Abstract: ‘How long does it take to download a two-hour-long movie in high-definition?’ This question might not make sense once 5G networks are fully operational because the movie will probably download before the sentence is finished. A file that took more than 20 hours to transfer at the beginning of the century will need less than 5 seconds to move from the cloud to a device in a few years from now. That is how fast 5G is and, typically for revolutionary technologies, it will have far-reaching implications, not only for the digital economy but also for security in domestic and international politics. So far, security concerns have been met with protectionist responses and a trade war between the US and China entailing mutual bans of proprietary 5G equipment. The emerging alternative to this zero-sum game is an open and interoperable 5G architecture—called Open RAN—that claims to favour free trade, fair competition, and international cooperation. This paper examines Europe’s possible entanglement in this new Cold War for the digital age.
Introduction: technology, change and the geopolitics of 5G
Technology has long been discussed as a ‘master variable’ in international politics. Advancements in information and communication technology have been also a major source of change in the world. The way individuals, businesses, and states connect and create networks has a transformative effect on the global economy, international organisation, and geopolitics. In the same vein, 5G technology answers to a growing demand for larger bandwidths and faster data traffic, but it also comes with some innovative and disruptive potential.
The vastly increased number of interconnected devices and the sheer speed of data exchange will enable new or boost an existing range of burgeoning technologies, such as automated driving, cloud computing, machine learning, and the Internet of Things (IoT); at the same time, the enhancement of mobile connectivity will enable network architectures that will disrupt digital platforms, social networks, and existing business models.  This in turn will create a whole new level of digital dependencies for individuals, businesses, and states that will provide both opportunities and risks.
As a result, the geopolitics of 5G evolves into a zero-sum game with Cold War undertones between the United States and China: the two sides are making a claim for technological superiority by adopting protectionist policies in an attempt to bar one another from their domestic markets. This technological confrontation between the two rivals and their allies will have profound consequences for international politics at large.
In response to this arrangement, and instead of subscribing to a race for technological sovereignty through trade protectionism, some parts of the 5G industry are calling for an alternative, open, and interoperable network architecture—so-called Open RAN—which promises to ensure network security while respecting the values of free trade, fair competition, and multilateralism in international governance.
Europe has yet to take a firm stance in this debate. There is no common European response on the horizon, and Member States have very different views with varying degrees of urgency attached to the matter. Yet this predicament calls for a common response because it touches upon the issue of European sovereignty, and so it is also linked to the concept of strategic autonomy. Europe is in a good position to avoid entanglement in a new Cold War and at the same time to reap the benefits of revolutionary technology for its internal, increasingly digitised market. Moreover, in the end, Europe’s position within this confrontation not only has the potential to decide the outcome but also to define the values of the future international order that will emerge from it.
5G security and protectionist responses: a Cold War for the digital age?
5G technology is expected to create value across the board; at the same time, however, it is certain to create an equal number of capabilities and vulnerabilities within the network. This potentiality is already affecting national and international security. Technological dependence on 5G creates a range of technical threats, such as ‘backdoors’ that give remote access to information, source coding vulnerable to hacks and other cyberattacks, and others. But in reverse, technological superiority in 5G entails great potential for market penetration and economic dominance, intelligence gathering, sabotage, and foreign influence. In this sense, controlling the supply chain of 5G—from sourcing raw materials to manufacturing equipment or setting up 5G towers—becomes a matter of national security, and 5G equipment manufacturers become national strategic assets.
It is in this context that many countries have grown wary of China’s rise as a technological superpower and its state-owned technological giants that are starting to dominate 5G network development programmes. Achieving global market dominance using protectionist industrial policies is a long-standing Chinese strategy. Recently, the Chinese communist leadership reaffirmed this strategic objective with the announcement of a ‘dual circulation policy’ that aims to boost domestic industrial production, while reducing reliance on foreign technologies. In response, since 2018, several states including the US and the UK have introduced protective measures and imposed restrictions on the use of Chinese technology in their domestic 5G networks, with compulsory bans on equipment manufactured by Huawei and ZTE, among others.
The competition between the US, China, and allies in 5G technology links back to a wider debate about the nature of US–China relations as bipolar rivalry. In this context, the US–China rivalry is framed as a new Cold War, analogous to the US–Soviet confrontation of the twentieth century. Several explanations are given for its origins, including the spectacular rise of China’s economic power that challenges American interests and the resulting confidence and assertiveness of the communist regime that pushes it to call for a revision of the liberal international order. Several factors seem to be at play here, but the acute ideological differences between the US and China, in combination with wider geopolitical dynamics, are definitely among the foremost factors behind this confrontation.
