Dr Michael Spann
School of Political Science and International Studies, University of Queensland
For the World Economic Forum (WEF), a leading proponent of 4IR, 4IR will enable the merging of physical, digital and biological worlds to create converging technologies that will benefit all income groups and lead to a more inclusive human centred future.
Others suggest that 4IR and its technologies will be the catalyst for more economies to experience the ‘side supply miracle’ and experience long term gains in efficiency and productivity, thus opening up new markets and making supply chains and logistics more efficient and effective.
In other words, for those championing 4IR technology as an instrument of development, new markets and economic growth brought about by lower transportation and communication costs will allow countries to climb up the ‘development ladder’ and encourage more investment opportunities and jobs for their populations.
However, 4IR cannot just be thought about for its proposed economic benefits and helping familiar indicators of development like GDP, as 4IR is also inextricably connected to foreign policy and forms an important part of the emerging (and fluid) political and security fabric for the Indo-Pacific region, one of, if not the most dynamic region in the world.
In recent times this has become apparent through one of the cornerstones of 4IR, 5G technology and the political machinations surrounding the roll out of 5G. This is because 5G enables massive data flows which can lead to the connections between billions of sensor laden devices (the Internet of Things IoT) which can facilitate digital economies, smart cities, driverless cars, food security and also help improve critical infrastructure like water and energy grids.
| Photo: ICTnews
Qualcomm, a leading US telecommunications equipment company and major rival to China’s Huawei, highlighted the importance of 5G by suggesting that 5G ‘will be bigger than electricity’.
Statements like this suggest that countries that can adapt and integrate 5G technology will have a major advantage economically, socially, politically and also in matters of security.
As such, because of the importance attached to 5G technology, its proposed roll out has raised tensions between major players like the USA and China with cold war like ‘great power politics’ once again front and centre.
This return of cold war like rhetoric and manoeuvrings is because 5G can be considered not just as a technological tool but alsoin terms of a geopolitical tool that helps to influence and shape alliances and indeed create and sediment ‘spheres of influence’.
5G and the trade war
The arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Meng Wanzhou in Canada in 2018 brought the wider political implications of 4IR and 5G technology into the spotlight and also marked an increase in the tensions between the USA and China, but also allowed scholars and commentators to start to map some of the wider connections and what they meant for the wider global security and political architecture.
Ostensibly, Huawei’s CFO was arrested for the company (through its associated companies) violating US sanctions over trade with Iran, but many saw it as upping the ante in the ‘trade war’ between the USA and China which had intensified as American components critical to China’s 4IR program to become a smart manufacturing superpower had also been included in the list of goods attracting higher tariffs.
Three interconnected aspects must be noted when critically situating the ongoing case of Huawei in wider frameworks of development and security.
Firstly, China has become increasingly concerned with being stuck in the ‘middle income trap’ or becoming stuck at a certain stage of development because rising wages and inefficient production techniques mean that it loses its competitive advantage. This being the case, China is looking at 4IR technology as being a way to move beyond labour intensive industries into higher valued added industries.
Secondly, China wants to change the global perception of China as the place where all cheap goods are made, and that China is not ‘modern’ enough to be a world leader in technology. Of course, Huawei as a globally important ‘national champion’ companyplays a huge role in changing this perception. Indeed, the founder of Huawei Ren Zhengfei stated of Huawei when his daughter and CFO was arrested, ‘The world cannot leave us as we are too advanced.’
Thirdly, China’s ambitious One Belt One Road initiative (OBOR) requires it to extend its sphere of influence across the Indo-Pacific. This extension is being achieved through the more obvious military means (for example, through its controversial island reclamation program in the East Sea/South China Sea and the visibility of its emerging ‘blue water’ navy), but also through provision of infrastructure and equipment, some of which is necessary for the roll out of 4IR technology like 5G.
This entails moving into areas that have traditionally been seen as being in the USA’s sphere of influence, thus raising tensions and bringing smaller players into the equation, much like in the cold war years.
5G and wider political manoeuvres
Australia, as a traditional security ally of the United States has had a controversial relationship with Huawei, mostly centring round Australian security concerns over Huawei’s relationship with the Chinese government and whether it was acting as a proxy arm of Beijing’s security apparatus. Thus, in 2012 the Australian government banned Huawei from being part of its new National Broadband 4G roll out, a move which caused tensions with Australia’s largest trading partner.
This became an ongoing diplomatic issue between Beijing and Canberra and became part of a wider debate about Chinese influence in politics and universities in Australia. In 2018, Australia banned Huawei from participating in the roll out of 5G technology citing national security concerns and not wanting China to get a foothold through a ‘node’ in the Australian system.
In doing so, Australia cited the National Intelligence Law of China which states, ‘all organisations and citizens, shall in accordance with the law, support, co-operate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work’.
Globally speaking, Australia’s banning and concern over the use of Huawei technology because of security concerns was not an isolated incident, especially amongst members of the ‘five eyes’ security network.
New Zealand banned Huawei from its 5G roll out in 2019 sparking a diplomatic crisis and most notably,the USA through its National Defence Authorisation Act, barred federal agencies from using Huawei equipment. Huawei is currently challenging this through the US court system, arguing that such a ban is unconstitutional.
