China's 5G influence: The good and bad for Malaysia

Collins Chong Yew Keat
31 May 2023 07:41pm
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SHAH ALAM: The 5G issue has predominantly been framed with a narrative in support of the second network to against it, from breaking the monopoly to providing “better offers” to the people.

Commercial reasons and perceived communal benefits seem to be used as the ultimate pretext and justifications, at the expense of our long term risk and vulnerability despite the pressing evidence and concerns raised by experts.

The EU and US have warned Malaysia over risks to national security and foreign investment as we consider China’s Huawei and ZTE a role in the country’s telecoms infrastructure, but we swifty chastise these warnings and accept narratives of Beijing from its digital to soft power quests.

These warnings and concerns from the envoys are not being created for geopolitical considerations and purposes, but based on real observations, evidence and conclusions from the comprehensive work done by the intelligence community in the US and other developed countries.

The Chinese digital overtures may be disguised as a friendly outreach to nations based on their more competitive and cheaper commercial terms.

Digital and national security risks remain real, despite efforts to portray these as efforts by the West to push back against China.

By wanting to have a second network, potentially one that is dominated by Huawei, it may cost us three main negative implications.

Firstly, we stand to lose out on Western support and initiatives that will strengthen our economy and our defence capacity. Our national assets and digital and cyber networks and data will remain vulnerable, which will set off long term negative chain effects.
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This will deter the West from further providing needed defensive, technological and economic support which will also harm their assets and infrastructure should we have China's tech in our inventory.

Secondly, we remain further entrenched in the Chinese orbit, making us vulnerable to Beijing’s economic and security blackmailing.

Not only are we already hapless in our defensive and deterrent capacity, by succumbing to Beijing's pressure and economic tools of promises and assurances of investments, we feel the need to accept the pressure for China's involvement in our 5G infrastructure.

This would then expose us to further security risks and lapses, as concerns on espionage and sabotage and being held ransom in the event of a real time conflict.

Thirdly, Beijing will get a fresh boost in its regional and South China Sea ambitions, including having positive implications on its Taiwan agenda.

Already a dominant presence in Malaysia from transport infrastructure to capital support to petrochemical and increasingly semiconductor and rare earths and others, the inclusion of 5G will only embolden and strengthen its grip on our security vulnerabilities.

This would be used to further weaken our deterrence and defence capacity including in the disputed areas, as we will be dependent on Beijing’s goodwill as the service provider of this 5G system.

By providing a state-backed support in terms of capital and competitiveness in terms of pricing, Huawei and other firms often enjoy commercial advantages. The overtures through state owned enterprises (SOE) are trapping regional players, forcing these nations to opt for these firms based on commercial values, as opposed to the Western alternatives.

Beijing seizes upon this regional disdain for the West’s strings attached investment model of emphasizing labour standards, human rights and responsible climate actions, by offering easy and cheap alternatives with "no strings attached".

This created an apt opening for continuous debt trap cycle and advancement of Beijing’s agenda to oust the West’s digital containment in the region.

Malaysia remains high on China’s radar, which has its eyes set on Malaysia’s fast growing US$21 billion digital economy.

Jeremy Fleming, director of the GCHQ intelligence agency of Britain, has stated that China is using its financial and scientific muscle to manipulate technologies in a manner that risks global security, warning that Beijing's actions could represent a huge threat to all.

As Jeremy pointed out, Beijing sees nations as either potential adversaries or client states, to be threatened, bribed, or coerced into policies that will suit Beijing’s interests.

Threats of this nature alone are alarming, and we have not even started to acknowledge the risks of Chinese apps particularly Tik Tok pose of our national security.

While the West including Canada, UK and the US have been tough and swift on this, we remain dangerously ignorant, pulling ourselves into the inevitable trap set by Beijing's digital manuvers.

Huawei controls 13.8 percent of Malaysia’s mobile phone market and has also long been Malaysia’s dominant supplier of internet modems, while Xiaomi, accounts for another 11 percent of the market.

In total, Chinese suppliers collectively provide about half of all mobile phones in Malaysia, providing ample opppourtunity to exploit the gaps in Malaysia's digital security.

In our desperation to move up the value chain in our future economic tools, Chinese-funded projects become an easy reliance.Risks and threats are not openly being discussed and shared with the public.

We must stand with the rules-based and normative outline as a responsible emerging regional and global player, by standing firm on openness, trust and rules-abiding commitments.

Yet, it is because of the ingrained influence and economic dependence on Beijing, reinforced recently by the continuous harping on the importance of the RM170 billion worth of investment, that could see us being perpetually trapped under the Chinese orbit for years at our own peril.

Collins Chong Yew Keat is with Universiti Malaya, focuses on internationalisation and strategic management.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.