Vietnam Doesn’t Trust Huawei An Inch
China's closest ideological neighbor wants its own 5G network.
On April 25, Vietnam joined the 5G club as its first base stations buzzed to life on top of the offices of the nation’s largest telecommunications firm. With reported speeds between 600 and 700 megabits per second, the experiment in fifth-generation network technology was on par with the United States’ and South Korea’s April rollouts, when telecom firms introduced 5G on a limited basis.
But Vietnam’s Viettel, a military-owned mobile network operator with ventures spanning from Myanmar to Haiti, is not only planning to deploy 5G. It is also trying to develop its own core technology, vowing that 80 percent of the tech will be developed at home. And while the firm has conceded it may need help from the handful of multinational firms building the hardware, it has emphatically stated that Huawei, the Chinese tech giant, will not be involved.
Viettel’s decision to opt out of Huawei technology is telling, as even the United States’ closet and wealthiest allies have been tempted by the tech giant’s artificially deflated prices despite warnings from Washington that Huawei may introduce compromised 5G infrastructure on behalf of Chinese intelligence. Although Huawei denies colluding with security forces or ever assisting in espionage, any refusal to cooperate would almost certainly be in violation of Chinese law, which broadly compels local entities to assist in state intelligence work when asked. Hanoi, perhaps because its own ruling Communist Party has a similarly close relationship with the Vietnamese private sector, is not buying Huawei’s denials.
The consensus in Hanoi is that Beijing is the nation’s primary external security threat. China has a long history of imperialism in Vietnam and invaded the country as recently as 1979 in support of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, resulting in a brief war in which roughly 70,000 people died. Although relations have improved since the 1990s, Vietnam remains highly wary of its much larger neighbor despite sharing communist rule. As 5G, which will likely become a mainstay of smart warfare in the coming years, goes full steam ahead in China, Vietnam, already spooked by Chinese militarization of the South China Sea, feels it has little choice but to keep pace with its gigantic geopolitical rival to the north.
They may be able to pull that off. As its name implies, 5G is the next generation of broadband wireless following 3G, which brought the internet to smartphones, and 4G, which increased the speed. But advocates claim it is no mere mobile phone upgrade, they say that 5G, which transmits on much smaller frequencies than existing wireless networks, will revolutionize internet access altogether, creating a wireless cloud of data and rendering cords largely obsolete. Viettel plans to make Vietnam an earlier innovator in the tech, punching well above its own weight in the process.
Some cautious optimism is in order. Given that 5G demands a new kit of next generation tech to implement, Viettel, which lacks the resources of its counterparts at Verizon or SK Telecom, will have its work cut out for it. Unlike 4G, which could largely be installed on top of preexisting 3G infrastructure, 5G’s small frequencies do not travel well, requiring a great number of small base stations, coupled with other innovations to facilitate traffic flow, to work effectively. The kinks in implementation are still being ironed out even in the world’s most advanced economies.
Yet Vietnam’s mobile infrastructure has a proven track record of keeping pace with its counterparts in more developed countries. While it was slow to roll out 4G—the government did not even issue licenses until 2016—it has since caught up. In February 2018, the London-based Opensignal clocked Vietnam’s typical 4G speed at 21.49 megabits per second, beating the United States’ comparatively paltry speed of 16.31 megabits per second, as well as every other country in Southeast Asia besides Singapore, the global leader. It continued to perform well on the metrics into 2019—both Viettel and its competitor Vinaphone clocked higher 4G download speeds than any of their U.S. counterparts in the most recent reports.
While Vietnam has a long way to go before rolling out 5G publicly, in the past year the technology has emerged as a political priority for the single-party state, where government agendas generally stay consistent from year to year. Last October, Minister of Information and Communications Nguyen Manh Hung stressed the importance of getting in on the ground floor. Seemingly conscious of Vietnam’s slowness to adopt 4G, he said 5G would give Vietnam a chance to “climb up in the ranking” in global connectivity speeds, and in January, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc publicly ordered the Ministry of Information and Communications to improve those statistics. Vietnam is not, however, primarily looking for better broadband access for Vietnamese smartphone users, who may not be able to initially afford the new tech en masse. Instead, Vietnam’s push for 5G is part of its embrace of the so-called Industrial Revolution 4.0.
The shorthand term for the new wave of automation and artificial intelligence has become an object of fixation in Vietnam, with conferences and workshops abounding in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City devoted to reaping the rewards and avoiding the hazards. Although the full potential of 5G technology is largely speculative, its extremely low latency has been touted as a soon-to-be boon for the manufacturing sector, allowing for virtually instantaneous communication between machines and devices within a factory.
Given Vietnam’s increasingly high-tech manufacturing sector and the deep pockets of the accompanying foreign investors, creating sophisticated 5G infrastructure in the right places is an understandably attractive prospect for Vietnam, which worries about not keeping up with the demands of foreign direct investment sources. It also lends justification for the exorbitant price tag—officially, Viettel has already invested $40 million in 5G. But as a fully owned arm of the military, Viettel can get its hands on even more from state coffers, rather than having to turn to private investors, as the new tech is also in the interest of Vietnamese national security.
Viettel may fully accomplish its goals of establishing 5G using 80 percent locally designed core tech, but it’s quite possible it will be forced to lean on non-Chinese foreign partners more than anticipated. And once 5G is developed, it will likely be limited to major cities and, most critically, hubs of foreign-owned manufacturing in its early years. But for the moment, it has become the most obvious tangible path to putting Industrial Revolution 4.0 rhetoric into practice. As long as Vietnam’s political leadership stays committed, the country will likely be a surprisingly early adopter of what could be a drastically game-changing technology.