Less than two months ago Australia was perched alone, like a shag on a rock, in its hard line banning of Huawei from the network build. It was not supposed to remain like this, with the Five Eyes Anglophone intelligence sharing alliance all but set to join us.
Australia finds itself in the unusual position of being at the forefront of a global technology issue by standing up to Huawei on two landmark occasions, first on the NBN and then on 5G.
But in recent weeks, support for Australia’s stance has come not just from Japan, an important security ally, but also (and here’s a surprise, on the surface at least) Vietnam.
In danger of being left as a lone voice in the wilderness, albeit one waiting for the peripatetic Trump administration to finally deliver on its promise, Australia now has far more China savvy support than its Anglophone allies could offer. Of any two countries to be joined in a battle with China, these are the ones Australia wants on its side.
Both have a loathing of China born of historic competition and Chinese occupation: Japan and China have been in a millennia long battle for bragging rights to north Asian culture and Vietnam has a deep seated antipathy fomented during China’s 1,000 year on-off occupation. This surfaced most recently in the 1979 border war, when it staved off an attempted Chinese invasion of its north.
Japan and Vietnam are the countries with the largest and most knowledgeable intelligence forces devoted to China. If anyone understands how the Chinese government might use Huawei mobile networks, it would be Japan and Vietnam – and both have huge technology industry sectors.
Japan has a strong network equipment legacy and Vietnam has been singularly successful in capturing the largest share of mobile equipment and smartphone manufacturing in Southeast Asia.
On April 10 NTT Docomo, KDDI and SoftBank – along with new entrant Rakuten – received a spectrum allocation from the Japanese telecoms ministry. At the same time, the regulator in Japan confirmed as permanent a provisional ban they had placed in December on Huawei of ZTE equipment in any networks.
Japan has two homegrown telecoms equipment makers in Fujitsu and NEC, and in the past has also utilized veteran European vendors Nokia and Ericsson.
Vietnam is taking a bolder path, promising that state-owned Viettel the country’s largest mobile service provider will develop, initially, at least core chip technology – a move that is an indicator of how vulnerable the world’s second most populous Communist country believes 5G networks can be.
It is the core chips that process the data from the multiple devices, both smartphones and a range of industrial and consumer devices as the internet of things.
The headline advantage of 5G over previous technologies, beyond significantly improved data speeds, is the ability for a single base station to hold onto vastly more connections at one time, thus finally delivering on the Internet of Things, also known as the industrial mobile internet.
It also signals the first new entrant into the vendor market since the emergence of the Chinese players several decades ago into a market that has continued to consolidate in face of the spectacular growth of Huawei in particular.
Viettel carries about half Vietnam’s mobile users and has already invested millions of dollars to develop 5G chips. It is also working on developing devices with 5G chips, the company told Nikkei Asian Review.
Viettel plans to complete the trial for an initial version of a 5G base station by the end of 2019 then test a 5G station network by 2020 and offer products in 2021.
The group decided to develop and produce core network equipment “to avoid the risk of being unable to support the safety and security of the national telecommunications network,” a representative told NAR, adding that Viettel aims to produce “80 per cent of its telecom core network infrastructure equipment by 2020.”
It is worth noting that major telecoms network vendors including Huawei, ZTE, Ericsson and Nokia use a range of specialized chip makers for their silicon processors including Intel, Xilinx, Broadcom, Skyworks, Qor, Huawei has also been pouring billions of dollars into efforts to develop its own chips.
The unexpected news from Vietnam came ahead of the May 14 declaration by US President Donald Trump about US technology security aa he signed off on a widespread ban on Chinese tech vendors that will exclude Huawei and ZTE from US 5G networks.
But while Australia and the US are holding firm on Huawei the UK, New Zealand and Canada have all been backsliding, bowing to the simultaneous carrot and stick approach from Beijing that has also seen other major countries like Germany refuse to agree to a Huawei ban.
As for other major Asian nations South Korea, a country has for some decades been an international pioneer of broadband technology both fixed and mobile, has once again been a network pioneer rolling out 5G using its own homegrown Samsung equipment, as well as European vendors.
China, too has been an early 5G mover deploying its local vendors’ equipment, Some Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand and the Philippines appear to be leaning towards the Chinese vendors as Beijing ramps up its program of economic imperialism.
The next major 5G shoe to drop in Asia is Singapore, southeast Asia’s self-styled technology hub. The country has announced it wants to be a 5G test hub, in an effort to attract mobile applications and services companies to make the city-state their Asian base.
Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority called for interested telcos to submit 5G proposals on May 7 that it will use to develop plans for licences expected be handed out later in the year.
But so far they have played their cards very close to their chests on whether Huawei, the major vendor in the city’s impressive all-fibre national broadband network, will be permitted to play a role in 5G.
If it is, it may cruel their plans to become the region’s 5G development hub. The increasingly tech-savvy Vietnam will be watching closely.