When Technology and Politics Collide: How to Manage Geotechnology Risk

Geotechnology issues are a growing global risk for multinationals. I examine what does geotechnology risk entail and how can it be managed effectively.

In 2020 the UK ordered the removal of all Huawei infrastructure across the country by 2027 . Initially the UK had welcomed Huawei’s investment, but warnings from parliament, the intelligence services and from the US steered the government in a new direction. The Huawei ban effectively brought to an end to the “golden era” of relations between the two nations.

Huawei’s global power has grown steadily across the last decade as it leads the way in providing cutting edge 5G infrastructure. The company with origins in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army has been pivotal in developing new technologies such as 5G which allows unprecedented connectivity. Allowing people to watch videos and use the internet on the go. 5G is also crucial to developing the Internet of Things (IoT).

5G and the IoT allows millions of physical devices to be connected to the internet opening up new possibilities such as driverless cars and smart jackets. The IoT also enables so called smart cities with thousands of sensors providing up to date information on everything from traffic, to air quality to security. Connectivity allows constant feedback loops that allow officials to monitor and improve on key performance indicators. Critics would argue they also allow officials to snoop and spy on citizens.  

Technology has been pivotal in geopolitical battles through history. Now new technologies are driving new political divisions which create global risks for organisations.

Tech Rules the World

Technology companies now make up roughly a quarter of the world’s stock markets. While European firms do have strengths in areas like the development of 5G (Eriksson) and Software (SAP). It is increasingly China and the US that dominate the global tech scene. Large domestic markets, access to finance and entrepreneurial culture have all helped the US and China cultivate strong technology sectors. Now firms are looking to dominate new areas such as fintech, climatetech and the internet of things to build and dominate new markets.

This rivalry has been demonstrated by the global political row over Huawei. Building 5G infrastructure appeared to be dull behind the scenes job. But in fact, building 5G allows Huawei enormous power over the development of this critical technology and standards that regulate it. Huawei is a private company. However, like all Chinese firms – the Beijing government can exercise a great deal of control over their actions and would expect full cooperation if required.

Tech is a Political Choice

China and the US are both competing to set global technology standards. When countries choose Huawei over a western firm for 5G or vice versa they risk angering the other side.

The Australian government moved to ban Huawei from its 5G networks along with the US and other countries. This rejection of Chinese technology along with other factors caused a major diplomatic rift with China. China banned Australia imports of wine and beef, while Chinese investment in Australia has fallen 61 percent in 2020.

China is Australia’s biggest economic partner so declining trade and investment relations is a major blow to the nation’s economy. However, Australia has effectively followed the lead of the US its major diplomatic, military and intelligence partner in rejecting Huawei on national security grounds.

Choose Wisely

Companies or countries that select Huawei even for part of a 5G network will faces political pressure and exclusion from the US networks. Interoperability between different networks can also be a potential issue, while different 5G providers can work together it is more efficient to use one carrier which in turn makes choosing a single vendor more likely in the longer term.

Battles over infrastructure have a long history. Britain pressured Egypt and France into taking control over the newly built Suez Canal in the nineteenth century and fought unsuccessfully to retain that control in the 1950s. Today China often receives a political dividend from its sprawling Belt and Road infrastructure investments in every corner of the globe.

Competing Network Initiatives

The US has actively promoted their Clean Network Initiative an attempt exclude China from global telecommunication networks. China has responded with their own Global Data Security Initiative described as the Chinese attempt to write rules on data governance. Dominance in this sphere gives the winner a major advantage in terms of intelligence gathering, commercial edge and political firepower.

China’s Digital Allies

In contrast Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have embraced Huawei which is rapidly rolling out 5G across the region. China views this rollout as part of the Digital Silk Road itself a strand of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, the cornerstone of China’s foreign policy.

Saudi Arabia’s decision use Huawei is likely to see it align itself more closely with China on tech policy. The countries are perhaps natural partners in this sphere as they both share a top-down approach to governance and rejection of western human rights norms. This approach could eventually lead to rifts with the US, Saudi Arabia’s traditional security partner. 

While some US allies have effectively banned Chinese firms from 5G infrastructure taking the side of the US. Others such as Turkey have used both Chinese and western firms for 5G infrastructure in an attempt to placate both sides.

However, trying to remain independent will become more difficult to maintain over time as 5G becomes more widespread and both the US and China may push countries to take digital sides.

Hard Data Choices

Tiktok was the first global social media brand born in China. Designed for creating short form videos the App spread rapidly becoming the most downloaded App in the world in 2020. Tiktok and its parent Bytedance were gathering data from their user base across the world (of course no different from other firms).

Concerns were raised when it was clear that large amounts of data could be indirectly accessed by the Chinese government (although a CIA report concluded that they had not done so). This coincided with growing digital nationalism particularly between the US and China.

