Abishur Prakash discussed key updates in the ongoing US-China tech and trade rivalries, as well as major shifts in next geopolitics with Sputnik.
Mr Prakash is the world's leading authority on geopolitics and technology, and is a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future (CIF), a tech strategy consulting firm based in Toronto. He is the author of several books, including Next Geopolitics: Volume One and Two, Geopolitics of Artificial Intelligence (Go.AI) and The Age of Killer Robots.
Sputnik: The UK government passed its Telecommunications Act, which could impose fines of up to £100,000 a day for national telcos using Huawei kit. Is such a policy necessary and has the UK cited evidence for such a strict ban? If not, what's the reason? How will this affect Britain's 5G rollout compared with the EU?
Abishur Prakash: For London, this policy is vital as the UK government does not trust tech from the likes of Huawei or ZTE.
It believes these firms are working with Beijing and that there are “backdoors” giving China unfettered access to British society, with these suspicions prompting such punitive measures.
In other words, the UK wants Chinese tech removed, yesterday. But is there evidence? That depends on who one asks. Countries such as the US believe Huawei’s tech is not secure and has shared details with the UK and Germany.
The other side, made up of Huawei and China, denies claims of backdoors, and a third side reveals the business impact.
Telcos such as Nortel were hit by an extensive hacking campaign, allegedly originating from China, losing huge amounts of advanced research and development (R&D).
Huawei’s leadership in the telecom space means excluding the company is difficult, but London does have options and has already begun working with other companies.
Recently, Japan’s NEC opened a new centre in the UK that allows 5G networks to be built with different parts from different companies known as an Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN). Japan’s Fujitsu is also working with the British government on 5G. Alongside this, Ericsson and Nokia are already building out the 5G infrastructure in the UK.
Sputnik: The UK government launched its Office of AI this year and has formed a pact with Washington in late September. Using Donald Rumsfeld's theory of 'known unknowns', what are these offices tasked with and are they essential in an age of international tech platforms such as 3GPP, IEEE and others?
Abishur Prakash: Such offices are focused on several areas, firstly, by steering the private and public sector together to develop AI to solve specific problems, such as algorithms that can diagnose Covid-19 from facial recognition footage.
Second, they design ethics and guidelines to govern how AI behaves, which extends into data policy.
Third, AI offices lead efforts to roll out AI in new areas such as education, and fourth, create a national blueprint for how the country should use AI to become globally competitive, namely in geopolitics.
These offices are extremely relevant because they reflect sovereign moves by governments to tackle emerging tech. Instead of plugging into global organizations, which may approach things differently, governments can achieve much more, much faster, with an independent route. Alongside this, any organization trying to create “global rules” for tech is likely to run into trouble. The era when global institutions and platforms could decide the rules for everyone is coming to an end.
The creation of a government office for AI is relatively new because, while dozens of nations have AI strategies, they are using existing agencies to oversee them. Only a few nations are creating exclusive offices for AI.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) appointed a Minister for AI, HE Omar bin Sultan Al Olama, tasked with turning the country into a leading power by 2031.
Sweden has also established a Ministry for the Future aiming to prepare the country for the new transformations brought via AI and robotics. Germany has also proposed that the European Union (EU) create an agency to regulate AI.
Sputnik: Many in the industry are pushing OpenRAN technology as an alternative for vendor-specific hardware, namely in the wake of US trade restrictions and national Huawei bans. What are your thoughts on the platform and is it a viable replacement amid shortcomings in the UK and US 'rip and replace' telecommunications strategy?
Abishur Prakash: It is a powerful step towards an “open source” telecommunications set up. Instead of depending on one vendor such as Huawei or Nokia, companies can now “mix and match” using parts and equipment from different firms.
This is especially important for geopolitics of technology as many nations are excluding tech from certain nations, but still require a way to move forward without such foreign tech.
This group represents regions becoming “geopolitically activated” due to technology and instead of the US vs China on 6G, it may soon be North America vs China, or parts of Asia.
Sputnik: US president Donald Trump has passed a wave of sanctions against Chinese aviation firms COMAC and AVIC, as well as Russia's Irkut, in a bid to limit their access to US technologies. Does this have anything to do with Boeing's recent approval to return to flight, and what do you see happening to the firms amid the restrictions?
Abishur Prakash: Aerospace has largely remained absent in the current trade and tech war, but is still important.
For example, when the COMAC C919, China's first commercial passenger plane, was unveiled in 2015, Boeing had projected China’s demand for commercial airliners to be valued at $780 billion. This is a massive opportunity.
But China has also been trying to push its aerospace industry to be 100 percent locally sourced, meaning Beijing would use planes like the C919 with only Chinese parts and equipment, posing a dilemma for the US and the world.
Now, with the latest sanctions proposal, both US and Chinese firms will be cut off from each other. For the US, this is a massive business hit, although US firms could offset this by doubling down in markets like India and Africa.
But for China, the success of its companies, including those in aerospace, still depends on foreign technology. Without it, they cannot produce critical components like plane engines.
One strategy may be to emulate how Huawei has dealt with chip restrictions. The company did not go out of business. Instead, it is selling its lower-end smartphone brand, “Honor,” to focus on higher-end products and new services.
Sputnik: 15 Asia-Pacific nations have signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Vietnam — countries traditionally opposed to China's political and economic rise. How could this affect future relations between AU and NZ and their Five Eyes partners, and could this effectively end US economic power in the Asia-Pacific region?
Abishur Prakash: This is a massive trade deal, representing 30 percent of the world’s population (2.2bn), as well as 30 percent of the world economy ($26.2 trillion). Except, this trade deal is not clear cut. The basis of the trade deal may be free trade, but today, governments are more comfortable with fair trade.
Due to emerging technologies, many nations are putting up barriers to who can sell, such as in telecommunications, or invest where, such as in AI and robotics, meaning while certain trade barriers may be brought down through RCEP, others may stay and, because of tech, even newer ones may emerge.
Therefore, even after signing RCEP, the decisions that Australia and New Zealand make in terms of national security are unlikely to jeopardize the Five Eyes relationship. But there are two areas that need to be examined further.
RCEP may change the US role in Asia-Pacific as Washington has indirectly driven the integration of Asian economies over the past several decades via its businesses and economic policies.
With RCEP, the US is no longer the driving force, but rather, a group of economies overshadowed by China. Countries like Japan, Australia and South Korea will remain economic forces, but will not have the same resources or footprint as China.
Yesterday, it was companies like IBM and Microsoft that connected Asia. Going forward, it might be Alibaba and Baidu.
Tech also plays a role that few are discussing. While certain RCEP members may limit foreign tech, others could encourage it, with the deal further disseminating technologies like AI and robotics throughout the region on an unprecedented scale.
But this comes with major geopolitical challenges. Asian rivals like China and Japan will compete more aggressively to spread their tech globally, and nations buying Chinese tech will face blowback from the US and the West, and conversely.
Non-RCEP members like India may also compete to bring their own tech into the trading bloc.
The roadmap forward is not black and white, nor is it permanent. The way nations approach 5G may be discarded for 6G, and while governments target Chinese tech today, tomorrow it may be tech from another nation, the new status quo.
But the biggest underlying shift is that, for the first time, nations are not afraid to pull punches over technology. Everybody is standing up for what they believe is right, and in the process, geopolitics is being reset and redefined in extraordinary ways.