14 October 2022

Web of influence: how China’s digital ambitions threaten our security


For those who have been tracking the global growth of China’s digital reach, the message from the head of GCHQ this week was a very welcome development. In an unprecedented speech, Sir Jeremy Fleming warned that Beijing was looking to export its technology around the world to create ‘client economies and governments’ beholden to China for their technological needs.

Sir Jeremy’s comments gave renewed vigour to concerns that have been raised repeatedly in recent years. There is no doubt China is using its technology as a means of expanding its influence, not just in emerging fields like artificial intelligence and robotics, but also in the ‘digital infrastructure’ that underpins the modern economy – everything from broadband to mobile data, data centres and cloud computing. 

This digital plumbing is crucial not just to businesses, but almost every corner of government. The emergency services rely on these networks to run their operations, as does the military. Transport will soon be dominated by autonomous vehicles, which will need continuous connectivity to work, and education and health both rely heavily on digital tech – a fact that was thrown into sharp relief during the pandemic. You won’t find many areas where a country’s present or future doesn’t have a strong digital component.

Unfortunately, digital infrastructure is not values-neutral. All technology runs on a set of standards, which are generally set by groupings of industry-leading companies and international industry associations. Historically these have been led either by the US, or by US allies such as the UK, the EU and Japan, and as such have facilitated an often unwitting adoption of American values. The internet, for instance, is rooted in the Californian counter-culture of the 1960s and 70s, with its aim being to ‘flatten organizations, globalise society, decentralise control, and help harmonise people’ according to one early internet pioneer.

An internet based on these principles was never going to sit easily with China’s centralised, authoritarian system. Indeed, the ‘Great Firewall of China’ was set up to give the Chinese government control over a totally different version of the internet to that which has developed in the West. By controlling what can be accessed online, the Communist Party prevents its citizens from being ‘contaminated’ with Western-friendly news and points of view, and ensures their culture is insulated from supposedly nefarious foreign influences.

But when it comes to digital standards, China’s ambitions go far beyond controlling the domestic audience. The catchily titled policy document ‘China Standards 2035’ sets out how Beijing intends to control the tech standards of the future, in everything from mobile 5G (and 6G) to artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things. 

Chinese firms already lead the way in many tech sectors in terms of market share and technological advancement. Huawei’s 5G technology, for example, is acknowledged as being at the cutting edge of development, and as of 2021 its global market share for telecoms equipment was 28.7% – about as large as those of its two biggest competitors (Ericsson and Nokia) combined. Baidu, which is often called the ‘Google of China’, has developed the world’s first open-source autonomous vehicle platform and it has already attracted 130 partners, including many of the European carmakers.

What these technologies have in common is that they are all foundational in their nature, acting as platforms upon which products and other technologies can be built. And once built, it is very hard to switch to an alternative. This was something that was realised by the UK when it decided to remove Huawei from its mobile networks in 2019: the cost of switching to other providers, estimated at £500m for BT alone, is far more than most national governments could afford.

This is what Sir Jeremy meant when he said that countries were ‘mortgaging their future’ by buying in Chinese technology. Given the importance of digital infrastructure to a nation’s prosperity and path of development, and the difficulty of switching, once Chinese firms have built a nation’s digital infrastructure then it will have little choice but to be swept into Beijing’s orbit. 

This is for two reasons. First, by using China’s digital systems Beijing gains real influence. For instance, if a country uses the GPS-equivalent BeiDou for its military or transportation network, then it is easy to imagine the disruption that could be caused by switching off the BeiDou signal – if, say, that country thought about taking the UK’s side in a Sino-British dispute.

Second, British and Western companies will find it hard to compete with their Chinese rivals if the infrastructure is Chinese to begin with. To do so, a Western firm would have to develop compatible products, which can be expensive; as tech firms in China receive large subsidies, their products are invariably cheaper than their Western equivalents, which would make any such investment unlikely to be competitive.

There are also significant national security risks at play here, especially with regard to the West’s international partners. Take Thailand, a critical US (and thus Western) ally. Ever since the 2014 military coup, the country’s leadership has been moving to closer relations with China, in part at anger at the West ostracising its non-democratic government. Ever since, Huawei has invested heavily there, meaning that most of the Thailand’s digital infrastructure is now Chinese. This causes particular difficulties when it comes to defence, because any advanced weaponry Thailand requests (such as the F35 fighters Bangkok recently bid for) will now run on Chinese platforms. As this will have obvious issues not only with compatibility, but also the preservation of US technology, Thailand’s decision to use Chinese digital plumbing will likely see it cleaved further away from the West.

What is the solution? The UK on its own can do little to push back on the spread of Chinese digital infrastructure. We have neither the companies nor the capabilities to compete, except for in certain niche areas like quantum. 

What we do have, however, is allies that have the technology. Finland, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, and the US all have significant competencies in different aspects of digital infrastructure, and so it would be in the UK’s interests to help amass a ‘coalition of the willing’ to work together on this.

The UK can also play an important role in preventing China’s future setting of technological standards, as it did recently when it helped to prevent the international adoption of Beijing’s proposed re-standardisation of the internet with its ‘New-IP’ proposal.

As GCHQ knows only too well, given the importance of this kind of technology to global development, the decisions taken by governments on which country to partner with will help to define international relations for decades to come. The UK can and should play a leading role in this struggle, for our own sake, and that of the wider world.

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Sam Olsen is the author of the blog What China Wants and founder and CEO of Evenstar.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.