5G Is Where China and the West Finally Diverge

The rollout of speedy new cellular networks is a geopolitical turning point, but neither Trump nor the public yet recognizes this.

The rollout of fifth-generation cellular networks around the world will likely be a defining geopolitical dilemma of 2020. But American and European consumers could easily mistake 5G for just another marketing ploy for early adopters—to the detriment of democracies worldwide.

When the number in the corner of our smartphone screens changed from 3G to 4G, few of us even noticed. Ditto when LTE, another step in the evolution of cellular networks, appeared as an alternative to 4G. Still, for the better part of the past two years, wireless carriers on both sides of the Atlantic have been hyping 5G—which, they promise, will offer data speeds of up to 100 times faster than current connections. Tech futurists say fifth-generation networks will support a plethora of internet-connected sensors, vehicles, appliances, and other devices that will perform functions yet unimagined.

In Europe, the walls of nearly every major airport from Stockholm and Brussels to Lisbon and Madrid have been plastered with 5G-related ads. In the United States, network providers such as AT&T have even rolled out what they’re calling “5GE” networks—a pre-5G deployment that capitalizes on the vaguely futuristic branding of fifth-generation networks even before all the requisite new radios and chipsets have been installed. Still, 7 of 10 Americans tell PricewaterhouseCoopers they’ll wait patiently to receive a 5G device until they are eligible for an upgrade from their current provider.

Amid this much public indifference, 5G may seem like an unlikely battleground between China and the West. Yet the transition to 5G may mark the point, after decades of Chinese integration into a globalized economy, when Beijing’s interests diverge irreconcilably from those of the United States, the European Union, and their democratic peers. Because of a failure of imagination, Western powers risk capitulating in what has become a critical geopolitical arena. Simply put, neither the American nor the European public seems to view the networks that supply Snapchat clips and Uber cars as anything close to a security threat.

Some of the world’s leading telecom-equipment manufacturers, including Huawei and ZTE, are Chinese companies with murky ownership structures and close ties to China’s authoritarian one-party government. Many in the U.S. national-security establishment rightly fear that equipment made by these companies could allow Beijing to siphon off sensitive personal or corporate data. Or it could use well-concealed kill switches to cripple Western telecom systems during an active war. The mere threat of this activity would endow China’s leadership with geopolitical leverage at all times.

This is why Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently exhorted EU allies not to “trust Chinese firms with critical networks.” China has fought back, threatening to scuttle a trade deal with Denmark’s Faroe Islands and, more recently, to retaliate against the German auto industry should European officials bar the use of Huawei equipment in 5G networks.

The framing of 5G primarily as a consumer-technology matter works to China’s benefit. “Choose 5G,” proclaimed one ad in the Brussels airport—part of a campaign that presents a false choice between Huawei and the 4G status quo. A focus on tech alone would also suit U.S. and EU telecom operators eager to deliver faster speeds while minimizing their own costs. The Huawei equipment they buy is typically cheaper than the gear produced by the three suppliers based in democratic countries—the European firms Ericsson and Nokia and South Korea’s Samsung.

Meanwhile, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic, from European economics ministers to President Donald Trump, have viewed the 5G dispute first as a trade issue. Even as the Trump administration has taken steps, as The New York Times has described it, to “block China’s national telecommunications champion, Huawei, from operating in the United States and starve it of American technology as it builds networks around the globe,” the president has also hinted at a willingness to waive restrictions in exchange for economic concessions from China. In 2018, Trump backed down from national-security sanctions against ZTE as a sweetener in his trade negotiations with Xi Jinping.

Against these attitudes, Pompeo and others sounding alarms about Huawei can be perfunctorily dismissed as protectionists, xenophobes, or military hawks. The American secretary of state has become a particular target of criticism in China, where government officials and the media have described him as a font of “lies and fallacies” and a “Cold War warrior.”

Yet the West has ample reason for caution about Chinese 5G suppliers. For one, the recent Chinese National Intelligence Law requires these companies to comply with Communist Party demands to turn over data or otherwise engage in snooping or network-disruption activities. Party-backed actors in China’s public and private sectors also have a long record of cyberattacks on the West, including stealing intellectual property from companies and sensitive personal information on citizens.

