A report in the Australian press claims that Huawei, shunned by the US, Australia and a host of other Western nations, is the front-runner to build Malaysia’s nationwide 5G network.
Depending on what you have read or believe, this is either a stunningly bold move on Malaysia’s part to go against the supposed ‘norm’ or exposing itself to the Chinese state espionage threat that could threaten its very existence.
Before we delve into the pros and cons of such a deal, it’s worth noting a statement by Kiang Ming Ong, who was deputy minister of international trade and industry in the previous Malaysian government, that Malaysia did not share fears that Huawei’s technology posed a security threat.
The likelihood, he said in a report in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, “was that Huawei would be selected by a specially formed 5G government agency as the majority provider for Malaysia’s so-called single wholesale network.”
“The thinking in Malaysia is different from Australia,” Kian Ming Ong said. “Firstly, we have not been exposed to any concrete proof that there is spying equipment or capabilities for Huawei in their existing products.
“Secondly, even if there is this kind of possibility of this kind of thing being put into the network, we’ve not experienced the kind of industrial espionage in Malaysia that perhaps has been the case for many Western countries.”
This must be raising eyebrows in Australia as it considers itself, rightly or wrongly, as some sort of guiding force amongst its SE Asian neighbours. After all, Australia raised the initial concerns about Huawei that were jumped upon by President Donald Trump as a critical weapon against China in his trade war.
In another report in the Sydney Morning Herald, published in May 2019, agents of the Australian Signals Directorate, the nation’s top-secret eavesdropping agency – found that 5G could be exploited for spying and to sabotage critical infrastructure. The Australians had long harboured misgivings about Huawei in existing networks, but the 5G war game was a turning point.
Washington is widely seen as having taken the initiative in the global campaign against Huawei Technologies, but only after the Australians shared their findings with US leaders that other countries, including the United States, moved to restrict Huawei.
Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet divulged exactly how Huawei’s 5G equipment or underlying code can give the Chinese government an espionage advantage. Why and how is Huawei’s 5G kit any different from ZTE, Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung? Have any of them come under the same level of scrutiny?
If you were even remotely cynical, you would have to assume that Huawei was targeted because of its incredible success in becoming the world’s leading telecoms equipment supplier. And for good reason. Huawei ploughed a large percentage of its revenue into R&D, had staff members attend every 5G standardisation meeting and hired so many of the key technical staff being dumped by Western companies during the countless rounds of M&A and downsizing to satisfy the profit demands of stakeholders and investors.
Huawei was made the scapegoat for the failings of US and European companies to remain technology leaders. It was made the target of anti-Chinese rhetoric and a futile trade war triggered by President Trump. Perhaps if the USA had spent less money on fighting wars in the Middle East and more on subsidising tech investments and policies such as China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, it would have been better able to compete fairly with China.
While the US was starting and fighting wars, China was investing in African and Asian countries and was seen as a benevolent partner by many. No wonder Chinese firms like Huawei and ZTE were met with open arms and able to win major deals. It’s not unlike the not too distant past when companies like Siemens, Alcatel, Lucent, Nokia and Ericsson were able to provide telcos with finance to purchase their equipment. Did anybody question where that money came from? Was it state-sponsored in some cases?
It should not be surprising that CyberSecurity Malaysia “was strengthening relations with Huawei and the company’s end-to-end capability, its cheaper pricing and its long-term presence and investment in Malaysia that put it in the box seat when it comes to 5G.”
Kian Ming Ong did not hold back that Australia’s hard-line stance on Huawei was a mistake. “By making these kinds of actions, Australia ends up hurting itself in the long run. By trying to play this divide-and-conquer game together with the US, I think Australia is being a little shortsighted,” he said.
“In the context of ASEAN, there are going to be more countries adopting Huawei’s technology and equipment in the 5G rollout than not.”
And Malaysia is not alone in breaking ranks with the anti-Huawei lobby. Maybe, just maybe, countries are seeing through the bombastic bullying, political plays and unsubstantiated reports of yet to be revealed ‘back doors’.