Published 19 September 2023
The next generation of telecommunications standards is emerging in the form of 6G. As the 5G era gives way to 6G, a new scramble for market and technological influence will ensue. Enduring tensions in the current geopolitical climate are bound to influence the new telecommunications standard – right from the point of design.
A new generation of telecommunications standards is emerging: In the years ahead, the 5G era will give way to 6G. This will catalyze a new scramble for market and technological influence. The result may be a global telecommunications network that is as fragmented as the geopolitical environment has become.
The 5G competition was a race with competitors all headed for a single prize; the 6G era may more likely resemble a quiltwork with dividing lines more starkly drawn. Enduring tensions in the US-China geopolitical competition are poised to bleed into a new telecommunications standard – right from the point of design.
China is already eyeing the lead in this new 6G competition. A common refrain in Chinese planning for the telecommunications competition up to this point charts the evolutionary path as: "1G blank, 2G lagging behind, 3G following, 4G paralleling, and 5G leading." Now, Chinese political and industry leaders intend to build on the global position of leadership that Beijing established in 5G as the 6G era dawns.
As 5G was in the process of becoming the geopolitical buzzword of the past few years, research, development, and commercial experimentation were already underway for the 6G scramble on the horizon. In June 2021, China’s IMT-2030 (6G) Promotion Group – a consortium of leading Chinese government organs, universities, telecommunications operators, equipment companies, and chipset and terminal makers aimed at developing 6G and international collaboration – published what has become an authoritative Chinese text on 6G planning, “6G Vision and Candidate Technologies.” This white paper is a product of a two-year, Ministry of Industry and Information Technology-led effort to develop a strategic vision for China’s 6G development. The report describes China’s vision for 6G as the bid to realize “an era of intelligence.” It also describes an ambition to fully commercialize 6G networks by 2030.
State-owned Chinese telecommunications champions, like China Unicom, have already taken up the mantle and are aiming to introduce early 6G applications by 2025.1
The People's Republic of China’s (PRC) approach to 6G is the logical continuation and extension of how China frames, and why it emphasizes 5G leadership – and President Xi Jinping’s “network great power” strategy generally.2 In its execution, China’s 6G ambition benefits both from Beijing’s industrial policy and the international leadership that China’s state-supported telecommunications equipment champions, such as Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corp. have already established.
Technological gains despite geopolitical pains
6G promises gains analogous to those that have propelled 5G to the tips of the tongues of business and political leaders alike: This generation of advances in telecommunications capacity and bandwidth is projected to cement the long-awaited “Internet of Things” (IoT) future. The 6G world, even more so than today’s scattershot rollouts of 5G globally, will be one where not just everyone, but also every physical object, is able to connect and communicate constantly. It will be powered by constellations of terrestrial base stations and by low-earth orbit satellites. It will allow driverless cars to function in sync with their smart city environs and enable new networking and communications innovations. On a technical level, 6G is projected to use millimeter waves more extensively than 5G as well as higher terahertz frequency bands (100GHz-10THz); by comparison, the highest frequency band for 5G is the 24GHz-40GHz millimeter wave frequency band. Industry experts and researchers also expect 6G to deliver coverage, costs, and opportunities for network intelligence superior to 5G. In sum, augmented reality will be more efficient, and your 6G video teleconference may be with holograms and feature a variety of in-call suggestions powered by artificial intelligence (AI).
Increased capacity and processing power will require far greater radio frequency bandwidths and specialized chips to power 6G devices. The expectation is that 6G networks will provide channels for more information to flow; they will do the same for security risks. As more legacy, industrial, and critical real-world functions become digitized by 6G networks, those functions will be at risk of disruption by 6G-enabled attacks.
The risks that will proliferate in a 6G world are not limited to ever larger cyber-attack surfaces: The hardware supply chains – think Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) sensors that measure distance around a car and are critical to autonomous driving – to support 6G adoption and operations will also become potential attack surface and therefore a competitive battleground. As the experiences of COVID-19 supply shocks and the battlefield in Ukraine have proven over the past five years, technology supply chains are central to economic and security policy in today’s global geopolitical contest.
Those supply chain and security realities make 6G a geopolitical as well as a commercial contest: Technological and commercial success in 6G will beget not just broader information technology development opportunities, but also corresponding global influence. Any country’s AI companies, auto players, and network companies all stand to be empowered should their allied upstream telecommunications and networking players lead in 6G intellectual property and eventual operational deployments.
