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Indonesia Faces a Huawei Quandary As US-China Rivalry Keeps Simmering

While the Biden government formulates and refines its policies on its relations with the other major power, the Jokowi administration still has options for avoiding overdependence on Chinese technology.

By Muhammad Jasuma Fadholi

The dynamics of the relationship between the two world powers, the United States and China, in the months ahead will be a new kind of Cold War with unique characteristics. There will be a distinct bipolarity but it will not always be confrontational.

Their bilateral trade relations, which amounts to USD 2 billion per day, will stay cozy but it is a different story when it comes to such issues as human rights, the South China Sea and Taiwan. In general, hedging, deterrence, cooperation and partnership all at the same time will be the hallmarks of US-China relations. 

This was the perspective offered by CNN pundit Fareed Zakaria in a lecture organized by the Lowy Institute of Australia late last year. Zakaria further said that given this situation of a hybrid Cold War between the two major powers, countries in Asia would be confronted with a dilemma: they generally want to benefit from an economic relationship with China but at the same time they also want to maintain good geopolitical relations with the United States.

China will certainly leverage to the hilt whatever boons it extends to other Asian countries, but if these same countries want to have any kind of protection that can be provided by the US Seventh Fleet, it might not be prudent of them to be caught in a tight embrace with Huawei. 

Now, what is this furor about Huawei? One of the world’s top three smart phone manufacturers, Huawei is also a world leader in telecommunications, its products being sold in some 170 countries. It is no secret that the US suspects Huawei of spying through its 5G equipment. There are also accusations by US sources that Huawei is engaged in corporate espionage and theft of intellectual property. 

China and Huawei officials, of course, deny these allegations. What is not so easy for them to rebut is the widespread belief that the Chinese state tautly controls Chinese corporations, so that at any moment these may serve as instruments of the state’s political purposes.

On the basis of these allegations and suspicions—possibly backed by intelligence findings, we don’t really know—the US blacklisted Huawei at the height of its trade war with China. The UK soon followed suit.

Embracing Chinese technology

Enter Indonesia: in early 2019, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, announced that in order to build a digital ecosystem that can strongly support economic growth, his government has struck a close relationship with Huawei. Reminded of the anti-Huawei position of the United States, President Jokowi shrugged off this concern, saying that Indonesia could not be dictated upon by the US on this matter. 

Thus Huawei recently signed with the Jokowi administration a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in support of human resources development in the field of vocational information technology. This is in addition to Huawei being entrusted with the task of building 90,000 base transceiver stations (BSTs) and getting involved in various aspects of the cyber part of Indonesia’s national life, including the Palapa Ring “Sky Toll” project, artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, 5G, etc.

In the face of this trend, Melinda Martinus, a researcher at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, reminded Indonesia of a nagging concern: the Chinese government is a supra-institution that has absolute power to control China’s business and industry. What is to stop the Chinese government from using Huawei data at any time to advance its hegemonic agenda? On that basis, Martinus finds Indonesia’s dependence on Huawei decidedly worrisome.

Does this mean that the Jokowi administration in Indonesia will have to accept Huawei as a long-term barrier to a more meaningful relationship with the United States? In the first place the Biden administration has yet to announce its policy on the question of Huawei as a factor in its relationship with the Chinese government. What is well known is that there is a bipartisan consensus among Democrats and Republicans that China has only adversarial intentions against the United States. 

It remains to be seen how nuanced will be the final position of the Biden administration on the Huawei question. Whatever it will be, you can expect it to be finely tuned to cater to American national interest and not to the idea that the US should be tough on China for the sake of looking tough on China. But it will very likely be a policy that will address all the doubts and suspicions about Huawei—in a rational and sophisticated manner.

Meanwhile, Indonesia is not absolutely without options. It is not yet too late for the Jokowi administration to open up avenues for the entry of non-Chinese technology providers into its cyber agenda. It does not have to look far for successful models: Vietnam and Singapore have avoided excessive dependence on Huawei by allowing Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm to play a significant role in their respective national technological agendas. 

Diversification has its uses, even in the cyber world.  

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.

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