The race for 5G — the next-generation cell-network technology that promises high speed, low latency, and high throughput — has emerged as a new frontier of rivalry in U.S.-China relations. The technological advances by Huawei, ZTE, and other companies may allow China to become the first country to deploy 5G on a wide scale, giving its economy an edge. But 5G’s dual-use and military potential introduces another dimension of geostrategic significance — one that the Chinese military and defense industry are avidly exploring.
The advancement of 5G in China is linked to its national strategy for military-civil fusion (军民融合). In November 2018, key industry players established the 5G Technology Military-Civil Fusion Applications Industry Alliance (5G技术军民融合应用产业联盟), including ZTE, China Unicom, and the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). This new partnership aims to foster collaboration and integrated military and civilian development, while promoting both defense and commercial applications. In particular, the CASIC First Research Academy is focusing on the use of 5G in aerospace. There could be some notable synergies in 5G development among these and other notable players. For instance, 5G will require specialized communications equipment, such as certain antennas and microwave equipment, that the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned defense conglomerate, has established particular proficiency in developing.
China’s agenda for 5G can be linked to its strategy for national and defense “informatization” (信息化), including the Chinese military’s development of C4ISR capabilities. As a number of Chinese defense academics and engineers have postulated, 5G could improve battlefield communications with faster and more stable information transmission, increasing the timeliness and integration of information. At least in theory, 5G could provide the rapid transmission and bandwidth required to realize the potential of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence (AI) on the battlefield. In this regard, 5G could help realize military intelligentization (军事智能化), though which the PLA seeks to leverage potential applications of AI technologies in military affairs. Just as 5G can enable massive inter-machine communication in smart cities, similar networking among sensors and devices could be particularly advantageous as warfare changes from informatized to “intelligentized.” In this regard, an extensive and integrated infrastructure for 5G could provide a future operational advantage for China, enabling improved situational awareness through facilitating advances in data analytics and perhaps real-time coordination or command and control. Depending on their design, 5G networks might prove more secure, including because the greater bandwidth can enable the use of more complex encryption, and perhaps also resilient in a complex electromagnetic environment.
Beyond the battlefield, the 5G era that China is so rapidly embracing could provide military benefits in a supporting capacity, perhaps including through national defense mobilization. In a future conflict scenario, China would possess the capacity to rapidly mobilize massive amounts resources to support the war effort, through a national system that extends down to the municipal level. This dimension of military-civil fusion, which enables the Chinese military to benefit from the civilian economy and infrastructure, could provide a notable source of advantage relative to the U.S. or other potential adversaries. The Chinese government’s highly integrated approach can blend even local developments with the national requirements for mobilization. Reportedly, the construction of smart cities has been linked to defense mobilization since at least 2012. Truly “smart” mobilization may rely upon an “intelligent network with interoperability, real-time information exchange, and self-organizing functionality,” such as could be facilitated through 5G, as one Chinese defense academic has argued.
As China progresses in its implementation of military-civil fusion, there are some initial pilot projects and partnerships underway that will test this integrated approach to 5G development as an element of defense informatization. For instance, the city of Chongqing has proposed developing a model 5G network and applications demonstration with involvement from China Telecom, China Mobile, and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a major defense industry conglomerate. Similarly, Sichuan plans to promote partnerships for military-civil fusion in 5G, focusing on 5G security and new applications. Certain companies also recognize the opportunities in related defense and commercial technologies and applications. For instance, a subsidiary of Datang Telecom Group concentrates on mobile communications for military usage, including LTE and 5G technologies. Meanwhile, one tech company is pursuing opportunities to market its specialized products, such as chips for beam and power control, used in phased array radars for high-frequency 5G antennas as well.
Of course, China is not alone in exploring the military potential of 5G. The U.S. military has established an initial pilot project with Samsung for a local 5G network. The U.S. Air Force is also reportedly enthusiastic about its use to improve readiness and enable new capabilities through innovations in mobile technology. 5G technologies could also improve logistics and supply chain visibility. The apparent relevance of 5G to next-generation C4ISR capabilities illustrates the potential importance of synergies among today’s emerging technologies, such as that of of 5G and related technologies to AI deployment, which will require such rapid mobile connectivity.
As the geopolitics of 5G become increasingly interesting — and China’s promotion of indigenous standards and undercutting of global rivals advances national techno-strategic objectives — future development of 5G technologies could also contribute to a future military edge.