The majority of Southeast Asian countries are side-stepping the “Cold War” over 5G technology after the United States launched a campaign against the Chinese firm Huawei, which it views as a security threat.
Countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia have declared themselves neutral in this spat, while the Chinese telecoms giant looks to be one of the main architects of the fifth generation of cellular network technology in this region of over 600 million people (excluding Vietnam).
Other companies that seek to play a part in the development of 5G in Southeast Asia are China’s ZTE, Finland’s Nokia and Sweden’s Ericsson.
The 5G technology, considered 100 times faster than 4G, is destined to transform the global economy as well as society by accelerating the development of robotics, the so-called Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and autonomous vehicles of the future.
Last year, both Australia and New Zealand excluded Huawei from the development of their own 5G networks for security reasons, due to the company’s perceived closeness to the Chinese government.
The US has accused Huawei of working in partnership with the Chinese authorities and military, creating “back doors” in its phones to allow Beijing to spy on its geopolitical foes, something that the corporation vehemently denies.
Huawei was included on a US government trade blacklist of foreign companies that firms are legally barred from conducting business with inside the country.
Japan is the latest country to exclude Huawei products.
"Yes, there may be some spying; but what is there to spy on in Malaysia?" said Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in May during an economic forum in Tokyo, with a hint of irony. “We’re an open book.”
The nonagenarian leader said that Malaysia would continue buying Huawei equipment and warned that the trade disputes between China and the US could devolve into a military conflict.
In a similar vein, Singapore has advocated remaining “objective” and not blacklisting Huawei, while Indonesia’s communications minister, Rudiantara, said in February that his country should eschew paranoia when it came to the Chinese manufacturer.
Authorities in Thailand have defended staying “neutral."
"Asian countries will not abandon Huawei and Chinese-made electronics," Thailand’s former finance minister Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala told EFE.
In his opinion, Thailand should refrain from joining the anti-Huawei campaign pushed by the US, since it would limit the country’s technological options.
Huawei has a “clear head-start” in the 5G race and offers the most competitive prices, he added.
In April, Huawei signed a deal with Cambodia to develop its 5G infrastructure for 2020 and is currently negotiating similar agreements in other countries in the region, including Thailand and the Philippines, both traditional US allies.
In Thailand, the Chinese company is working on a pilot project alongside the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission and Chulalongkorn University.
The only mobile providers in the Philippines, Globe and PLDT, have said they would diversify their hardware providers to avoid being caught in the middle of the US-China dispute, though they are relying on Huawei for their future 5G network.
Philippine authorities signed a P20 billion ($383 million) contract with China Telecom and Huawei to create a video surveillance system with 18 city-level command centers in Metro Manila and Davao aiming to reduce crime rates and improving emergency response times.
Both the Chinese firm and the US’ Qualcomm are waging a campaign to promote their 5G technology in Indonesia, although this country has yet to announce a deal with either.
Vietnam seems to be following its own path, led by the military-owned Viettel, which is developing its own 5G tech and in the past few weeks has been running several trials ahead of next year’s expected launch.
According to several analysts, Vietnam’s rejection of Huawei is motivated by its traditional mistrust towards China (despite the countries’ ideological closeness) and its intention of developing its own technology and becoming a regional power in this field, independent from China.