The case against Huawei isn’t just guilt by association. The company itself is suspected of committing blatant corporate espionage: A Justice Department indictment from early 2019 cited highly specific demands by Huawei headquarters in China for information from engineers embedded in T-Mobile’s facility in Bellevue, Washington. An email exchange exposed Huawei’s pressure on employees in the field to steal even guarded equipment and trade secrets; according to the Justice Department, a bonus program offered rewards for the most valuable information stolen. One Huawei employee, the U.S. government alleges, literally walked out the door with a proprietary robotic arm in his bag.

And recent revelations about how China’s ruling party exploits the full panoply of personal information it has amassed about its citizens—facial-recognition images, mandatory DNA samples, 24-hour GPS coordinates, and search-history and online-activity tracking, as well as plain old eavesdropping—to quash religious freedom and basic rights should give major pause to Western governments and wireless carriers alike.

While Pompeo’s State Department has been pressing its case at one international forum to the next, his message has been met with some skepticism in Europe. Simply to acknowledge 5G as a security threat invites headaches that EU governments and telecom carriers would rather not contemplate. Ripping out Chinese gear would be a massive financial and logistical undertaking.

European regulators are used to viewing the American tech industry as a rival, and they bristle today at taking direction from Washington. And despite the fact that two 5G suppliers are European, and EU officials have argued for “technological sovereignty”—a term most reasonably construed to mean technological independence from the United States—member nations have not yet settled on a joint policy.

On top of that, the EU single market prides itself on principles of fair competition and an unwillingness to favor or reject a company because of its national origin, especially when its products are competitive, as Huawei’s are, on metrics such as price. The irony in this approach, of course, is that the Chinese state has subsidized efforts by Huawei to undercut its European and South Korean competitors, not least because of the possibility of obtaining geopolitical leverage. The Wall Street Journal estimated recently that as much as $75 billion in state support fueled Huawei’s rise. The failure to see 5G beyond the consumer lens is also a failure to understand Chinese companies as implements of state power as much as private entities in their own right.

The dispute over 5G isn’t the first time in recent history that economic infrastructure matters have overlapped with geopolitics in unhealthy ways. Nor is it the first time that overlap has caused problems for the transatlantic relationship. The European energy sector has long relied on cheap natural gas piped in from Russia, and deregulation has allowed Russia’s state-owned gas company, Gazprom, to buy or build a large share of the infrastructure used to transport and distribute it. American policymakers have implored European leaders to diversify their energy sources, for fear of increased dependence on an authoritarian Russia. These warnings are often dismissed as self-serving, since American energy firms compete with Gazprom for European business.

The Trump administration’s mixed messaging on 5G lends credence to the cynical view that the United States is not serious about China as a national-security threat but regards it mostly as an economic competitor. (Never mind that U.S. telecom firms do not compete with Huawei on 5G equipment.) And the president’s trade threats against Europe—targeting products as varied as cheese, whiskey, and airplane fuselages—are not helping. Such positions prioritize trade conflicts over common security interests and alienate allies that the United States needs.

Even as Pompeo and others in the Trump administration warn against Huawei, European policymakers don’t know if Trump is serious about 5G as a national-security problem or planning to trade away the issue in exchange for the reduction in Chinese tariffs against U.S. farm products. But they do think he is serious about tariffs on them. They see trade as the one issue on which Trump has been consistent from the start of his presidential campaign.

The United States can work with its European partners to reduce geopolitical dependence on China and protect privacy and human rights in a data-centered age. But that will require Western policymakers and the public alike to conceive of 5G as something more than a consumer issue or a trade issue and devise a shared solution to protect the networks whose importance in our lives will only grow.


Congress whiffs on war powers

There are 99 better, or at least less abject, senators. However, Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is inadvertently useful by incessantly demonstrating the depths to which senators sink when they jettison institutional responsibilities to facilitate subservience to presidents of their party. Consider the contrast between Graham and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) concerning Congress’s responsibilities regarding war.

Last Wednesday, administration officials, in what they evidently considered an optional concession to inferiors, gave a short (75 minutes), closed-door congressional briefing on military action against supposedly imminent threats from Iran. Presidential freedom to unilaterally commit acts of war unrelated to imminent threats would amount to an uncircumscribed power to undertake not just limited preemptive actions but to wage preventive war whenever a president unilaterally decides this might enhance national security.

