Chinese technological giant Huawei signed a deal with Russian telecommunications operator MTS last week to develop fifth generation or 5G cellular networks in Russia. The signing ceremony of the agreement was held in Moscow and attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Under the deal, the two companies will develop and launch 5G networks in Russia over the next two years, rolling out services as early as late 2019. MTS said in a statement that existing communications infrastructure would also be upgraded as part of the plan.
The move comes amid intense speculation over the future of Huawei after United States President Donald Trump put the company on a trade blacklist in May for violating government policy and urged allied countries to do the same. Huawei has denied any wrongdoing and challenged the charges in court.
Beijing and Washington have been engaged in a tit-for-tat trade spat since Trump assumed office in early 2016. In the aftermath of the Huawei ban, China indicated it could also announce a trade blacklist limiting the operations of U.S.-based firms in the country, a decision that would hurt big American tech firms, like Apple, if implemented.
A Creeping Tech Cold War
As access to and control over information becomes ever so crucial to global economic and geostrategic power, a few countries have been setting up defenses against internet technology. Conversely, there have been civil society activists advocating for more open internet access across international borders.
The Russian experience with the internet has been heavily censored by the state, which closely monitors content flowing to and from the country. China has built a “Great Firewall” to police the internet, blocking anything deemed inappropriate by the Chinese government, including Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Given China’s market size, its homegrown social media alternatives, such as Sina Weibo and WeChat, have become global giants.
The political stability of Russia and China, compared to the chaos in the Middle East and South Asia, has made a more closed internet more attractive to the rulers of some countries.
As the United States ramps up pressure on the allies to shun Huawei, the decisions that countries like Russia and India take with regard to the company could prove to be pivotal in defining how internet freedoms across the world might take shape in the next few decades and which countries dominate the next generation of technology.
A Splinternet Could Redefine Global World Order
The race for 5G could accelerate the creation of a global “splinternet”: the balkanization of the once-unified internet into sovereign country-based internets. With the world increasingly divided between American and Chinese technology manufacturers and business decisions closely linked to political ones, a schism in the wireless world would certainly have economic repercussions and impact freedom of expression and flows of information.
But even in Russia — an authoritarian ally of China — an internet “with Chinese characteristics” is not a foregone conclusion. In Russia, as well as in India, Huawei faces tough competition from European firms Nokia and Ericsson for the development of 5G technology. Both countries have allowed multiple firms to conduct test runs of the new technology in certain areas, perhaps preparing against the fallout of a potential technological cold war between China and the United States.
In South Asia and other developing regions, Huawei is able to compete easily on cost. But for other countries, particularly those with the luxury to pay more for infrastructure and avoid dependence on one single provider, Huawei — and by extension, China — is not the only option.