Pushing Back Against China’s Digital Order

Digital rivalry in Southeast Asia goes well beyond the choice of 5G providers.

logo of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur
This photo illustration shows a logo of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on February 13, 2019. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan, AFP)
Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

17 December 2020

While physical infrastructure – roads, bridges, and ports – generally dominates conversations about China’s rise, digital infrastructure and the rules regulating its use are an equally as key and consequential arena in the US-China global rivalry. So far, in Southeast Asia, particularly in Cambodia and Laos, China is faring better than the United States, building its own digital belt and road while Washington dithers.

If the United States remains distracted from the region, or engages it in a primarily military capacity while continuing to unwisely present U.S.-China competition in binary terms, other Southeast Asian countries could soon follow Cambodia and Laos into China’s Sinocentric order: its “community of common destiny”. In this order, however, Beijing will shape, and to some extent is already shaping, international guidelines toward digital authoritarianism. This not only undermines non-Chinese businesses’ ability to compete – and thus Southeast Asians’ ability to benefit from the full range of digital innovations – but undercuts democracy and human rights throughout the region. With Joe Biden set to take office in January, though, the United States can now push back more effectively against China’s growing digital supremacy in Southeast Asia, but he must act fast, for Washington is rapidly running out of time.

China’s tech giants already dominate Southeast Asia. Huawei, which is effectively state-run, and Zhongxing Telecommunications Equipment (ZTE), “an important geopolitical pawn for Beijing”, are the most involved in information and communication technology infrastructure. Huawei Marine has completed over a dozen undersea cable projects in Southeast Asia; Huawei proper is providing 5G infrastructure for countries including Indonesiathe Philippines, and Cambodia, while ZTE is doing the same for Thailand and Malaysia.

Given the nature of Chinese civil-military fusion, one suspects that Beijing can access the data that passes through these networks. This poses a severe strategic risk, as Chinese leaders could wield this information – from secure financial to government data – as a means of coercion.

China pursues digital authoritarianism also by exporting ideas. Whereas the United States and its partners believe in a free and accountable cyber governance, China advocates an opaque analog complete with cyber laws and localised data policies that ensure strict control over the internet. Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping, for his part, has made this clear with his “right to speak” or “discourse power” policy, through which he seeks to influence global values and governance – particularly in cyberspace – in ways Beijing finds commensurate with its might.

It is not hard to see how the seeds of China’s authoritarian digital order could spread from Cambodia and Laos to sprout in other parts of the region.

The fruits of this labour are most obvious in Cambodia, whose prime minister, Hun Sen, followed China to propose a Draconian cybersecurity law that would allow his government to listen in on phone calls and intercept emails. His government is also planning to route all web traffic through a “Chinese-style firewall” to prevent critical “fresh air and flies,” per Deng Xiaoping, from blowing in.

Moreover, the owner of Cambodia’s Fresh News – a boisterously pro-Hun Sen and pro-China outlet – has welcomed China’s support, including funded trips for his reporters to Beijing. Similarly, NiceTV, a Khmer-language news venture by the China-based NICE Culture Investment Group and the Cambodian government, debuted last year from a studio inside the Cambodian interior ministry and has plans to cooperate with Chinese state media outlets. Last year, Chinese Embassy officials, along with Cambodian and Chinese media representatives, launched the Cambodia-China Journalist Association to influence local news in China’s interest. This is a remarkable transformation of Cambodia’s media space, which in recent years was relatively open.

In Laos, the story is much the same, if somewhat shorter, given how closed that country’s media space has been for decades. Chinese state-run media also exports ideas there, while the Lao Army even launched a TV station paid for by China. It is not hard to see how the seeds of China’s authoritarian digital order could spread from Cambodia and Laos to sprout in other parts of the region.

Southeast Asians are aware of the risks presented by China’s investments in digital infrastructure, and are concerned about China’s growing regional clout, but they remain without substantial alternatives, as the United States has not risen to meet the China challenge in this and many other spheres. Programmes like the U.S.-ASEAN Smart Cities Initiative are critical to building a more liberal digital order, but they are not enough. And while this problem does not admit a quick solution, Washington must nonetheless push back against China’s digital authoritarianism, lest Beijing unilaterally change the facts in the cloud.

To do so, the United States must financially and politically support independent media throughout the region; allocate more money for U.S.-backed yet editorially independent outlets like Radio Free Asia and Voice of America to retain local employees working in perilous contexts; improve existing cyber agreements by coordinating with Japan and Australia to bolster Southeast Asian capacity-building; and then communicate the success of these efforts to win public trust in an era where data leaks and cybercrime are eroding it.

With these steps, the United States can push back against China’s authoritarian digital order and lay the foundations for freer and more open Indo-Pacific. This is a lofty goal, but failure to even pursue it will render more of Southeast Asia a canvas on which Beijing can – and will –experiment with its digital authoritarianism.

Charles Dunst is a Visiting Scholar at the East-West Center in Washington and an Associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank. He has reported from Southeast Asia for outlets including The New York TimesThe Atlantic, Foreign Policy, and the Los Angeles Times.

ISEAS Commentary — 2020/213

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.