5G competition is usually approached through the prism of this US–China antagonism. As the argument goes, China will use its national champions to dominate the 5G market and every market that will be built on top of it, control the network, and compromise critical infrastructure in the West. In turn, Chinese dominance will displace US interests and ultimately undermine the liberal international order. This is a Cold War fit for the digital age which beckons other international actors to take sides. The only alternative is to agree on an open and interoperable 5G architecture that does not rely on proprietary equipment and thus promises to avoid national dependence on foreign equipment manufacturers.
The (false?) promise of Open RAN
Traditional RAN use proprietary equipment to connect devices to the network. In simple terms, all parts of the 5G network that work together to connect a device to the cloud are manufactured by one and the same company. This architecture guarantees compatibility and operability but is also conducive to the emergence of monopolies, which can ultimately translate into technological dependence. In contrast, Open RAN supports the disaggregation of hardware and software: the operating system may come from company A, microchips from company B, and cells and antennas from company C. An additional layer of virtualisation removes any remaining dependencies on specific hardware suppliers. More than a mere technical matter, this type of network architecture is supposed to alleviate security concerns, reduce the risk of technological dependencies, and change the very nature of the 5G market.
An open and interoperable 5G architecture guarantees that this critical infrastructure will not be dependent (only) on Chinese equipment. The open ecosystem also means that the cost of espionage, hacking, and other cyberthreats will increase, while the efficiency of such threats will necessarily decrease. In economic terms, apart from reducing supplier dependencies, Open RAN can also remove market barriers and open up competition that favours a multi-vendor environment. In turn, the openness of Open RAN’s ecosystem will inevitably drive technological innovation. Finally, the operators’ costs within an Open RAN architecture are likely to be lower than traditional proprietary implementations, and this could contribute to reaching the full potential of 5G to create value. (It is no coincidence that in the aftermath of Huawei bans in some EU countries, a coalition of European telecommunications operators have called for Open RAN.)
Nevertheless, the deployment of an Open RAN ecosystem is expected to bring about significant delays. As far as interoperability across systems, equipment, and networks—which would be necessary for security and efficiency in an Open RAN architecture—Open RAN does not yet seem capable of delivering 5G in Europe and the rest of the world. Interoperability needs a high level of standardisation that is not yet in place, and the success of Open RAN also hinges on the ability of vendors and operators to innovate collaborative solutions and to reduce deployment risks.
Standardisation is, of course, nothing unusual in the field of telecommunications. Indeed, there is already a commitment among different stakeholders to seize the opportunity to create new 5G network standards: the O-RAN Alliance, for instance, is an association promoting an ‘open, intelligent, virtualised, and fully interoperable RAN’; others, like Small Cell Forum (SCF), work on the deployment of mobile connectivity via small cells ‘for organisations of all sizes’. More initiatives to assess interoperability capabilities have recently been tested. However, in the absence of an agreement on technical standardisation between operators, hardware and software manufacturers, and states, Open RAN does not seem to ensure the correct application of interoperability protocols needed to unlock its full potential.
Conceivably, an open and interoperable approach will create a level playing field between big players and SMEs in the sector, potentially resulting in a better segmented market and enhanced (but fair) competition within the EU telecommunications industry. This will act against possible monopolies, as well as prevent each provider from competing only in consideration of its own ambitions or market conditions. However, at the same time, it is possible that an approach to interoperability that is not shared by the various stakeholders and is supported clearly both at the national and European level may result in excessive coordination costs to cover what economies have lost in buying any single component and relying on a single supplier (i.e., traditional RAN).
In short, an open and interoperable 5G marketplace needs a common regulatory framework and interoperability standards that are currently missing. Creating these necessary conditions for interoperability would take a tremendous amount of time, state subsidies, and regulation. If this is the case, the promise of a secure 5G network would be offset by delays in deployment, and the potential for free market principles as guiding norms of the 5G industry would also be eliminated by the necessity for state-enforced standardisation across states, operators, equipment manufacturers, and so forth. In this context, and from a European perspective, the adoption of Open RAN would further postpone an EU launch at the forefront of 5G deployment and would exacerbate existing problems in the connectivity level of the continent.