Lee is famously mild-mannered but wasn’t after what he called an “insulting and demeaning” briefing in which executive branch officials instructed Congress concerning what it can debate: The briefers, who included Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, warned that making military action subject to congressional authorization might encourage Iranian aggression. Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.) asked whether, if the administration decided to take the extreme action of assassinating Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, it would at least notify Congress. The briefers would not say so.

Congress last declared war on June 5, 1942, against Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, with a war already raging. This was 78 years and many wars ago. A power neglected, like a muscle never exercised, atrophies. Now, Graham explicitly says that even debating, not a declaration of war but merely the wisdom of past military actions and necessary authorization for future ones, means “empowering the enemy.”

Last April, Pompeo was asked during a Senate hearing: Is the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda and other nonstate actors responsible for 9/11 sufficient authorization for the president to wage war more than 18 years later against Iran? Pompeo laconically said he would prefer to “leave that to lawyers” — presumably those he employs.

With a few exemplary exceptions, notably Sen. Tim Kaine (Va.), congressional Democrats, too, have been situational ethicists about their responsibilities regarding war. The Obama administration’s shambolic intervention in Libya’s civil war, the costs of which are still mounting, proceeded unaccompanied by congressional authorization but swaddled in executive branch sophistries. Barack Obama’s Justice Department vigorously defended what no one denied — that presidents may initiate military action without congressional approval. The issue, however, was that the administration, which had said the intervention would last “days, not weeks,” then said that thousands of airstrikes, which caused numerous casualties over seven months and had the intended result of regime change, did not constitute “hostilities.”

Wednesday’s briefing caused Lee to endorse Kaine’s proposal to direct the president to stop engaging in hostilities against Iran or any portion of its government or military unless continuation is explicitly authorized by a congressional declaration of war or other authorization of force. Senate passage of this would take Democratic unanimity and two more Republicans joining Lee and Kentucky’s Rand Paul in supporting it. The House presumably would concur. Though Senate Republicans would subsequently sustain a presidential veto, virtues are habits, and this exercise might be the beginning of congressional involvement in decisions about war and peace becoming habitual.

Presidential discretion is presumptively greatest regarding foreign relations. And many aspects of the modern age — weapons of mass destruction; the swift, perhaps surreptitious and potentially intercontinental delivery of such weapons; the multiplication of violent nonstate actors — have radically altered the context in which the framers’ spare language in the Constitution’s pertinent provisions must be construed: The Congress has the power “to declare war” (also to “raise and support armies” and “maintain a navy”); the president is commander in chief of the armed forces.

Concerning limits on presidential discretion, there is a large gray area. However, the activity of unilaterally preventive wars is not in it.

Coons asked the briefers this: Suppose that in coming months the administration concludes that Iran, having shed the nuclear agreement’s constraints, is about to acquire a nuclear weapon. Would you need authorization from Congress prior to strikes meant to prevent this? The briefers would not agree even to consultation with Congress, though Coons several times restated and narrowed the question. Congress should not be surprised when the executive branch takes Congress’s responsibilities regarding war no more seriously than Congress does.

Read more from George F. Will’s archive or follow him on Facebook.

Read more:

U.S. conflict with Iran: What you need to read

Updated January 10, 2020

Here’s what you need to know to understand what this moment means in U.S.-Iran relations.

What happened: President Trump ordered a drone strike near the Baghdad airport, killing Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s most powerful military commander and leader of its special-operations forces abroad.

Who was Soleimani: As the leader of the Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, Soleimani was key in supporting and coordinating with Iran’s allies across the region, especially in Iraq. Soleimani’s influence was imprinted on various Shiite militias that fought U.S. troops.

How we got here: Tensions had been escalating between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled out of an Obama-era nuclear deal, and they spiked shortly before the airstrike. The strikes that killed Soleimani were carried out after the death of a U.S. contractor in a rocket attack against a military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, that the United States blamed on Kataib Hezbollah, an Iran-backed militia.

What happens next: Iran responded to Soleimani’s death by launching missile strikes at two bases hosting U.S. forces in Iraq. No casualties were reported. In an address to the nation, Trump announced that new sanctions will be imposed on Tehran.