The Trump Administration soon moved to ban TikTok or force its sale to a US company. Trump’s Executive Order was blocked by the US courts but eventually a deal was hammered out to ensure US consumer’s data was not held in Chinese jurisdiction.

There was speculation that US also feared TikTok because it was dominating a newly important industry, namely Social Media. This is an industry the US had a stranglehold over since its birth, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were all started in the US . Many saw Chinese firm arriving to disrupt the sector which collects huge amounts of data and now has incredible political power. This pushed the US to act and try to stop TikTok’s runaway growth.

Growing Digital Nationalism

TikTok is not the only case. India has banned 177 Chinese Apps on the grounds they present a “threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India”. India and many others do not want to see a rival like China to gain dominance in key platforms such as social media.

Data localisation laws are also likely to become more popular. Governments and citizens concerned about data leakage and sovereignty will demand that data collected within the country should remain there.

Making decisions around buying technology hardware or software might at first seem like a choice between brands, price and which has the most advanced or appropriate technology. In fact, it is clear that technology choices are increasingly having a geopolitical impact. Organisations need to actively manage this risk.

How Can Organisations Manage this Risk?

Geotechnology risk is technology driven geopolitical or global risks or change which impact the operations of an organisation.

Consider your geopolitical choices when backing a Chinese or European company for any kind of technology service, infrastructure or hardware. It might seem like a technical choice but in fact it is a political one with long term implications.

Digital Nationalism is here to stay so preparation is essential. Organisations need to thoroughly understand geotechnology threats. Understanding who in your organisation is responsible for overall political risk is crucial. They need to be supported with information to make effective decisions.

Multinationals should be aware of data onshoring governments like the US. IF they view their citizen’s data as being exposed or misused or their essential interests under threat by others will move to protect them. This could include sanctions or taking legal action against foreign companies.

These are the questions Executives need to be asking themselves

Can we work with stakeholders, business partners, regulators suppliers, governments national and local to manage Geotech risk in a similar way to managing geopolitical risk. All these stakeholders could have a different reaction to this risk. But there could be severe commercial and reputational consequences if firm is partnered with another from China, the US or other country which is then suddenly barred from working with national governments.

Firms should question whether they have the ability in house or hired in to understand and track Geotech risk. Understanding an often fast changing landscape is difficult as many understand the tech or the geopolitics, but rarely the interplay of the two.

What can be done to effectively manage Geotechnology risk? Companies should be proactively managing these risks. Can they influence stakeholders to prevent or smooth over politically charged issues. Speaking with government or regulators to see and influence events before they become a risk will help organisations navigate political risks.

Deciding on technology partners should be considered with a political lens as well technical and pricing considerations. How will that firm’s national origins be viewed now or if there is political friction in their countries of operation. The national origins of any technology partner should be considered whether it is Chinese, Japanese, German or Vietnamese. Firms from all countries carry a potential risk.

Be prepared for complexity. Governments may require tech firms to be divided or set up separate arms. This could mean one arm serving Chinese markets and another Western markets with clear national divisions in data hosting and usage. This could also mean companies working more through alliances rather than formal mergers to avoid regulations.

Horizon Scanning

Scanning for future technology based risks is an important activity for any prudent firm. The emergence of driverless cars, ever more advanced artificial intelligence and renewable energy are all future flashpoints of competition and disruption. Both the US, China, Russia and many others will view critical technologies as worth shielding and protecting from foreign competition and interference if the political climate becomes worse.

Protectionism

For example the US is trying to protect its solar panel industry from Chinese dominance. China successfully subsidised its renewable technology sector for years to achieve higher market share. But other nations do not necessarily want to be dependent on Chinese imports for solar and wind tech.

Understanding how competitors have dealt with geotechnology risk is crucial. Learning from the mistakes and lessons of others will allow organisations to hone their own strategy.

Politically motivated cyber attacks are another threat. Governments or their proxies may be driven to attack organisations because of links or even perceived links to governments. Large companies or organisations like banks or infrastructure companies like the US’s Colonial Pipeline or the UK’s National Health Service could be targets because of their strategic importance.

Turning Geotechnological Risks to your Advantage

Understanding and monitoring technology based risks and how it can combine with geopolitical risk effectively. By effectively identifying rising digital nationalism and how some companies or sectors will be impacted by this change. Once identified these sectors/companies can be avoided if possible. A well informed company may identify growing digital nationalism in advance and plan accordingly. This might mean ensuring they have geographically flexible data storage options.

Geopolitical Arbitrage

Far sighted organisations may identify opportunities in the growing digital divide and turn them to their advantage. This could mean carefully surveying the political pressures that push out other firms from working in a country. After all any organisation or company excluded because of political pressures leaves a gap in the market. This is arguably a very cynical play, but a well prepared firm can potentially take advantage of another’s misfortune.