict and clear legal criteria must be established, so as to prevent China from establishing technological dominance in Western countries. The document emphasizes that countries need to maintain the highest level of confidence in the reliability and safety of 5G networks, because such a structure will profoundly influence network security in Western nations.

The document didn't directly call out any specific country by name, but explicitly asks participating countries to conduct comprehensive scrutiny of suppliers' technological foundations and political connections when purchasing “third-party equipment", thus “politicizing” technological examinations. If countries make or revise domestic laws on investment review in accordance with the proposals, it will be very difficult for Huawei to qualify based solely on its technological advantages. Though Huawei is a private firm, and there is no evidence it has cooperated with Chinese military or diplomatic authorities, it confronts a red line: it is Chinese, and therefore pre-judged and assumed to be guilty. Such non-market-based, discriminative judgment and treatment is not only unfair to Huawei, but may also seriously harm free trade and cooperation in the global market, even harming the WTO regime. The Prague proposals—based on insufficient evidence, aiming at containment, and driven by the “clash of civilizations” narrative—have actually resulted in further retreat from globalization, and will have lasting impacts on global development of 5G networks, setting back the realization of Internet technology’s universal benefits.

This document is an important symbol of the China-US "trade war" becoming a "tech war." Recently the US has kept China on its toes with unprecedented strategic anxiety and resentment, constantly making threatening noises, and making every effort to press for collective actions by its allies. The US is keenly aware that the high tech sector constitutes the core of its global hegemony. Without absolute control over global network security, it will be impossible for the US to maintain maximum access to core information about its allies and developing nations outside its direct influence, which will in turn make it difficult for the US to exert precise control over political and cultural elites in those countries and take countermoves in their decision-making. If Huawei’s 5G systems take the place of US technologies, it may disrupt US surveillance over its alliance system, thus weakening its transnational regulatory sovereignty—which is the ultimate source of deep fear in the heart of America’s political elites.

Not all US allies are willingly accepting its "security lobbying." The US had anticipated reaching a legally-binding formal agreement at the Prague meeting, but failed mainly because participating countries had yet to build forceful domestic consensus on their respective 5G plans. Were they simply to give in to US strategic pressure, they might not only have faced frustration in domestic legislative proceedings, but even negatively affected 5G network building at home and their country's technological competitiveness in the long run.

The participating nations' worries are understandable: on the one hand is the systematic pressure from the US, which has even threatened to downgrade or stop intelligence sharing; on the other hand is Huawei's technological advantages, which are attractive both economically and technologically. The core concern of participating nations, the US excepted, is whether or not to team up with the US and give up the priority status for 5G development and competitive advantages. No country but the US has the comprehensive strategy and will to contain China. They are open to either Chinese or US solutions. Many participating countries are already cooperating with Huawei in implementing 5G, and can't completely terminate the process. The main victims of the “tech war” will be these countries and their people.

This raises a key point: global hegemony must be based on serving the global public good — if the US can't continue providing such service, its hegemony will lose legitimacy. This is a principle of basic justice and logic. US global hegemony is facing disintegration from two forms of internal pressure: first, the Trumpist "America First" movement has undermined the moral basis of US hegemony on both foundational and structural levels, prompting a retreat from serving the public good; second, a serious gap has emerged in the chain of US technological sovereignty, as it is no longer a leader in 5G technologies. When US hegemony is only composed of "power" based on military might, its hegemony must already be dissolving rapidly. The Prague proposals can't make up for America’s "hegemonic deficits" and the structural decline of its capacity for providing global services. China, for its part, needs to proceed from a position of justice, providing global services while making continuous, steady, down-to-earth efforts to perfect its technologies. China can use the Prague proposals as an opportunity for further optimizing its technological sovereignty, resolving the current crisis, and expanding its technological cooperation. For Chinese tech, prospects remain bright.

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