China's 5G lead, a 'Sputnik moment' for U.S.
Abhishek G Bhaya

China's decisive lead in 5G technology, through its telecoms giant Huawei, is a "Sputnik moment" for the West and the ensuing battle for 5G supremacy between China and the U.S. will divide the world in two distinct digital spheres of influence, according to a Shanghai-based American expert on technology and innovation.

The unanticipated Soviet launch of Sputnik – the world's first artificial satellite – in 1957 led to, what Cold War historians describe as, the "Sputnik crisis" – a period of public fear and anxiety in the U.S. and much of Europe about the perceived technological gap between the U.S. and Soviet Union. The crisis triggered the Space Race between the two Cold War superpowers and a potential reckless scenario of weaponization of space referred to as the "Star Wars" doctrine.

"5G is the foundation technology of our digital future [encompassing] all the countries in the planet. China is clearly adopting 5G before any other country and has a tremendous lead. This is like the Sputnik moment for the West," Richard Turrin, the author of the best-selling "Innovation Lab Excellence," told CGTN Digital.

The U.S., which has historically been the dominant technological power since the end of World War II, is threatened by the widening 5G tech differential with China and the resultant anxiety is the main reason for Washington's evident ire and restrictive actions targeted at Huawei, which is today the world's top developer and provider of 5G network, services and appliances.

"It is an affront to the U.S. because for the first time it sees that it is not at the center stage of advancing the world's technology and that it has to share this with China. It is a fundamental change in role, that is, frankly, technologically frightening for Washington," said Turrin, who formerly headed the American tech giant IBM's Fintech Innovation Lab in Singapore and also the firm's banking risk technology team in China.

"So, at some existential level the U.S. feels threatened when Chinese technology is being used to replace their own," he reasoned.

'Digital spheres of influence'

"Huawei is caught in this great divide between two technological powers both vying to control the digital infrastructure of our future," Turrin stressed, adding that the 5G divide is less about Huawei and more about the U.S. and China competing for their digital spheres of influence.

"The U.S. wants to control the technology platforms, which it has essentially done since the end of World War II. Now you've got a new world with China as the new technology player with more wonderful products than the U.S. This is the reason why they [the U.S.] are trying to topple Huawei and China," he argued.

Turrin compared the current China-U.S. tug of war on 5G with the archetypal Macintosh vs. Windows dilemma, which is a fight for "who controls the ecosystem, who controls the underlying technology that makes digital work and Huawei is simply caught in the middle of this."


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The tech expert warned that many make the mistake of thinking of 5G technology as a simple upgradation of 4G network but it needs to be seen much beyond that. "We think 5G will help in downloading or streaming movies faster. That's not all about 5G. In reality, it is an entire ecosystem of services, products that surround this new capability that will be built. I for one, despite being in the innovation business, can't imagine what they all will be," he said

"That's what young start-up companies are going to do for us in the next decade…. And China will definitely be in the lead. This realization is causing disquiet in the U.S.," he added.

'Not a pleasant future for technology'

Expressing dismay over the way Washington is going after Huawei, Turrin said: "It is shocking to see the U.S. leaning on its allies to say please do not use Chinese technology. You've got great countries in Europe and smaller developing countries who are ready to roll out on 5G and they're ready to go with Huawei and the U.S. says please don't."

He cited the example of the UK, which earlier this year tried to find a compromise by offering Huawei a limited role in the country's 5G mobile network, only to be pushed back by the U.S. in recent weeks. "The UK tried to appease the U.S. by keeping the sensitive parts of their 5G grid Huawei-free, but allowing the Chinese company access to certain rural parts of the network. However, the U.S. rejected that very nicely-crafted compromise."

Turrin considers the U.S. position as untenable. "If the U.S. had a competing product, they could at least make the argument that 'buy U.S.-made 5G equipment, don't buy Huawei.' I get it. That would be a very simple commercial argument. But the U.S. doesn't make a competing product," he reasoned.

"The levels of rhetoric out of the United States are saddening to me as somebody who loves the U.S. as his mother and perhaps China as father after a decade here. It's like watching a family fight," he said on a somber note.

The American fintech expert presented a gloomy road ahead. "I do not see an immediate and clear resolution, I see that each country will battle over which sphere of technology it lands in," he reiterated. "It is going to be years before this resolves; this will not have an immediate, peaceful, happy ending. I fear that it will not be a pleasant future for technology."

Interviewer and script: Abhishek G Bhaya

Video editors: Zhang Chunnan & Zhou Tingyu

Graphic Artist: Liu Shaozhen

Director: Mei Yan