5G Governance and European Strategic Autonomy
Despite a number of significant European initiatives, EU connectivity targets are hampered by a deeply fragmented market along national and even regional lines. Critical differences exist in the rollout of 5G networks, with more than half of EU Member States not yet being able to offer commercial 5G services. In addition, delaying the deployment of 5G in Europe means that the EU will be outpaced by other regions in the world, risking a competitive disadvantage and a strategic weakness.
The EU is keenly aware of the risks linked to 5G, and there is an ongoing debate about the possibility of coordinated action to ban Huawei across the continent. In the recent past, the Commission has invested significant political capital in developing a Digital Single Market; but so far it has been sitting on the fence of the 5G geopolitical divide between the US and China. It bears noting that the bloc has adopted legislative packages since 2015 concerning, among others, data protection (GDPR), cybersecurity (NIS), and Electronic Communications (EECC) in Member States. The latter are currently implementing the first large-scale rollouts of 5G networks, which are limited to specific geographic areas.
Up to now, EU Member States have had different approaches to banning Chinese 5G equipment manufacturers. Belgium, Denmark, France, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden have explicitly banned them, whereas in Finland, Germany, Portugal, and Spain it remains a distinct possibility even if Chinese companies are not specifically mentioned in their cybersecurity guidance. Other European governments such as Austria, Greece, and Slovenia are still in the process of finalizing their domestic legislation. The EU has already provided general safety guidelines in the form of a 5G security toolbox, which leaves a lot of room for national capitals to manoeuvre. But if history serves, sooner or later the EU might also pursue a continent-wide implementation of 5G technology in Europe, including a coordinated response to the Chinese threat.
Overall, ensuring the integrity of supply chains remains a priority. It is impossible to ignore the threat to national and international security that comes from a single supplier’s potential dominance of 5G equipment and infrastructure. First and foremost, the EU needs to ensure that China does not become a dominant provider of 5G equipment in Europe. This possibility could put China in a position from which it could control the flow of information within Europe’s 5G network that is currently being rolled out across the continent. Such a position could give China the upper hand not only in terms of data flow but also the infrastructure that supports information and communication technologies in Europe. In other words, if China dominates 5G equipment, there is clearly a data concern, as well as a worry that Beijing would then decide when the EU’s infrastructure equipment is going to be delivered—and this would impact on the EU’s ability to roll out technology going forward at its own determined pace.
National security concerns are not unfounded, and China has showed in the past that it will use every technological advantage to increase its influence in Europe. Europe is in fact in a position to pursue its independence in 5G and, at the same time, to speed up 5G deployment to acquire a technological edge in the digital markets. Technology can shape European power, and the European industrial base can live up to this task, as long as there is a common EU industrial policy to support it. In time, such a policy needs to be complemented by other industrial initiatives at the EU level, for example, semiconductor technology and the supply chain which is at the heart of 5G infrastructure, among others. The EU must develop and sustain leadership there, as well, since that is the first link in the security chain.
5G Governance and European Strategic Autonomy
Relying on Chinese state-owned companies for critical infrastructure may be a risk now, but in the long term what is needed are clear rules that will ensure technical standardisation, cooperation, and security. Having clear 5G governance and an industrial policy that includes investments in research and innovation, as soon as possible, will also allow for a solid basis upon which to build the next generations of networks in the near future. This is more than industrial standardisation; it is also an engraving of core EU values in this burgeoning market. Clear 5G governance in Europe could tip the scales towards free trade, fair competition, innovation, and international cooperation. Standardisation will have a huge impact on European industry and the internal market, but it will also reinforce transatlantic relations, as well as promote cooperation with technological (and geopolitical) rivals, which will inevitably lead to greater digitalisation worldwide.
Obviously, this cannot be only a European choice. Setting 5G standards requires international action, supported by a coalition of technologically advanced countries. In addition, the EU’s leadership in standards development also depends on its collaboration with many industry consortiums, such as Open RAN Alliance, Small Cell Forum, TIP, and other efforts under way in which European companies are actively engaged.
Yet Europe can and should assume leadership in ensuring that the ongoing digitalisation of the world will not be hampered by another Cold War entrenchment. The normative power of the European Union has long been debated in academic and policy cycles. More than a theory, it has been examined in practice: the EU has assumed environmental leadership, setting the pace for action against climate change. Similar initiatives can be taken in respect of cyber-diplomacy and setting the pace for a new, digital age of international organisation.
