Like many nations, Indonesia faces a difficult decision about how far to engage with China’s Digital Silk Road.
Earlier this month, on his Four Nation Tour of Southeast Asia, Chinese State Councillor & Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Indonesia, during which the two sides discussed Cooperation on the Development of 5G Networks in the archipelago.
Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has stepped up its global engagement in a host of economic and political domains. An important part of this is positioning China as a global technological leader, which has taken place under the aegis of the Digital Silk Road (DSR) a major pillar of the Belt & Road Initiative that was established in 2013.
The DSR is has the aim of expanding China’s digital connections abroad and thus increasing its commercial and political influence.
The telecommunications firm Huawei is one of China’s mainstays in its DSR push, helping to develop 5G networks in various countries, including Indonesia. Since 2009, Huawei has invested $600 million in research for the development of 5G technology globally.
In more recent years, it has also offered to help governments build their 5G networks, an offer made attractive by the fact that its technology is much more affordable than competing products produced by Western firms.
However, several countries have also boycotted collaboration with Huawei on 5G due to concerns about national security, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, and Canada. In addition, France and Japan have also indirectly prohibited the use of technology assembled by Huawei.
In Indonesia, however, the country has welcomed with open arms both the arrival of Huawei & of the DSR more broadly. Last year, Huawei announced that it was collaborating with the country’s Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT).
The government of President Joko Widodo views collaboration between Huawei and Indonesia’s technology industry, government and universities as central to achieving its goal of producing a creative and digital economy by 2035 and a “more developed” nation by 2045.
This collaboration currently takes place in three fields: artificial intelligence (AI), cloud computing, and 5G networks. On the first two counts, Huawei is involved in developing BPPT’s capacity and helping the agency develop and apply AI and cloud computing in the Indonesian economy.
However, the government in Jakarta is still unsure of Indonesia’s readiness to make the leap to 5G technology, the Head of Human Resources Development Research, Basuki Yusuf Iskandar recently told the local media.
Iskandar believes that before Indonesia can build a 5G network, it must take into account several factors beyond the basic technological challenges: namely, whether Indonesia’s industry and regulatory capacities, as well as the population as a whole, are ready to make the transition. He added that if this readiness is lacking, the implementation of this 5G network will not bring the expected economic returns.
To assist with this, Huawei is helping prep the 5G market in Indonesia in several ways. First, the company is helping to educate the public about 5G technology and its potential benefits.
Muhammad Rosidi, Huawei’s national ICT strategy and marketing director in Indonesia, stated recently that the firm has played an important role in disseminating information about 5G and its potential benefits to the Indonesian public. Huawei is also ready to help accelerate the digitalization of infrastructure in Indonesia, specifically by helping develop the capacity of government workers.
Second, Huawei last year also began collaborating with the Indonesian Presidential Staff Office to put 100,000 Indonesian officials through a five-year vocational training course in digital literacy. Third, Huawei also pledged to develop infrastructure such as band transceiver stations, or towers, that can facilitate wireless communication in various regions so that 5G technology can be accessed evenly across the Indonesian islands.
China’s interest in implementing the DSR in Indonesia is not surprising, given that the country has the sixth-largest internet user base in the world. This gives Chinese companies like Huawei added motivation for making Indonesia a priority market, including on 5G infrastructure development.
As this cooperation advances, however, Indonesia’s embrace of the DSR raises some concerns. Despite Huawei’s efforts, questions remain around equality of access to 5G technology, given that the present internet infrastructure is still not developed equally across the country..
There is also a worry that DSR will allow China to surveil the Indonesian government, or that the latter will use Chinese technologies to spy on its own people. It is crucial to note that firms from China have already assisted governments in some parts of the world with developing surveillance capabilities that could be used against dissidents and opposition groups. China has also helped train foreign government officials on how to monitor and censor the internet.
As for Indonesia, it has signed with China a memorandum of understanding on boosting internet security and tech cooperation, the first such agreement signed between China and a foreign country
Given the fact that the current Indonesian government has taken steps to undermine and repress its opponents, it is possible that the country’s cooperation with China on the DSR could lead to a decline in the quality of democracy in Indonesia.