The United States government’s ban that led Google to discontinue its software dealings with Huawei and other firms as part of the US-China trade wars has led key Philippine businesses to revisit their dealings with Huawei, a crucial partner in 5G development on the front lines of the Philippine government’s bid for telecoms modernization.
In November, the Duterte government paved the way for Mislatel, the telecom industry’s third player, to break the duopoly of Globe and PLDT. Globe and PLDT have downplayed the alleged Huawei threat to Philippine national security and declared that they are not breaking ties with the firm. Interestingly, the Philippine companies’ prudent response, based on wait and see and a commitment to explore vendor diversification beyond Huawei, says something about the need for a equally more circumspect perspective in our pursuit of foreign relations with great and emergent powers. It attests to the reality of the highly interconnected supply chains that embroil states with firms in the age of ICT revolution. Without considering these dimensions, it becomes simplistic to transpose US anxiety over the alleged Chinese state-sponsored hacking to the level of relations of Chinese firms with the markets of third states, such as ours.
Thus, what may be required of a globalized worldview is a more disaggregated application of the US-China ‘new cold war’ lens and its entanglement with the foreign policies of third states. This is to argue that the assumptions that legitimized the cold war world divisions between capitalism and communism, and between democracy and authoritarianism from 1945 to 1989, no longer define the 21st century strategic competition between US-China.
Contributing to the new cold war construct, the speech of US Vice President Mike Pence in October 2018, and the subsequent arrest of a Huawei executive in Vancouver in November formalized the warring path that the US has taken against China and its state-owned and private firms. Under the new cold war framework, these actions indicate categorically that the US believes China poses an existential threat to its national security.
As a foreign and security policy construct, the notion of a new cold war significantly diverges from the cold war event that marked the superpower rivalry between the US and the former USSR after the second World War. The difference is primarily attributed to the cold war’s rigid ideological basis and the nuclear arms race that underlined the world’s bifurcation between allies and spheres of influence. The end of the cold war also extended to the triumph of the US-led global democratic order or the unipolar moment.
What is the significance of the new cold war lens in the US-China trade wars to Philippine foreign and security policy?
The new cold war between the US and China does not reflect the context of the rigid superpower rivalry that marked global relations from 1945 until the turn of the 20th century. Alternatively, US and China competition is simultaneously situated on immensely intertwined global supply chains. The globalization argument cancels out the utility of nuclear war, the role of ideology and the loyalties that flow from great powers to the alliances and the spheres of influence. Because of the globalization of interests, the US-China trade wars will not neatly and automatically mobilize traditional alliance loyalties, which was characteristic of the earlier bipolar period. Additionally, the primacy of interest over ideology will make it difficult even for friends and allies to take sides. For instance, these countries have not totally cut ties with Huawei: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Poland in Europe; Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines, among ASEAN countries.
While the Philippine National Security Policy 2017 — 2022 is still premised on the unipolar position of the US, the Duterte government has already adopted a policy that hedges the risks associated with the US-China strategic competition in the South China Sea and beyond. In recasting its relationship with the US, the Philippine government, through Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, has maintained the need to review the reassurance of mutual defense under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. It has de-securitized its approach to the West Philippine Sea conflict to upgrade its relations with China. As a counterbalance, the Duterte government maintains the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US. It has also re-opened the country to US military exercises with an emphasis in humanitarian action and disaster relief.
References to support the list of countries that have continued to work with Huawei are found in Bodetti, A (2019, April). Brunei: Huawei’s Foothold in Southeast Asia, The Diplomat; BBC News (2019, May). Huawei: Which countries are blocking its 5G technology; Panettieri, J. (2019, May 23). Huawei: Banned and Permitted in Which Countries? List and FAQ and Valdez, D. (2019, May 24). Globe stands firm on Huawei partnership. Businessworld Online.
Alma Maria O. Salvador is assistant professor of political science at the Ateneo de Manila University.