THO Nato Publications

5G: Geopolitics, Global Competition & NATO

By Danielle McDonald

What is 5G?

Magnifying the proficiency of modern-day technology is the fifth-generation cellular wireless network, 5G. Like the preceding generation launches of mobile networks, 5G enables numerous capabilities through greater capacity, shorter wavelengths, worldwide mobile internet connections, and high-frequency bandwidths [1]. As part of telecommunication networks, 5G technology expands the productivity of correspondence between machines without human assistance [2]. Such improvement grants 5G as the foundation for advancements in autonomous cars, smart roads, Augmented Reality (AR), intelligent healthcare and medicine, and semi-autonomous robots for everyday use [3].


In detail, there are three cross-cutting components to the essence of 5G. These are increased efficiency, multipath ways, and swift signal delivery across the 5G spectrum for core network functions [4]. What is significant is that the framework is software-based, and any adjustments can be made through a simple software update or replacement, if necessary [5]. Certainly, abilities such as that of 5G are costly to implement, which brings both possibilities and complications to the idea of network sharing to decrease expenses.


Nonetheless, the incorporation of 5G into modern and future technologies is making momentous progress in both individual and company life. This kind of technology will be significantly impactful for consumers in areas such as retail, entertainment, automotive production, the manufacturing industry, and logistical processes [6]. Likewise, it will have an incredible stake in government and national security. 5G is already integral in ongoing technological advancements and security strategies for actors in the global political economy


Technology and Geopolitical Relations: Will the bifurcation of the technology world posit better relations?

Along with 5G, other technological developments such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and nanotechnology are powerful tools of influence in economic and trade interests. Many scholars and scientists claim that this new technology is changing the geopolitical landscape [7]. There is already a gap between developed and developing countries in obtaining new technologies [8]. Should the unequal access in the digital world continue, developing countries are bound to keep further behind which can ultimately stifle progress to development.

At the forefront of technology and geopolitics concerns is the anomaly that new technology is bringing about profound social change in data localization [9]. Significantly, it is altering the distribution of power, broadly in western democratic and authoritarian regimes [10]. Thus far, in democracies, there has been an increase in power at the individual citizen level and a decrease in state power [11]. On the contrary, authoritarian regimes are experiencing an increase in state power and a decreased power of citizens [12]. As the ambiguity of experiencing different trends persist, it becomes prudent to ask oneself how this may affect future trade relations, tensions in the global technological competition, and success in adopting policies and standards worldwide.


China in the 5G Equation

China boasts a competitive advantage over foreign markets as it has accumulated expertise and experience since the introduction of 5G networks. Due to high levels of industrialization, low costs of production, and domestic and foreign market supply and demand, the maturity and sophistication of Chinese companies have dubbed it as the leader in the global race to obtain and develop 5G technology [13].


The Chinese company Huawei has emerged as a powerhouse in the world’s telecommunications infrastructure [14]. Part of the concerns about China’s rising influence is due to its capacity to present weaknesses through software updates and the ability to use competitive prices to insert itself into the fundamentals of capitalistic democratic societies [15]. Seeing that the Chinese government does not encourage a free market but rather exerts control over its companies, this poses a great cybersecurity threat to states’ national security as sensitive information that can be accessed from the simplest online interaction by China. To date, both the United States and the United Kingdom have banned Huawei from their networks due to concerns of security. A rise in leadership from a Western alternative in opposition to Huawei has been a challenge because Huawei and ZTE, both China-based companies, were major suppliers of 4G networks.


In an attempt to further increase its influence through the digital markets, China has launched the Digital Silk Road (DSR) which is a very integral part of the overall Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategy. An essential component of the DSR strategy is to finance other countries’ telecommunications infrastructures. This is one of the main ways that Chinese firms have built their 5G network and technology standards in other countries, therefore posing the risk of potential espionage and involvement in internal state legislative issues [16]. Nonetheless, recipient countries of China’s 5G firms have attained a greater aptitude to filter and moderate content, localize data and surveil the digital world [17].


NATO: 5G’s challenges and opportunities


China’s digital footprint in 5G brings the potential of future military development into perspective. China is known to have aggressive tensions with the NATO Alliance members, therefore sparking a need for more cohesion. Since the development of 5G, NATO and its allies have not been playing major roles in the newest telecommunications software. To best comprehend NATO and how it can obtain and develop 5G for a secure, responsible global environment, it is best to analyze 5G in three essential ways.


Firstly, 5G needs to be seen as an area for development. Any introduction of new technology allows for discussion which can better help allies to comprehend the complexities and need for policies for technological transitions [18]. Increasing economic growth through such technology also results in the need to execute command and control, manage communications, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing behind the scenes and on the battlefield [19]. Doing so will not only allow for room for development but will overall enhance the quality of military equipment needed to achieve NATO goals.


Moreover, a second way that 5G needs to be viewed is as an ecosystem that needs to be protected. Being a telecommunications network that is a hyper interconnective system, it is something that private and government sectors struggle to find a common ground on for its operations and policies [20]. If not protected in both playing fields, next-generation telecommunications will run into a vast array of problems and security insecurities. In addition, because 5G operates on machine-to-machine communication, the perimeter cyber defense is ineffective [21]. As risks of cyber-attacks grow, NATO needs to ensure that their 5G development efforts take into consideration that integrating equipment from Chinese firms widens and deepens serious questions of trust and reliability for military functions [22]. Consequently, if the 5G ecosystem is not protected, then serious political ramifications can occur as a result. Aforementioned, the value of privacy is different in China than it is in western democracies. Chinese government’s direct access to its firms poses advantages to the Chinese intelligence community which, in turn, will prompt countries to reconsider their methods in storing big data [23]. Being at odds with a country due to differences in privacy laws, democratic values and ethics are very important because they can potentially constrain relations.


Because of the world’s interdependence on 5G networks, it poses a suitable avenue for collaboration amongst NATO allies and with countries outside the transatlantic alliance. The world of telecommunications takes on the concept that “the early bird gets the worm.” Demonstrated in China’s leadership of  5G development, most state actors still have a strong motivation to merge into the race and assume a position that could amplify their economy [24]. It should be understood that telecommunication is truly strategic in nature. Working together to ensure speed and the quality and quantity of information is a multifaceted avenue for the Alliance, its allies, and non-members to engage in healthy global cooperation.



[1] Bernard Marr, “What is 5G Technology and How Must Businesses Prepare for it?” Forbes, 15 Oct 2019,

[2] Andrea Gilli and Fransesco Bechis, “NATO and the 5G Challenge”, NATO, NATO Review, 30 Sept 2020,

[3] Explainer Video by Thamine Nayeem, “What is 5G?”  Council on Foreign Relations, 20 Dec 2019,

[4] Tom Wheeler, “5G in five (not so) easy pieces”, BROOKINGS, 9 Jul 2019,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Bernard Marr, “What is 5G Technology and How Must Businesses Prepare for it?” Forbes, 15 Oct 2019,

[7] Video by Nicole Darabian and DMX technology, “How is New Technology Driving Geopolitical Relations?”, Chatham House, Chatham House London,  22 Oct 2019,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Andrea Gilli and Fransesco Bechis, “NATO and the 5G Challenge”, NATO, NATO Review, 30 Sept 2020,

[14]. Tom Wheeler, “5G in five (not so) easy pieces”, BROOKINGS, 9 Jul 2019,

[15] Ibid.

[16] Council on Foreign Relations,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Andrea Gilli and Fransesco Bechis, “NATO and the 5G Challenge”, NATO, NATO Review, 30 Sept 2020,

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.