It is a major blow for Huawei. U.S.-based Google has been forced to take drastic measures against the Chinese tech firm. After the Trump administration introduced stricter regulations for conducting business with Chinese tech companies last week, Google is now denying Huawei access to technical support for the Android operating system. As a result, Huawei will be unable to install popular Google apps such as YouTube, Gmail and Maps on its new smartphones.
Huawei is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of Android smartphones; thus, this appears to be nothing less than a disaster for the company. Other firms, such as the Netherlands-based NXP Semiconductors, have also stopped supplying Huawei in light of the new restrictions. On Monday night, Trump announced a three-month grace period before implementing the strictest elements of the sanctions, but the stage has already been set for a further escalation of the trade war between the United States and China. The consequences could reach far beyond smartphones: this also poses serious risks for the future of the internet and geopolitical relations.
Additionally, China is now faced with external pressures to develop a completely self-sufficient internet system. It had already begun this process: China has been strictly limiting internet access within the country for years. Social media and search engines from foreign countries are blocked. Meanwhile, it continues to allow its companies to profit from the freedoms afforded elsewhere. While it is becoming increasingly difficult for China to continue to have it both ways, American and Chinese smartphone technologies still remain firmly interconnected.
The U.S. ban on Huawei threatens to further divide the internet into geopolitical power blocks. The danger such a “balkanization” of the internet poses is that, rather than promoting constructive competition, it could lead major powers to undermine one another through digital espionage and trade wars. This could further lead to the militarization of Chinese and American internet systems, a trend that has already been visible for some time. The Russian government has already been preparing for these developments in recent months by building its own autarchic internet system, which will enable it to be less reliant on other systems. Europe has yet to formulate a proper response.
The threat of a fragmented internet does not bode well. Further technological isolation of China could lead to resentment and nationalist sentiments. There are numerous geopolitical conflicts with China that could escalate, including territorial disputes in the South China Sea, as well as the issue of Taiwan’s independence. History has shown that a cycle of aggression and retaliation, combined with geopolitical instability, can easily escalate into wider conflicts.
Dealing with China’s emerging technological dominance is a minefield. Western governments and corporations have likely remained naïve for far too long concerning Chinese espionage. There may well be legitimate reasons to prevent a company such as Huawei from building crucial digital infrastructure.
China itself is certainly not without blame. It has protected its own market from Western technology for decades, and Chinese aggression in terms of digital espionage is a major issue of concern for Western governments.
Ultimately, however, China’s emergence as a global technological power will require that governments find ways to establish mutual trust and to maintain good economic relations. It is crucially important that countries be dependent upon one another’s well-being and that they remain so.
Update (May 21, 2019): A sentence has been added about Trump’s announcement regarding the delay in implementing the sanctions.
NRC weighs in on important news in the Commentary section. Commentators write these articles in cooperation with the editorial board.