For many economies, 5G innovation It brings opportunities for the world to expand the economic ladder in the technical field, which will support the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) based on connectivity and data drive. But for big powers, 5G innovation is an emerging battlefield under technological, economic and military rule. With all its economic prospects, this next-generation technology may become an ASEAN nightmare. The organization lists the choice between major countries as one of the most important organizations.
Many warnings from the Trump administration reflect the geopolitical forces supported by the technology. These warnings are mainly based on cybersecurity risks and backdoor espionage, and prohibit the integration of Chinese 5G technology into national information and communication networks.
The Washington warning has not caught the attention of the world. Like the European Union, ASEAN also adheres to the principle of technology neutrality, that is, the freedom to choose technologies that suit the needs of each country. Since then, some policy positions have taken root in the region. With the exception of Vietnam, ASEAN member countries have not excluded Huawei or ZTE (a major provider of China's 5G technology) from technological upgrades.
Countries are cautious about locking ASEAN on the balance between the company and Washington. For example, Singapore emphasizes the importance of adopting a multi-vendor approach to avoid relying on any single vendor.
But cost is still a key factor among other factors. Huawei's 5G options are usually cheaper. For countries / regions that build 5G on top of existing 3G and 4G networks, any attempt to seriously avoid the cybersecurity risks highlighted by Washington may require replacing infrastructure already laid by Chinese technology. Huawei's rising super-tech charm offensive (with the function of establishing 5G manufacturing plants and training centers) may also increase its appeal.
Early low costs may mean higher costs for securitising these networks. The United States called for the abandonment of Chinese equipment, but later provided a reliable alternative. In addition to proposing the "Usage Strategy Joint Telecommunications Law", officials also recently proposed the idea of buying a controlling stake in Huawei's largest competitors Nokia and Ericsson.
For ASEAN, 5G and Morton's fork dilemma are more similar than the dilemma between Scylla and Charybdis: both options will bring the same result. Whether in Washington or Beijing, all parties concealed the possibility of backdoor espionage. Washington is unlikely to eliminate this built-in vulnerability, which is critical for their own surveillance work in any supported 5G technology.
ASEAN leaders are proceeding cautiously, focusing on national interests while responding to cybersecurity risks. ASEAN lacks a rule-based system agreed by major powers. Although the speed varies, it is an individual, and collectively coordinate and capacity-building work to enhance its digital economy and respond to geopolitical scrutiny. Singapore already has a dedicated network security team to prepare for the launch of 5G, while Malaysia ’s 5G network security center is under planning. Instead, Brunei only announced plans to establish a national cybersecurity agency in 2019.
A regional strategy is also being developed. Singapore will take the lead in taking various measures to become the most advanced member of ASEAN's digitalization and is expected to become the biggest winner of the 5G revolution. Data security is a key issue in the ASEAN digital data governance framework and its accompanying forums. Last year, the ASEAN cybersecurity coordination mechanism was officially launched in Singapore. According to the US-Singapore Cyber Security Technical Assistance Program and the ASEAN-Singapore Cyber Security Center of Excellence, cyber security capacity building has also been promoted. Whether the former can improve Washington's preferred standards and norms remains to be seen.
Given that Vietnam will serve as the chairman of ASEAN, as the region ’s 4IR strategy is expected to be realized, Vietnam is expected to continue to focus on digital issues. However, given the derailment effect of COVID-19, despite Singapore ’s support in digital cooperation and interconnection, it is unclear whether and how Singapore will participate in any “rear-seat driving” activities and whether the digital development agenda can be fully implemented this year. It can be said that it is more important than ever.
Geopolitical tensions may persist, but it is unlikely to shift the focus on digital development throughout the region. ASEAN is concerned about becoming a victim of competition from major forces, which is second only to ASEAN's concern that the people will not benefit.
Considering the ASEAN consensus-based model, this does not necessarily mean that the regional framework will be accelerated. However, this may not be a completely negative development, especially in the uncertain field of digital economic rulemaking. Despite weak regulation, so far, the digital economy has flourished. Just as e-commerce rules help leverage the growing digital pie, innovations such as ride-hailing apps have disrupted traditional business models in the regulatory arena. Although policymakers should deal with emerging issues, over-regulation may also hinder ASEAN ’s digital dream.
Geopolitical tensions should not and are unlikely to force premature departure from ASEAN neutrality. For those who are keen to choose a party, it should be noted that the great high-tech game is just beginning. 4IR supported by 5G requires hardware and software. Although Huawei has a foothold in the former, Western and Japanese companies still have the upper hand in the latter – with the transition to virtualized networks, this may become more prominent.
The development-oriented neutral guiding ideology remains ASEAN ’s safe choice to deal with emerging 5G issues and the broader digital dilemma.
Amalina Anuar is a research analyst at the Multilateralism Research Center of S Rajaratnam International College (RSIS) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore.
News reference: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2020/04/29/asean-5g-and-the-great-tech-game/ASEAN , 5G