Michael Morell, a Post contributing columnist, is a former deputy director and twice acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency. David Kris is a former assistant attorney general for national security and co-founder of Culper Partners consulting firm.
The United States is in an escalating technological cold war with China. It’s not centered on tariffs and trade, which President Trump often cites; instead, it involves both China’s use of technology to steal information and the theft of technology itself.
There have already been casualties in this cold war in both the U.S. government and the private sector — including Beijing’s hack into the computer system of the Office of Personnel Management to steal security-clearance applications of U.S. government employees and, more recently, a breach of the Marriott hotel chain’s reservation system. As highlighted in recent indictments and a new “China Initiative” from the Justice Department, we have also seen the theft of significant amounts of technology itself.
The stakes are high. Earlier this week, a senior FBI official told the Senate Judiciary Committee that China’s “economic aggression, including its relentless theft of U.S. assets, is positioning [it] to supplant us as the world’s superpower.”
Chinese wireless equipment company Huawei is a major player in this cold war. Since 2012, the United States has publicly treated Huawei as a threat to U.S. national security, citing the risk associated with allowing its hardware into U.S. communications networks : that the Chinese government will use it as an espionage platform. More recently, other nations have begun to share that concern, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Britain, and possibly Canada (which recently arrested Huawei’s chief financial officer at the United States’ behest, apparently for conduct relating to U.S. trade sanctions against Iran).
Huawei is heavily investing in the next generation of wireless technology — known as 5G — where an ongoing race for supremacy significantly raises the stakes and should concern us all. This is true for at least three reasons.
First, 5G will dramatically increase the speed of wireless communications, allowing users to, for example, download a movie in a few seconds. It is possible to imagine wireless set-top boxes delivering content to home televisions without a wired or fiber connection. There will be more mobile data, flowing faster than ever before, across 5G networks. Those who control those networks, either through hardware or software, will control access to that data — and they would be able to steal massive amounts of information over very short amounts of time.
Second, 5G networks promise much shorter latency and higher reliability. Where prior generations of mobile technology focused mainly on connecting people, 5G is particularly suitable for connecting things, offering applications in collision avoidance, smart metering and other mission-critical functions. Control of 5G networks could, therefore, enable not just espionage but sabotage, as well. The head of Australia’s military cyberdefense agency recently noted that 5G significantly raises the risk that critical infrastructure could be brought down in a cyberattack.
Third, choices made among competing 5G standards will affect who has the best understanding of how the technology is implemented — whether in silicon, software, network infrastructure or the cloud. Whoever has the best understanding will have a significant head start economically, in cybersecurity and in signals intelligence — i.e., in promoting its economy, protecting its secrets and stealing those of its rivals.
Huawei is certainly not the only Chinese company involved in this technological cold war. ZTE was also identified as a national security risk in 2012, and the telecommunications company has engaged in significant misconduct since then. There are also several smaller original equipment manufacturers in China, with names like Oppo and Xiaomi, that sell a large number of handsets and aspire to expand into Europe and beyond. We need to be wary of them all.
Just last month, the statutorially created U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission reported to Congress that the Chinese government may “force Chinese suppliers or manufacturers to modify products to perform below expectations or fail, facilitate state or corporate espionage, or otherwise compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of [Internet of Things] devices or 5G network equipment.” That is a sobering consideration, especially when public-private partnerships in the United States are in a period of relative ebb.
There may not be an end to this technological cold war anytime soon, but it is vital for our national security that we not cede the field. It is also vital that we win the battle for 5G. To do that, we need not only sound economic and technological policies but also the best statesmanship, diplomacy, intelligence and law enforcement.