July 04, 2020
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A Lone Trumpet Jams The Machine

The US-China trade storm, with its angry eye centred on tech, cleaves the world

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A Lone Trumpet Jams The Machine
Xi Jinping and Narendra Modi at the 2018 SCO Summit in Qingdao
Photograph by Getty Images
A Lone Trumpet Jams The Machine

A massive pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong over the past few days, preceded by the 30th anniversary commemoration of the Tiananmen movement (on June 4) in Western capitals can be seen as yet another attempt by the US to isolate China and keep up the pressure on the rising hegemon as the intensifying Sino-American trade war spreads to other areas. Consequently, its fall-out has begun to aff­ect a large number of countries adversely.

Ostensibly, the US wants to rein China in and prevent its spreading global clout. President Donald Trump has employed an array of tools at his disposal, ranging from higher tariffs to tech blacklists to financial isolation and sanctions against friends and foes alike in his attempt to safeguard and enhance US interests. Even as critics have deplored his policies as “weapons of mass disruption”, Trump seems unmoved by its terrible effect on countries beyond China.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country’s Nord 2 gas pipeline to Europe was blocked by Washington, has aptly called the current scenario an “all-out brawl without any rules”, as he decided to forge closer alliance with China in the ongoing trade war.

In this politically charged backdrop, the China-­initiated annual Shanghai Cooperation Org­an­is­ation (SCO) Summit in Bishkek this weekend gathers added salience, especially in view of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s presence there. Sign­ificantly, this was his first multilateral meeting in his second stint as PM and therefore, the stand India took on crucial global developments would be keenly analysed in New Delhi and elsewhere.

A 5G sub-centre at the Big Data Expo in Guiyang, China.

Photograph by Getty Images

Among his other engagements, PM Modi is sch­eduled to meet both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin on the SCO Summit sidelines. The outcome of their talks will give an indication of how Modi proposes to charter his way through a new, uncertain phase of global politics that is getting exceedingly polarised in the ongoing tussle for influence between the US and China.

What began in 2018 with imposition of tariff on Chinese goods by the Trump administration to set right the “unfair trade practices of China” expanded within months, with Beijing imposing reciprocal tariffs on American products sold in China. With neither side backing out from the economic brinkmanship, the belligerence has entered newer areas like technology.

Trump’s targeting Huawei is aimed at slowing down China’s advance in big data, AI and 5G—areas where it has an edge over the US.

Initially, the US targeted Chinese company ZTE Corps when it banned American firms from selling parts to the telecom equipment maker. Subs­equently, the Chinese global telecom brand Huawei became the focus of Washington’s ire. In December last year the company’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, was detained by the Canadian authorities on America’s prompting. Meng was accused of involvement in a systematic cover-up of violations by Huawei to US sanctions imposed on Iran. Predictably, China str­ongly protested the detention in Canada; it triggered widespread outrage in the international business community.

But, say insiders, the US attempt to target Huawei is aimed at stopping or slowing down China’s steady march in the fields of big data, art­ificial int­elligence and 5G or fifth generation cellular tec­­h­­nology—where China is deemed to have an edge over the US and other foreign competitors.

The emerging telecom market involves inter-­linked areas of big data, IoT or internet of things and 5G which together are likely to transform our future lives.

Big data, say experts, is a term that describes a large volume of structured or unstructured data that through quick and better analysis can help us make better decisions to perform many functions. Big data starts with the premise that there is a lot more information floating around than ever before. Though big data is distinct from the internet, the web makes it much easier to collect and share data. However, it’s much more than mere lightning-fast communication—the idea is that we can learn from a large body of data what we couldn’t comprehend when we used smaller amounts.

But experts caution that using great volumes of information also requires three profound changes in how we have so far approached data. First is to collect and use a lot of data rather than small amount; secondly, to shed our inhibition about ina­ccurate data and go for only pristine and curated data and thirdly, to accept that the information, analysis and research that it brings will only help us look for patterns to predict future occurrences rather than allowing us to know their causes.

The internet of things is a general term denoting a scenario where our devices, vehicles and appliances in our home and professional lives are connected through the internet—presenting both a huge opportunity and a risk to users. However, the data and information available will be used in the near future to provide better public safety, decision-making and help stop future crime and accidents. But there is the prickly issue of information accessed from individuals and how they are to be used, especially if they are in the possession of government agencies.

Google has warned that if it can’t sell equipment, Huawei would create hybrid Androids, jeopardising markets and imperilling US security.

This last bit of concern is being used against China volubly and forcefully by the US government and its other Western allies. By highlighting issues of safety and security of the information that Huawei gathers through its access to the 5G network in different countries, there is massive apprehension whether information possessed by the firm will also be shared with the Chinese government, giving it unfettered access and inf­ormation about people, important institutions and entities of Western countries.

The issue was evident at the Big Data Expo in Guiyang, the capital city of China’s southwestern Guizhou province, late last month as local government officials not only showcased the progress made by the city in different fields of big data application but also assured visitors about the safety and security of the data stored at various centres in Guiyang. Since 2015, Guiyang and other parts of Guizhou province is being turned into a big data hub by China and going by the enthusiastic participation from IT professionals across the world at the expo, it became clear that Chinese authorities were succeeding in their efforts.

A contingent of Indian IT professionals who were at the expo also shared the enthusiasm, but remained sceptical because of the mounting pressure from the US and its accusations. With over 80 per cent of Indian IT firms depending on the US or the Western market, in comparison to a meagre two per cent on China, the dice was clearly tilted towards Washington. But there was a bit of dilemma too—should Indian entrepreneurs totally abandon the Chinese market or take the risk and be there to get a ‘first movers advantage’ as Chinese footsteps ring louder in the big data and 5G market.

In May 2019 the US issued an official directive preventing several American companies like Google, Intel and Qualcomm from selling equipment to Huawei without acquiring a prior lic­ence from Washington. Though it worked initially, the move has now started bothering the companies.

At a recent meeting with Trump, Google officials sought an exemption so that they could continue to supply Android systems to Huawei. Google has argued that if it is prevented from selling its equipment, Huawei will soon come up with its own, hybrid Android, which will not only jeopardise the market but also imperil America’s security in future, as such Androids could be easily hacked.

With more and more American firms arguing that it is the US, more than China, that will be hurt in the long run if the trade war was to spiral out of control, perhaps a climbdown could be expected from Trump.

But as nobody is willing to bet on their greenbacks on what the next move of the highly unp­redictable Trump would be, all other countries are busy hedging their bets without committing undivided loyalty to either the US or to China.

These are deeply fractious times, and a heightened diplomatic caution will have been summoned up by all countries at various fora like the SCO Summit in Bishkek. Narendra Modi, too, would roll out his tightrope walk.

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