The geopolitical stakes are high: As a country’s national champions in downstream segments gain market share internationally, they rewrite the telecommunications rules globally – and therefore build out leverage and influence. For China, this ambition is reflected in and supports Xi’s “network great power” strategy; it also promises to deliver instruments of power projection for China’s military-civil fusion system.3
The economic and security implications of 6G guarantee that such emergent telecommunications technological developments carry geopolitical significance. And that reality affects every invested player, whether they report back to Washington, Beijing, or Brussels.
An open field, with fragmented turf
The race for leadership in 6G reflects the differences in interest and intent of Chinese and international players: Chinese industry observers and government voices have been concerned about US efforts to develop a “small circle” of allies intent on delaying Beijing’s progress. US, Japanese, South Korean, and European tech leaders have been characterized by Chinese sources as working to “curb the development of China's high-tech enterprises and China's development.”4 America’s “Next G Alliance” has similarly been framed as a bid for sustained geopolitical hegemony. This effort brings together American and European industry and government equities to compete across technology standards-setting bodies – a counter to the vision defined and pursued by Beijing through the China Standards 2035 banner.5 Japan too has been deliberate in seeking out global partnerships to support its Beyond 5G Promotion Consortium, further stoking concerns in Beijing of democratic encirclement.
But the “state-led, enterprise-driven” beat that China’s 6G effort marches to is not replicated in other national campaigns. The United States remains plagued by difficulty coordinating across government authorities and motivating public-private cooperation with a private sector still very much dependent on China. The same coordination challenges apply across other Western and democratic consortia. Qualcomm and Ericsson, for instance, have very different ideas on launch windows. This is a problem and a reflection of a persistent disjunction in the West between the technology sector needed to bring 6G to life and Washington policymakers aiming to regulate its rollout.
Defining a unified vision for 6G funding, regulation, and commercialization is a continuing challenge for Washington. Despite that, the US government has done a good job applying its defensive tools to this fight. Technology export restrictions have made it more difficult for parts of Huawei’s business and increased the costs for China’s telecommunications players that need cutting-edge chips, though recent reports suggest Huawei may be able to overcome these hurdles6. The application of an outbound investment screening authority that could prevent US investors from funding Chinese artificial intelligence (AI) companies raises the cost of capital for China’s tech industry. American political dynamics suggest that these restrictions are likely to continue to increase and pose challenges for China as the telecom sector closes in on 6G standards over the next couple of years.
The geopolitical and technical have become inseparable in the realm of 6G. That, in turn, guarantees that the technologies and supply chains that support 6G development will be subject to and instruments for geopolitical competition. As macroeconomics continue to be shaped by US-China competition, it is likely the case that future telecommunications networks and trade and investment patterns will turn increasingly bipolar, with one system set by Chinese standards and another by global alternatives.
China’s success in 5G – through international standard-setting, like those promulgated through 3GPP (The 3rd Generation Partnership Project is an umbrella term for a number of standards organizations which develop protocols for mobile telecommunications) – poses a difficult task for democratic governments that desire a different outcome for a new telecommunications standard. Chinese companies, like Huawei, maintain outsized influence and capacity to shape outcomes in 3GPP. And the coordination challenge that standard setting poses for democratic governments and industries means that Beijing, which mostly owns and closely controls its private sector, will continue to have a competitive advantage moving forward.
Building on solid ground
Xi’s vision for China’s science and technology sector calls for “self-reliance” but acknowledges the reality of the need for international engagement. As distillations of Xi Jinping Thought, his ideological doctrine for national development, conclude: “No country can become an independent innovation center or enjoy the fruits of innovation alone.”7 China is meant to “firmly hold onto the bull nose of independent innovation of core technologies” while retaining integration with global markets for the purposes of both technology and market access.8
China is likely to lead on 6G. The size of China’s market, the capacity to execute on telecommunications infrastructure, and the technological capacity of firms like Huawei make this clear. China currently has a majority of 6G patents in the world and the likes of Huawei, ZTE, and Tsinghua University are regularly reported to be making technical breakthroughs. For example, in June 2022, Huawei’s 6G research team was reported to have completed the “6G E-band V2X field test” at a 6G technology demonstration site in Chengdu; real progress on tests of this nature would mean that China’s “vehicle-to-everything” approach to autonomous driving may bear fruit in lockstep with 6G rollout.9 Consistent with China’s broader “state-led, enterprise-driven” development model, the Chinese government has also had its hand in spurring necessary research and development.