Ask a question: What do you want to know about the strike and its aftermath? Submit a question to Post reporters.

Pompeo Upended Middle East by Pushing Trump to Kill Iranian General

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is struggling to manage the widening fallout from the drone strike on Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani.

WASHINGTON — Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was the loudest voice in the administration pushing President Trump to kill Iran’s most important general. This week, he is back in his role as the nation’s top diplomat, trying to contain the international crisis the general’s death created.

True to form, Mr. Pompeo is not backing down. “You saw, more tactically, just these last few days the president’s response when the Iranians made a bad decision to kill an American,” he told reporters at the State Department on Tuesday, referring to a deadly rocket attack in Iraq on Dec. 27 by an Iran-backed militia. “We hope they won’t make another bad decision just like that one.”

The strike against the Iranian general has affirmed Mr. Pompeo’s position as the second-most powerful official in the Trump administration, behind only the president himself. A hawk brimming with bravado and ambition, Mr. Pompeo is ostensibly the cabinet member who smooths America’s relations with the rest of the world.

But as the man at the center of the argument to launch the drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani — and who pushed Mr. Trump to withdraw from the landmark Iran nuclear deal in 2018 — he is in the unusual role of shaping national security policy that makes his diplomatic job harder.

“Pompeo’s end run got the decision he may have wanted, but the messy day after —

  • sloppy explanations of the threat,
  • disorganized public statements, and
  • hasty diplomatic and military efforts —

limited the effectiveness of the policy and made it far riskier for the country and president,” said John Gans, a former chief speechwriter at the Pentagon and author of a new book on the National Security Council, which includes Mr. Pompeo.

Congress is demanding that Mr. Pompeo and other senior administration officials testify about the intelligence that led to the decision to blow up General Suleimani’s convoy on Friday as it was leaving Baghdad International Airport.

Here’s how the situation developed over the last two weeks.

And as Iran begins retaliating aggressively, Mr. Pompeo, 56, could become known as the man who helped lead the United States into another conflict in the Middle East — breaking one of Mr. Trump’s key campaign promises just as the president faces re-election. Early Wednesday, Iran launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq that house American troops, the Pentagon said.

“I think Secretary Pompeo is playing a rather naïve and destructive role in all this,” said Wendy R. Sherman, who was the third-ranking State Department official in the Obama administration and helped negotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and other countries from which the United States withdrew just days after Mr. Pompeo arrived at the State Department.

Mr. Pompeo said he and other Americans officials “evaluated the relevant risks” that the strike against General Suleimani might bring. He cited “continuing efforts on behalf of this terrorist to build out a network of campaign activities that were going to lead potentially to the death of many more Americans.”

In the fall, during the impeachment inquiry, Mr. Pompeo’s standing plummeted among career employees at the State Department, Democrats in Congress and much of the public, when it became obvious he had enabled Mr. Trump’s shadow Ukraine policy. He also lost some of Mr. Trump’s confidence after failing to prevent veteran diplomats from testifying on Capitol Hill.

The Iran crisis presents similar risks for Mr. Pompeo, who considered running this year for an open Senate seat in Kansas. His associates say he now has an eye on a presidential campaign in 2024.

The upheaval is unfolding at a pace that Mr. Trump and top aides never expected, officials said.

Millions of Iranians have taken to the streets to protest General Suleimani’s killing — a drastic change from only weeks ago, when demonstrators were denouncing the rulers in Tehran. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, told officials that any retaliation should be direct, proportional and carried out by Iran itself.

European allies have expressed anger to Mr. Pompeo over the strike, which they were not told about in advance.

And Mr. Pompeo has been unable to convince Iraq’s government that the United States remains a reliable partner. Its parliament, furious at what Iraqi officials call a violation of their sovereignty, voted Sunday to expel more than 5,000 American troops from the country.

Diplomats and other American employees at the United States Embassy in Baghdad remain on high alert, with some heading by airplane to the safety of the American Consulate in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The Pentagon has added 4,500 troops to some 50,000 who were already in the region, and the British Navy deployed two warships to the Persian Gulf.

American embassies around the world are warning American citizens to stay alert to potential dangers — an action that undermines the administration line that the killing of General Suleimani made Americans safer.

