Vietnam quietly avoids Huawei in building its 5G network

A Viettel store in Hanoi, Vietnam, June 30, 2019. As the world splits along U.S.-China fault lines, telecom companies in Vietnam appear to be quietly avoiding Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, in their 5G plans. (Linh Pham/The New York Times)

HANOI ,Vietnam (Today): — The battle for technological dominance between the United States and China is splitting the world in two, though not always along the lines you might expect.

US allies like Britain and Germany have signaled that they are unlikely to back Washington’s effort to stop countries from working with Chinese technology giant Huawei, which US officials call a Trojan Horse for Beijing’s cyberspies.

Australia has barred it from building its next-generation 5G cellphone networks, even though its economy depends on China’s appetite for natural resources. South Korea and the Philippines have not, despite past frictions with China.

And then there is Vietnam. At first glance, this fast-developing nation might seem to be a natural customer for Huawei. Its economy is entwined with China’s, and Beijing has embraced the country’s Communist Party leaders in Hanoi as ideological brethren.

Yet Vietnam’s leading mobile carriers appear to be keeping Huawei out of their 5G plans, even if the government’s fear of incensing Beijing most likely prevents them from saying so.

All around the world, the Trump administration’s assault on the Chinese firm has turned the purchase of telecommunications equipment from a business decision into a geopolitical one — a test of national allegiances to Washington or to Beijing.

In South-east Asia, which has been transformed by Chinese money, Huawei has been widely welcomed. The firm opened a 5G testing station in Thailand this year. Indonesia’s communications minister recently told Reuters that the government could not be “paranoid” about Huawei, while Malaysia’s prime minister has said his country will use the company’s technology “as much as possible.”

In Vietnam, though, major mobile carriers have explored 5G collaborations with Ericsson and Nokia but not with Huawei. The largest among them, Viettel, does not use Huawei equipment in its current 4G network, either, though it has no problem using Chinese technology in some of the other countries where its local subsidiaries provide 4G service, including Cambodia, Laos and Peru.

In Viettel’s telling, none of this means the company, which is owned by the Vietnamese government, is shunning Huawei. Hanoi has never barred Vietnamese telecom providers from using Chinese equipment, Mr Tao Duc Thang, a Viettel deputy general director, said in an interview with The New York Times.

That means Viettel and Huawei could still team up someday, Mr Thang said. “For the future, we don’t know.”

But observers expect that Vietnamese carriers will err on the side of caution when they sign commercial 5G agreements. China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody war 40 years ago, and Hanoi has watched warily as its northern neighbor’s wealth and military ambitions have grown ever since.

“The whole world needs to be careful with China,” said Major General Le Van Cuong, the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. “If a superpower like America regards China as a cybersecurity threat, then of course Vietnam has to.”

Huawei has long denied that it takes orders from Beijing or that its products are a security risk.

“Vietnam has not been a strong 4G market for Huawei, and we have modest ambitions for 5G there,” a company spokesman, Mr Joe Kelly, said.

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