Take, for example, the explicit prioritization of funding for “information functional materials for 5G and 6G communications” in the 14th Five-Year Plan of the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NNSF). China’s advantage in the build-up to 6G is that its network construction expertise will be transferrable and magnified by China’s strength in low-earth orbit satellite development.10 The shift from 5G to 6G will be powered, in part, by connectivity between base stations and space-based network nodes orbiting in LEO constellations.
China’s capacity to deliver base stations and corresponding cabling and networking gear has been instrumental in the country’s 5G ascendancy.
And those advantages are enhanced by raw material advantages that support China’s ability to produce necessary chipsets. These upstream advantages are well understood by China’s economic planning apparatus and activated through China’s state-led, enterprise-driven model. Huawei has made strides in securing vertical integration all along the value chain for building and deploying advanced telecommunications networks. Huawei’s HiSilicon chip subsidiary has made strides in manufacturing compound semiconductors. Huawei’s corporate venture arm has also invested directly in leading next-generation semiconductor materials operations in China.11 Those corporate strategy decisions directly take the lead from Beijing’s state apparatus, such as the recent export restriction on semiconductor materials gallium and germanium. But the United States is not without advantages – its market size, innovation edge, and its ability to weaponize its control over chip equipment and tech makers – if marshaled cohesively, could reshape its hand in an increasingly bifurcated world.
A new era of geopolitics means a new era of trade
The connected world that developments in 6G – and information technology more generally -- portend is one of minimized tactical friction: Cars could drive themselves; communications will ping more rapidly; money moves with the scan of an eyeball.
However, the nature of the current US-China competition means that frictionless commerce and communications will not be achievable in the macro environment. The world is diverging. The race for 6G dominance underscores the strategic reality as much as the technological advances. Trade and investment patterns that flow along and over communications networks will be shaped by the new geopolitical reality.
The fractured geopolitical picture means a bi or multi-polar layout at the technical level for new telco networks. China’s market share dominance is unlikely to convert to pure global leadership in 6G. And the trade and investment patterns that build on this multi-polar network scene are equally likely to diverge from the current degree of globalization. Apple may well be churning out a future generation of iPhones for a 6G world that will have to draw on different motherboards for different markets.
In such a world, technology and geopolitics will mutually reinforce each other into distinct orbits. Consumers may find additional friction added to their tech applications. Yesterday’s model of globalized telecommunications standards is about to be supplanted.
 Alan Weissberg, "China to introduce early 6G applications by 2025- way in advance of 3GPP specs & ITU-R standards," IEEE, March 27, 2023.
 Rush Doshi, Emily de La Bruyère, Nathan Picarsic, and John Ferguson, "China as a Cyber Great Power: Beijing’s Two Voices in Telecommunications," Brookings, August 2021.
 Emily de La Bruyère "The Network Great-Power Strategy: A Blueprint for China’s Digital Ambitions," National Bureau of Asian Research, April 28, 2021, Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, Military-Civil Fusion: China’s Approach to R&D, Implications for Peacetime Competition, and Crafting a US Strategy, 2019 USN/NPS Acquisition Research Symposium, May 2019.
 Yu Yaqian, "6G anti-Chinese 'small circle' fully exposes the domineering style of the United States," [6G排华“小圈子”充分暴露美国霸道做派] Xinhua, December 5, 2021.
 Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic, "China Standards 2035: Beijing’s Platform Geopolitics and Standardization Work in 2020," Horizon Advisory, April 2020.
 Vlad Savov, Huawei's Mystery Phone Shows Wireless Speeds as Fast as Apple, Bloomberg, September 2023.
 "Create the future together Xi Jinping advocates broadening the road of international scientific and technological cooperation," [共创未来 习近平倡导拓宽国际科技合作之路] CCTV, September 24, 2021.
 Wang Yukai, "Promote the realization of high-level technological self-reliance and self-improvement with breakthroughs in key core technologies," [以关键核心技术突破推动实现高水平科技自立自强] Guangming Online, February 19, 2023.
 "Technology pre-research first, China's '6G' will be in the first echelon of the world," [技术预研先行，中国'6G'将处于全球第一梯队] Shanghai Observer, November 16, 2022.
 "The US and China are in a Space Race: Who’s Counting Laps?" Force Distance Times, November 3, 2022.
 Mary Hui, "Indium Phosphide Could be Critical to China’s Semiconductor Ambitions," Force Distance Times, July 26, 2023.
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