More than the rise of China and its ability to challenge the liberal international order, it is the escalation of the US–China confrontation and the resulting tech war that threatens to unravel the underlying values; but a new Cold War is not inevitable. A firm European response to 5G governance can be a viable alternative to this predicament. The EU’s leadership in setting 5G standards can dampen divisions and pave the way for more international trade and cooperation. In the end, Europe has a clear choice: it becomes either a Cold War theatre once more or a meeting ground for open technological competition, free trade, and prosperity.
If you would like to read more on EU strategic autonomy, feel free to check out this other Future of Europe Journal article on the topic here.
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 It is possible that 6G will be the real revolutionary technology, while 5G is only an intermediary step that—although it will make a huge difference in the industry—will offer very little in terms of consumer services. Nevertheless, the discussion and the main conclusions of this paper remain intact.
 H.H. Sprout (1963), ‘Geopolitical Hypotheses in Technological Perspective’, World Politics, 15, 187–212.
 L. Dudley (1991), The Word and the Sword: How Techniques of Information and Violence Have Shaped Our World (Oxford: Blackwell); R.J. Deibert (1997), Parchment, Printing, and Hypermedia: Communication in World Order Transformation (New York: Columbia University Press).
 P. Khanna (2016), Connectography. Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (New York: Random House).
 S.K. Rao and R. Prasad (2018), ‘Impact of 5G Technologies on Industry 4.0’, Wireless Personal Communications, 100(1), 145–159; D. Soldani and A. Manzalini (2015), ‘Horizon 2020 and Beyond: On the 5G Operating System for a True Digital Society’, IEEE Vehicular Technology Magazine, 10(1), 32–42; F. Boccardi, R.W. Heath, A. Lozano, T.L. Marzetta, and P. Popovski (2014), ‘Five Disruptive Technology Directions for 5G’, IEEE Communications Magazine, 52(2), 74–80.
 C.H. Kwan (2020), ‘The China–US Trade War: Deep‐Rooted Causes, Shifting Focus and Uncertain Prospects’, Asian Economic Policy Review, 15(1), 55–72.
 A. Rejeb and J.G. Keogh (2021), ‘5G Networks in the Value Chain’, Wireless Personal Communications, 117(2), 1577–1599.
 X. Ji, K. Huang, L. Jin, H. Tang, C. Liu, Z. Zhong, … and M. Yi (2018), ‘Overview of 5G Security Technology’, Science China Information Sciences, 61(8), 1–25; I. Ahmad, T. Kumar, M. Liyanage, J. Okwuibe, M. Ylianttila, and A. Gurtov (2018), ‘Overview of 5G Security Challenges and Solutions’, IEEE Communications Standards Magazine, 2(1), 36–43.
 T. Rühlig and M. Björk (2020), ‘What to make of the Huawei debate? 5G network security and technology dependency in Europe’, UI Paper, Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
 K. Kaska, H. Beckvard, and T. Minarik (2019), ‘Huawei, 5G and China as a security threat’, NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Center for Excellence (CCDCOE), 28.
 T.A. Hemphill and G.O. White III (2013), ‘China’s National Champions: The Evolution of a National Industrial Policy – Or a New Era of Economic Protectionism?’, Thunderbird International Business Review, 55(2), 193–212.
 J.Y. Lin and X. Wang (2021), ‘Dual Circulation: A New Structural Economics View of Development’, Journal of Chinese Economic and Business Studies, 1–20.
 Kaska, Beckvard, and Minarik, ‘Huawei, 5G and China as a security threat’, 15–18.
 Y.F. Khong (2019), ‘The US, China, and the Cold War Analogy’, China International Strategy Review, 1(2), 223–237.
 The literature is divided on the issue of China’s rise as a threat to the liberal international order. See, for example: Z. Bijan (2005), ‘China’s Peaceful Rise to Great-Power Status’, Foreign Affairs, 84, 18; H.W.C. Yeung and W. Liu (2008), ‘Globalizing China: The Rise of Mainland Firms in the Global Economy’, Eurasian Geography and Economics, 49(1), 57–86; M. Li (2008), The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy (New York: NYU Press); A.I. Johnston (2003), ‘Is China a Status Quo Power?’, International Security, 27(4), 5–56; F. Huiyun (2009), ‘Is China a Revisionist Power?’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2(3), 313–334.
