For decades, America’s friends in the developing world saw United States foreign assistance in the form of funds for food, public health, and support for civic reforms and democratic institutions. They thought of the United States Agency for International Development mostly as the provider of humanitarian assistance and relief. Today, they see USAID and foreign assistance on their mobile phones.

That’s because America’s foreign assistance has undergone a major transformation in priority areas. While we still serve in a global humanitarian role, we also are active in an area that was unheard of a decade ago — the development and adoption of next-generation telecommunications and mobile technology, including 5G. Americans need to understand why this is so important.  

The Biden Transition Team needs to understand why this is so important.  

The simplest answer is that in today’s global economy, especially one in upheaval thanks to the COVID-19 outbreak, secure and fast telecommunications networks are essential to a nation’s prosperity. Today, there is a global race to deploy and shape the 5G mobile telecommunications ecosystem. The technology promises to greatly expand the number and nature of devices that connect to the mobile internet and can allow an emerging nation to expand its use of digital technology into all industries.

People all over the world will feel the impact in small but important ways. Faster download speeds make it easier for a child in a Nigerian village to video chat with a teacher in the capital city. More robust systems allow doctors in India to analyze x-rays faster. Mobile money transactions will be more secure in Colombia. The global supply chain — so critical in providing all aspects of relief from COVID-19, from PPE to the upcoming rollout of vaccinations — will be more responsive.  Public sector services will be more effective and citizen-centric worldwide. This can all happen — if the technology is allowed to be inclusive, open and secure. America can help emerging market countries along their journeys to self-reliance through the application of technologies like 5G. 

Sadly, not everyone shares our goals.

Beijing’s 5G offering is anchored by companies like Huawei and ZTE — tools of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state. Any nation that adopts Chinese technology will, by design, allow Beijing access to all of its communications and data including vital and top-secret information kept by governments as well as the personal and financial information of people throughout the developing world. The CCP’s National Intelligence Law of 2017 affirmatively obligates Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE to share all data requested with the Chinese government. This includes data that Huawei and ZTE collect through their networking and cellphone systems around the world. The Huawei device held in one’s hand becomes, literally, the route through which the CCP can monitor that individual’s activities. And finances. And health concerns. And corporate activities. And government interactions.  

The CCP’s distribution of this technology to developing nations could be a human rights catastrophe on a global scale. This is one of the United States has led a global campaign to stop the spread of untrusted network equipment around the world.

In America’s foreign assistance work, we have made an active case to other nations that they are better off operating with technologies developed by trusted firms in the U.S. and allied countries. This is part of what I call our national drive to on-shore, near-shore and allied-shore manufacturing, production, and management of global networks.

The Biden administration should continue making the case for the American model for technological innovation. 

American technology, unlike Beijing’s, does not emerge from a central planning process. It is often organic and even sometimes serendipitous, yielding benefits that couldn’t have been foreseen or even hoped for. Results of invention often cannot be predicted. That is the American model in a nutshell.

The fact that Huawei’s 5G systems may be hamstrung by lack of access to American technology proves the point.  Without access to America’s semiconductor technology, Huawei will soon run out of the chips necessary to manufacture its technologies, and its ability to upgrade and service systems will become limited. 

The exclusion strategies to counter the PRC’s cyberwarfare against the United States have bipartisan support, and there is no area in which they are more present than in the battlefields of emerging markets. 

Also in receipt of bipartisan support is legislation to advance technology research in emerging areas like quantum computing and artificial intelligence. American innovation remains one of the best ways we can invest in American global leadership and security.  And increasingly it is going to be the basis of our assistance to nations trying to rise out of poverty and approach self-reliance.

Most of all, we want emerging nations to adopt a model for technological innovation that mirrors our own: open-ended, intellectually curious, private-sector led, iterative, competitive, and rooted in the rigors and opportunities of the free market. That’s the path of development we champion and for which I am certain America will always be known.

The path is clearly laid out for the Biden Administration. Those of us who believe in the power that technology promises in emerging markets, regardless of Party affiliation, will support this path.  

Bonnie Glick is a Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Former Deputy Administrator of the US Agency for International Development. Follow her on Twiteer @Bonnie_Glick

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