Is Huawei banned in Singapore? The question has profound implications, as its answer could be construed as Singapore choosing sides in the great power rivalry between China and the United States.
On June 24, Singapore’s Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) announced that telecommunications companies (telcos) Singtel and the joint venture between M1 and StarHub had won the rights to develop two nationwide 5G networks. Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia are the telcos’ respective vendors that will provide the technologies to power the infrastructure. TPG Telecom, which counts on China’s Huawei as its vendor, may operate Singapore’s smaller 5G networks.
Campaign Against Huawei
The international media has widely reported this development as Huawei losing out to Ericsson and Nokia in Southeast Asia’s most technologically developed country. Southeast Asia is an essential market for Chinese technology due to its geopolitical and economic significance to China, and pushback by Western countries. Some social media postings celebrated the development as Singapore banning or avoiding Huawei. Indeed, Singapore’s decision appears to be a win for the international campaign led by the United States to convince its allies that Huawei is a national security threat. Singapore is not a U.S. ally, but a “close strategic partner,” notably because its military facilities support U.S. Navy operations in Southeast Asia.
The international campaign against Chinese technology has recently risen significantly. India announced the country’s decision to ban 59 Chinese apps including TikTok and WeChat about two weeks after a bloody Himalayan border clash between Chinese and Indian soldiers. There are concerns that China could use the data collected from apps for geopolitical advantage, and to undermine India’s national defenses. The United States’ Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has officially designated Huawei and ZTE as national security threats to the country’s communications networks and communications supply chain. The FCC assessed that these companies are susceptible to the influence and control of Chinese military and intelligence agencies.
Despite recent developments, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Singapore’s 5G decision is equivalent to the country choosing the United States over China in the technological Cold War. Any suggestion that Singapore has banned Huawei could play into the narrative battle. For example, China’s Global Times delivered a triumphant message on June 17. It reported that “countries in Southeast Asia are extending an olive branch and showing interest in cooperating with Chinese 5G enterprises.” A week later, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released a press statement with an opposing message on June 24. He claimed that “the tide is turning against Huawei as citizens around the world are waking up to the danger of the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.”
In contrast to both those narratives, Singapore’s minister for communications and information explained that the country’s 5G decision-making process did not exclude any vendors but instead focused on performance, security, and resilience. This point explains why telcos M1 and StarHub could consider Huawei, besides Ericsson and Nokia, for non-core elements of the 5G networks. Vendor diversity is a form of risk management to minimize cybersecurity risks that could arise from over-reliance on a single supplier. Limiting Huawei to non-core elements of 5G networks may be a strategic step for Singapore. This step could preempt plausible supply chain disruptions to national infrastructure if the United States effectively severs Huawei’s global access to semiconductors.
Furthermore, Singapore’s bilateral relations with China are not limited to Huawei and 5G but underpinned by cooperation across a broad scope of technological and economic areas.
At the strategic level of cooperation, eight memorandums of understanding (MOUs) were signed in mid-June 2020 to support the Singapore-China (Shenzhen) Smart City Initiative (SCI). These MOUs could help Singaporean and Chinese businesses better connect to reap the benefits of the burgeoning digital economy. Singapore will also host the Asian SME (small and medium-sized enterprises) Hub to boost cross-border trade between China, Singapore, and Southeast Asia markets. The MOUs are essential to these markets, given the severe impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses and supply chains globally.
With regard to research and development (R&D) cooperation, Huawei launched the Cloud and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Technologies innovation lab in Singapore in April 2019. The lab could help Singapore cultivate talent and build capacity in support of its Smart Nation initiatives. In June 2020, Huawei launched the Virtual AI Academy to support Singapore’s digitalization efforts in the post-COVID-19 world. Singapore understands the need for international cooperation in pursuing technological innovation to sustain a healthy national economy. Bilateral R&D cooperation also demonstrates that Singapore has no intention to participate in a great power game to contain China’s technological rise.
Although Singapore’s decision to limit Huawei’s role in its nationwide 5G networks may appear to be a geopolitical gain for the United States, Singapore’s bilateral cooperation with China (and Huawei) in the areas of digital economy could be construed as the pull of Chinese sphere of influence. Again, it is necessary to emphasize that Singapore values its independence and decides based on what it assesses as best for its national interests. It is unlikely that U.S. pressure pushed Singapore to limit Huawei’s 5G participation. It is also unlikely that Chinese pressure pushed Singapore not to decouple Huawei from its economy.
Given Singapore’s geopolitical reality, it seeks to balance relations with China and the United States as both great powers are important to the region. Singapore is a small state with no natural resources and a small domestic market. Hence, the country is banking on “Industry 4.0” technologies and the digital economy as vital national resources to continue making itself relevant and valuable to global markets. To protect these resources, Singapore has added Digital Defense as the sixth pillar of its Total Defense concept and is enhancing its defenses against aggression in the cyber domain.
In conclusion, Singapore did not ban Huawei or choose sides in the great power rivalry. It is more conceivable that Singapore made a decision that would best meet its national 5G network needs. This decision also aims to minimize cybersecurity risks and supply chain disruptions that could arise from the technological Cold War. This decision does not imply that Singapore is leaving itself vulnerable to threats. Singapore is currently bolstering its cyber defenses and expelled a foreign academic – who is now a professor in Beijing – in 2017 for being an agent of influence. These actions prove that Singapore would not be intimidated or influenced into acquiescence by any foreign powers.
Muhammad Faizal Abdul Rahman is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.