The agenda at NATO’s London summit reportedly includes talk about the future of internet security — that is, establishing rules and roles for next-generation 5G gear. This is both a vital issue and a bellwether. If done right, moving to secure 5G systems can rejuvenate the alliance around its central mission: protecting democratic states from authoritarian incursion. Botch it, and the rift will only increase.
Whether NATO comes together or falls apart over 5G presents an initial test of how it will handle China’s rise. For Beijing, leapfrogging Western telecommunications firms is part and parcel of a vision to spread norms of authoritarian internet governance, promote surveillance technologies, build global dependencies, and undermine the liberal democratic order NATO anchors. U.S. officials can take several steps to help move the debate from admonition to action.
First, NATO should allow members to count a portion of outlays on secure 5G systems towards national 2-percent defense spending goals. There are a number of ways 5G-inclusive targets could be defined, including one-time commitments or line-item funds, but if investing in technology built by trustworthy vendors is a priority for the United States—and it should be—the alliance’s cost-sharing structure should reflect it.
Second, NATO should conduct thorough technical and political risk assessments on 5G networks and build shared cybersecurity standards. Last month, NATO announced plans to update rules for civilian 5G. The United States should use this process to push for transparency requirements on the companies that build 5G networks, including disclosures on corporate ownership structures, direct government funding, and state influence and control. Whether an authoritarian government subsidizes telecommunications equipment to undercut local competitors—or controls a company to steal military, commercial, or personal data—is relevant when considering allowing it to build the foundations of economic opportunity for NATO member states.
Put simply, NATO should require participating suppliers to show credible independence from foreign governments. In addition to helping secure networks, such a requirement fosters internet governance that resists authoritarian surveillance and erects barriers to the unfettered access of private citizen data.
Related: It’s Time for a NATO-China Council
Third, the United States should urge its allies to consider cooperative business models and infrastructure sharing arrangements that would help member countries choose trusted-yet-costlier systems over cheaper alternatives. Some creativity may be in order here, but NATO partnerships with the EU, Finland, and Sweden could build joint funding and research models for secure 5G and even 6G systems.
Proposing these initiatives would add constructive action to the U.S. government’s steady drumbeat against Huawei. Concerns over Chinese-made 5G have centered on espionage, but extend to amassing sensitive personal and corporate information and leveraging internet dependence for geopolitical control. In capital after capital, U.S. diplomats have warned allies and called for outright bans.
For the rest of NATO, these concrete steps are also more politically viable. Amid divisions within allied nations over 5G and ample pressure from China, a tenuous “plausible deniability” consensus may emerge: to ratchet up requirements without singling out one country or company. A recent European Union risk assessment on 5G, for example, notably cautioned against threats from state actors, but stopped short of naming China explicitly.
Disunity here has real consequences. A split over cybersecurity and the varying presence of “untrusted” suppliers from China in member countries’ 5G networks threatens vital NATO military and intelligence cooperation. The United States has already warned that it will limit intelligence sharing if allies build 5G networks with Chinese equipment. In the words of one official, “the Americans will assume that everything we share with Germany will end up with the Chinese.”
Such an outcome would be disastrous for the alliance. A NATO intelligence-sharing rift would open the door to greater authoritarian interference in Western democracies, and not just from China. NATO’s intelligence sharing and threat analysis cell is a central tenet of its plan to combat hybrid threats from Russia and others: disinformation campaigns, malign financial flows, the annexation of Crimea, and more. Given Russia’s long-standing goal of fracturing NATO, it’s no coincidence that Russian state media champions Huawei.
Democracies need a competitive offer and a competitive vision for the future internet that starts with counting trusted 5G spending towards 2-percent targets, conducting joint risk assessments, and pursuing cooperative business models.
Aligning on 5G won’t solve all of NATO’s problems. It won’t stop China’s economic coercion of NATO members or its human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and it won’t stop Russia’s influence operations in Europe. But a failure to get 5G right most certainly will exacerbate them and bode ill for the future unity of the alliance.