The Brexit saga continues to dominate the headlines, but the decision of Downing Street to use Huawei products to support 5G infrastructure is a better indicator of what the future may look like for Britain and the West. It is more bleak than bright. The significance of the United Kingdom going to the East for wireless and data solutions is profound. It is the fifth largest economy in the world, the leading European democracy, a founder of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and perhaps the closest American ally. In the global chess match of great power competition, the United States and the West more broadly have suffered real defeat from this decision.
Some will downplay the significance of this decision, and argue that the risk Huawei poses is overstated and that British intelligence can plug any backdoor traps set by the Chinese state owned enterprise. So while the security impacts are debatable, it is certain that the decision will result in increased technological dependency on China. This, of course, marks the strategic goal of the Chinese Communist Party to exploit the Western free market system by giving their state subsidized champions an economic advantage so significant that it sidelines Western competition, ultimately leading global consumers to China for their technology needs. The net result is more dependency on Chinese technology with all the pitfalls of reliance on an authoritarian regime that abhors freedom and privacy.
So what was the United Kingdom thinking? Perhaps the government fell prey to specious rationale that the risks of Huawei were overstated. Or maybe they could not justify the premium of paying for 5G technology free of China. Policymakers can bemoan this loss, but the fact that the special relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom did not trump the Huawei discount should make the United States revisit its strategy for competing against China on technology and innovation.
Getting our allies and partners to separate or decouple from China in key areas where technology and security meet, as security hawks say, will not happen unless we offer more than a risk report. Allies and partners need a competitive alternative. For 5G technology that means hardware free of China and software suppliers that can compete on cost and stay cutting edge. However, no such option exists. For 5G hardware the alternatives are from European manufacturers with dubious commercial viability.
Further, the United States has a checkered track record when it recruits our friends and allies to buy our technologies. In the case of the United Kingdom, they have utilized American dual use technologies, products that can have a commercial and security purpose, at very high cost. The businesses in the United Kingdom spend more than $500 million each year on meeting the American compliance obligations. That equates to roughly 1 percent of the annual defense budget of the United Kingdom.
In other words, compliance regimes in the United States often make it more difficult for our friends overseas to do what we want them to do, which is use our technology and spend more on their security. It is not hard to imagine American regulatory agencies responsible for securing sensitive technology treating 5G technology the same way. Seen in this light, it is perhaps less difficult to understand why allies or friends might think twice before they drop Huawei for the United States alternative.
This is another reason why, as our Reagan Institute Task Force concluded, more work needs to be done to shift away from the mindset of American technological dominance, in which the United States works to generate breakthrough innovation and then parcels it out carefully as needed, to the mindset of American cooperation with allies and friends. That is why we recommended Congress authorize an international framework, the “partnership for a strong innovation base,” to allow the United States to capitalize on capabilities of the most trusted American allies. It would be designed to give the United States access to cutting edge technology from close allies and to encourage those countries to make such robust investments in military capabilities that enhance the common defense.
In the realm of great power competition, our allies are an advantage. Yet when it comes to technological innovation, we treat allies and friends as competitors. If we can exchange intelligence information, share classified information, partner on building major aerospace and defense platforms, and carry out sophisticated joint military exercises, then we ought to be able to do the same with our allies when it comes to partnering on the technologies that will define not just 21st century warfare, but the future of global freedom and privacy. Unless we construct this alternative, the winds of technology and innovation will continue to blow to the East.
Roger Zakheim is the Washington director of the Ronald Reagan Institute.