China’s Southeast Asian neighbors have expressed mixed interest in offers by telecom giant Huawei to roll out mobile wireless 5G networks and other products in their countries, amid concerns over the firm’s links to Beijing and how its technology could compromise national security.
In May, the U.S. Commerce Department added Huawei and nearly 70 affiliates to its prohibitive “entities list” of companies that pose a threat to the nation, based on the possibility that its products could be used for surveillance. Huawei is now required it to obtain special permission to purchase components from U.S. firms.
While U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration granted a license that allows U.S. companies to continue to offer Huawei support until mid-August, several major firms are now limiting their business with the Chinese company.
On Tuesday, Huawei Chairman Liang Hua told reporters visiting the company’s headquarters in Shenzhen, China, that it would be “willing to sign a no-spy agreement with the U.S.,” although he acknowledged that Washington had not expressed any interest in signing an agreement to purchase its technology.
Huawei is one of the world’s leaders in smartphone production and a top telecom provider of 5G networks, which analysts believe will transform society through high data transmission rates that can power self-driving cars, support remote surgery, and create smart cities that optimize the use of resources.
But in addition to blacklisting the firm over fears its technology could be coopted by the Chinese government for surveillance purposes, the U.S. is pushing other nations to also ban the telecom provider.
To the governments of developing nations like Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, Huawei’s products and networks offer an enticing means to leapfrog the limitations of existing infrastructure and significantly improve the lives of their citizens, as well as the economic health of their countries.
And while these three governments have increasingly turned away from the West to China in recent years—in part because Beijing offers assistance without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law—they are also wary of the influence their northern neighbor is exerting on their countries and the Asian region at large.
China offered its full support of the government of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen following an election last year that was widely seen as unfree and unfair, and Beijing has since prioritized improved relations with Phnom Penh.
Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
In April, during a trip by Hun Sen to Beijing, Cambodia signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with China to bring Huawei’s 5G technology to the country, and last week, Ministry of Telecommunications and Post Office spokesman Meas Po dismissed concerns over any threat the company posed to national security in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service.
“We will [know] through the use of software whether there is any spying and we are prepared to deal with any security issues,” he said, without elaborating on how authorities plan to protect sensitive government information and the privacy of the country’s citizens.
Meas Po said that Cambodia will introduce 5G networks to the market with Huawei’s help in 2020, and called the company “a long term partner” for the country.
“We don’t believe they have anything to do with spying,” he said.
However, Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that it is the responsibility of Cambodia’s government to ensure that all foreign companies conducting business in the country are “operating legally,” noting that several nations have adjusted their ties to Huawei amid concerns over spying.
Tim Malay, president of the Cambodian Youth Network, told RFA that Cambodia has put itself “at risk” by agreeing to bring Huawei’s 5G technology to the country, as the government lacks the knowledge and resources to ensure it is safe to use.
“This will affect our sovereignty and security,” he said.
“It will be dangerous for our future if our security is controlled by another country. The government needs to be very careful about how we proceed on cybersecurity.”
Analysts have said that Myanmar is also key to Chinese plans to expand its influence in Southeast Asia, and while the West has increasingly criticized its government for its human rights record and handling of the conflict with Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, Beijing has worked to build ties with Naypyidaw.
Last month, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to China and returned with a grant of 1 billion yuan (U.S. $148 million) for development projects the Foreign Ministry said would be used for projects to improve people’s livelihoods, studies for major projects and humanitarian assistance for people displaced by civil war in northern Myanmar.
At the end of May, Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe told the Nikkei Asian Review that Myanmar will maintain a level playing field for all companies, including Huawei, and said that it is “too soon to see what the effect will be,” when asked about U.S. concerns over the Chinese telecom’s potential threat to national security.
But speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service last week, Nay Phone Latt, a member of parliament and the founder of an Information Technology school in Yangon, acknowledged that “there is a lot of talk” about the potential dangers of Huawei’s 5G technology in Myanmar.
“Of course, [an agreement would result in] a lot of amazing things from a technological perspective, as they are very advanced, but the background of the company should not be ignored,” he said.
“If we move ahead considering only the technological advances, the vital information of our country could end up in the hands of other nations and that could lead to big trouble someday.”
The Ministry of Telecommunications had earlier said it welcomes Huawei’s presence in Myanmar and was preparing to procure new technology from the company, including security cameras for use in a project to fight crime in three townships in Mandalay Region, although no agreement has been signed with Huawei to set up a 5G network in the country to date.
Vietnam has also welcomed investment from China, though critics warn that Beijing is using loans, aid and infrastructure projects to push its own political agenda, and that mounting debt could force Hanoi to support its interests in Asia, such as its disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s government appears to have drawn a line, however, when it comes to ensuring the security of its network infrastructure, and has backed military-owned domestic telecom provider Viettel in its bid to develop 5G technology for the country, including chips and devices.
The company has already rolled out a 5G base station in Hanoi—with the support of Sweden’s Ericsson—with reported speeds of between 600 and 700 megabits per second, has plans to install 70 5G base stations by the end of this month in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, and claims to have invested around U.S. $40 million in the technology.
Viettel has vowed to develop 80 percent of Vietnam’s 5G network technology itself, and while the firm has acknowledged that it may need help from other multinational firms to complete the buildout, it has stated specifically that Huawei will not be involved.
Hanoi-based director of BKAV Software Company, Nguyen Tu Quang, recently told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that the decision to exclude Huawei from Vietnam’s 5G network buildout was based on security concerns.
“Even though the two countries are neighbors and their relationship is very good, they have engaged in multiple conflicts,” he said.
“Vietnam must protect itself, and depending on the infrastructure of a neighboring country would constitute a huge security risk.”
Le Hong Hiep, principal researcher at Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said in a recent article that developing its own 5G technology would be an economic boon for Vietnam and help to develop the country’s technology industry, as using low-cost equipment from Huawei would leave domestic operators with “little incentive to develop indigenous technology.”
He also acknowledged that Vietnam may have decided to avoid dealing with Huawei as part of a bid to improve relations with Washington, which has “made clear that those countries that use [Huawei’s] devices, especially for the 5G network, will not be able to continue defense cooperation with the U.S., particularly in terms of information and intelligence.”
“Currently Vietnam and the United States have not yet had substantive intelligence exchanges, but it is clear that Vietnam wants to pay attention to the U.S. warning to facilitate the development of security cooperation.”
Ultimately, he said, the decision reflects the Vietnamese government’s decision to ensure that it stays free from Chinese influence over national affairs.
“This is a clear indication that Vietnam places a strong emphasis on autonomy, especially with an aim to avoid reliance on China in areas that may be detrimental to national security,” he said.
Reported by Thanh Truc for RFA’s Vietnamese Service, Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service, and RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Channhu Hoang, Khin Maung Nyane, and Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.