 C. Edel and H. Brands (2019), ‘The real origins of the US-China Cold War’, Foreign Policy, 2 June, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/02/the-real-origins-of-the-u-s-china-cold-war-big-think-communism/.
 Y. Xuetong (2020), ‘Bipolar Rivalry in the Early Digital Age’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 13(3), 313–341.
 Deutsche Telekom AG, Orange S.A., Telefónica S.A., and Vodafone Group Plc (2021), ‘Memorandum of Understanding on the implementation of OPEN RAN based networks in Europe” 18 January, https://www.orange.com/sites/orangecom/files/2021-01/Memorandum of Understanding Open RAN.PDF.
 Samsung (2020), ‘Overcoming challenges of multi-vendor Open RAN’, White Paper, 6 February, https://images.samsung.com/is/content/samsung/p5/global/business/networks/insights/white-paper/mvoran-challenges/Samsung-MVoRAN-Challenges-Whitepaper.pdfRAN.
 O-RAN Alliance (2020), ‘Second global O-RAN ALLIANCE Plugfest’, Press Release, September, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5ad774cce74940d7115044b0/t/5f88ac86a861db37b8f7df78/1602792591334/O-RAN-2020.10.15-PR-2nd-O-RAN-Plugfest-v1.0.pdf.
 H. Lee-Makiyama (2021), ‘Subsidising Balkanisation: What China’s 3G subsidies teach us about 5G Open RAN’, ECIPE Policy Brief, October.
 See: European Commission (2019), ‘A report on the EU coordinated risk assessment on cybersecurity in fifth generation (5G) networks’, Brussels; Rühlig and Björk, ‘What to make of the Huawei debate?’
 See: European Commission (2015), ‘A digital single market strategy for Europe’, COM(2015) 192 final, Brussels, 6 May.
 European Commission (2016), ‘Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2016/2286 of 15 December 2016 laying down detailed rules on the application of fair use policy and on the methodology for assessing the sustainability of the abolition of retail roaming surcharges and on the application to be submitted by a roaming provider for the purposes of that assessment’, Official Journal L344/46, 17 December; European Parliament (2016), ‘Regulation (EU) 2016/679 of 27 April 2016 on the protection of natural persons with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, and repealing Directive 95/46/EC of 14 April 2016 (General Data Protection Regulation)’, Official Journal L119/1, 4 May; European Parliament (2018), ‘Directive (EU) 2018/1972 of 11 December 2018 establishing the European Electronic Communication Code’, Official Journal L 321/36, 17 December.
 European Commission (2021), ‘Cybersecurity of 5G networks – EU toolbox of risk mitigating measures’, NIS Cooperation Group, CG Publication, 1/2021
 A. Nestoras and R. Cirju (2021), ‘The rise of China in the information domain? Measuring Chinese influence in Europe during the Covid-19 pandemic’, ELF Policy Paper, July, Brussels: European Liberal Forum.
 U. Franke and J.I. Torreblanca (2021), ‘Geo-tech-politics: Why technology shapes European power’, ECFR Policy Brief,15 July.
 P. Timmers (2020), ‘There Will Be No Global 6G Unless We Resolve Sovereignty Concerns in 5G Governance’, Nature Electronics, 3(1), 10–12.
 See, for example: G7 United Kingdom 2021, ‘Ministerial Declaration’ from the G7 Digital and Technology Ministers’ meeting of 28 April 2021, 2–3.
 See, for example: I. Manners (2002), ‘Normative Power Europe: A Contradiction in Terms?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 40(2), 235–258.
 See: J. Vogler and C. Bretherton (2006), ‘The European Union as a Protagonist to the United States on Climate Change’, International Studies Perspectives, 7(1), 1–22; S. Lightfoot and J. Burchell (2005), ‘The European Union and the World Summit on Sustainable Development: Normative Power Europe in Action?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 43(1), 75–95.
 A. Barrinha and T. Renard (2017), ‘Cyber-Diplomacy: The Making of an International Society in the Digital Age’, Global Affairs, 3(4–5), 353–364.
 Kwan, ‘The China–US Trade War’.
 M. Zhao (2019), ‘Is a New Cold War Inevitable? Chinese Perspectives on US–China Strategic Competition’, The Chinese Journal of International Politics, 12(3), 371–394.
 J. Seaman (2020), ‘China and the new geopolitics of technical standardization’, Notes de l’Ifri, Institute Français des Relations Internationales.