The USA has been trying to exert pressure on its allies over use of Huawei equipment in 5G roll outs causing some tension, for instance with the United Kingdom and Germany, who have, at this stage, ruled out banning the Chinese company from its national 5G infrastructure.
Closer to Vietnam, Thailand, an ally of the USA, has included Huawei (amongst other companies) in its 5G test bed, a significant stepping stone in one of the South East Asia’s biggest and strategically important economies.
Such moves signify the wider strategic competition between the USA and China through 4IR technology and illustrate how regions and sub-regions and the countries that constitute them take on added significance. This has certainly been the case with some of the small island developing states in the Pacific.
Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and renewed strategic importance
It is not often that small island developing states like Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea (PNG) are mentioned in regard to technology and 4IR.
However, because of tensions over spheres of influence and their proximity to Australia they are now important pawns in a wider global game as the USA continuesits turn back to the Pacific and China seeks to the extend its influence through aid and infrastructure.
As was discussed in the previous section, Australia has been prominent in keeping Huawei out of its technology infrastructure, citing security risks. Thus, there were more than raised eyebrows when in 2017, Solomon Islands signed a deal with Huawei to lay undersea cables to help them improve their connectivity.
This cable of course would be connected to Australia, thus giving Huawei a ‘node’ on Australia’s system. The case was similar in PNG, which has become a key and very visible ‘battleground’ in the wider strategic competition between the USA (and its ally Australia) and China as it is seen as being the bridge between Asia and the Pacific though its shared (and contested) border with Indonesia.
In 2018 Australia responded to the pressure of a growing Chinese presence in its ‘backyard’ by agreeing to fund high speed underwater internet cables to Solomon Islands and PNG citing its necessity for sustainable development and economic growth, however, the extremely strong sub narrative was wider Indo-Pacific security concerns and reducing a rapidly growing Chinese influence in the region.
This major funding project was coupled with Australia, Japan, the USA and New Zealand announcing a joint project to announce a power grid upgrade to extend electrification and improve internet connectivity infrastructure in PNG. Interestingly, Australia has also reached out to other countries in the Indo-Pacific, notably Vietnam, with the invitation to become involved in such Pacific based projects in order to extend and solidify networks.
However, to show the fluidity of the situation in the Pacific and the manoeuvres and counter manoeuvres taking place, PNG has upheld a decision taken before the signing of the new Australian agreement for the underwater cable for Huawei to build its domestic internet infrastructure that would of course connect to the new underwater cable.
The political ramifications of this remain to be seen but given the Pacific’s reinvigorated role in the broader strategic competition between the USA, Australia and China and the role of 4IR technology in this, it is certain that this situation, like others in the wider Indo-Pacific region will be one to watch with interest.
Closer to home: some thoughts on Vietnam
There is no doubt 4IR and the roll out of 5G is becoming an increasing part of the political, security and economic landscape of Vietnam. The first ASEAN conference on 5G was held in Hanoi recently with security issues being on the agenda as well as facilitating a regional 5G ecosystem that would have substantive development outcomes for populations.
Geopolitically, Vietnam’s blossoming ties with the United States as well as its relationship and proximity to China means that in the future there will ongoing diplomatic discussions taking place as both major powers vie to ‘sell’ their respective policies on 5G and 4IR and the advantages they can bring, especially in terms of development, security and economics.
Who Vietnam (and other countries) side with and under what conditions will have a huge effect on where it is integrated into and benefits from the expected 12.3 trillion USD of global economic output that is expected to come from 5G by 2035. Another major consideration is that in the shorter term, 4IR is already starting to reshape some of the industries that have been integral to Vietnam’s recent rapid development trajectory.
One such industry is the garment, textile and footwear (GTF) industry that in the case of Vietnam has attracted foreign investment, increased employment opportunities for women and marked a shift in labour from agriculture to the manufacturing sector. However, already available (and rapidly evolving) technology like ‘sewbots’ allows some garments to be sewn in destination countries at roughly the same price as offered in outsource countries.
This bringing production back to the markets of the USA and Europe, for instance, is seen as being more in line with sustainable development as bringing the market and production sites closer together in local value chains reduces the carbon footprint in transportation whilst also encouraging upskilling and more rewarding jobs in outsource countries.
However, this ‘reshoring’ of production back to the USA and Europe also highlights the issue of labour disruption with Vietnam being seen as a high-risk country in terms of labour disruption.
The UN’s International Labour Organisation suggests 56% of workers in the ASEAN5 manufacturing hub (Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam) could lose their jobs because of increased automation in the next two decades.
This could have massive effects regionally as the ‘double movement’ of migration comes into play.
That is, people moving from rural to urban areas to work in export-oriented factories but then through changing circumstances in the global economy, having to migrate transnationally andjoin regional and global circuits of migration for employment.
As such, Vietnam has to work regionally to better navigate a world of ‘disruptive change’ but also critically reflect on howthe benefits of 4IR transfer down the scales to those at the provincial level so that 4IR enhances what Vietnam and its people class as ‘well-being’ and the ‘good life’.
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