The security of State Department personnel abroad is a big potential political liability both for Mr. Pompeo, who played a leading role in the House Benghazi inquiry as a Republican congressman from Kansas, and for Mr. Trump.

Both men excoriated Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state who ran for president against Mr. Trump, for the 2012 deaths of four Americans, including an ambassador, in an attack against a diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. As director of the C.I.A. and then secretary of state, Mr. Pompeo has warned his subordinates that he does not want to see “any Benghazis.”

Mr. Trump and Mr. Pompeo were outraged by images of pro-Iran protesters in Baghdad on Dec. 31 attacking buildings at the United States Embassy, though no Americans were injured.

A senior administration official said a severe but unspecified threat against the embassy was the reason that Mr. Trump made the decision to kill General Suleimani.

Yet no major attack against the sprawling and heavily-fortified diplomatic compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone is “imminent,” even though Mr. Pompeo has asserted that repeatedly, said the official, who discussed administration deliberations only on the condition of anonymity. Some Pentagon officials had said earlier that there was no intelligence revealing any unusual threats.

On Tuesday, Mr. Pompeo did not repeat his assertions that the United States had intelligence about an “imminent” attack and instead pointed to recent violent episodes.

“If you’re looking for imminence, you need look no further than the days that led up to the strike that was taken against Suleimani,” Mr. Pompeo said, apparently referring to the rocket attack by an Iranian-backed militia that killed an American interpreter, Nawres Hamid, in Iraq on Dec. 27. The Americans then carried out airstrikes that killed 25 militiamen, which led to protests by mostly Iranian-backed militiamen inside the American Embassy compound in Baghdad.

American officials say that over the last two months, there have been 11 attacks by Iran-backed militias on bases in Iraq where American service members, diplomats and contractors work.

Critics say Mr. Pompeo, the only surviving member of the president’s original foreign policy team, is a chief architect of the rising tensions between the United States and Iran.

As Mr. Trump’s first C.I.A. director, he created a special center to deal with Iran, appointing as its head Michael D’Andrea, a veteran officer and convert to Islam known as the Dark Prince, who oversaw the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the drone strike campaign in the Middle East and Central Asia.

In December 2017, Mr. Pompeo said he had sent a letter to General Suleimani warning him against attacking American forces in Iraq. The general had helped plan deadly attacks on American troops in Iraq during the mid-2000s. When he received the letter, Mr. Suleimani was in Syria guiding a campaign against the Islamic State — which meant he was nominally on the same side in that fight as the Americans.

Days after becoming secretary of state in 2018, Mr. Pompeo pushed Mr. Trump to withdraw from the nuclear agreement and reimpose strict sanctions on Iran. He has nurtured closer partnerships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, enemies of Iran that sometimes have agendas that run counter to American interests.

In April, he advised Mr. Trump to designate as a foreign terrorist organization the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, an arm of the Iranian military that includes General Suleimani’s elite Quds Force. It was the first time the United States had applied that label to a part of another government.

And after the Dec. 31 breach of the American Embassy in Baghdad, Mr. Pompeo pushed for the strike against Mr. Suleimani, which Defense Department officials had presented to Mr. Trump as an extreme and not particularly palatable option only days earlier.

Yet Mr. Pompeo’s hawkish role on Iran could increase his support in a Republican establishment that has long wanted the United States to adopt more aggressive policies toward Tehran, with some advocating leadership change against the ayatollahs.

A notable voter base — conservative supporters of Israel, including white evangelical Christians like Mr. Pompeo — promotes hard-line actions against Iran. They denounced the 2015 nuclear deal as appeasement. Last year, on a trip to Israel, Mr. Pompeo invoked the Bible in saying Mr. Trump was a modern-day Queen Esther sent by God to save the Jews from Iran.

Since Friday, Mr. Pompeo has spoken on the phone with senior officials and leaders in Europe, the Middle East and Asia to explain the United States’ need for defensive actions and, in some cases, stress that Washington wanted de-escalation. The United States also sent a message to Tehran on Friday through a Swiss diplomat, a senior administration official said.

In a joint statement issued Sunday, the leaders of Britain, France and Germany condemned Iran for its “negative role” in the Middle East but also described “an urgent need for de-escalation.”