Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Huawei Technologies’ Beijing office on Thursday morning in what was seen as a sign of Malaysian support for the Chinese telecommunications equipment supplier.
Mahathir’s visit could be seen as an “endorsement” for Huawei which is still in the running to provide 5G gear for the country’s telecoms networks, according to a source familiar with the matter who declined to be named talking about confidential matters. However, no technology deals would be made on this visit, according to the source.
“Malaysia is one of Huawei’s top markets for smartphones in Southeast Asia and Huawei has also taken part in building its 4G network,” said Jia Mo, a Shanghai-based analyst with Canalys, adding that the visit was a positive signal for Huawei’s further expansion in the country.
Huawei has traditionally drawn its strength from mature telecoms markets like Europe, but Southeast Asia has become a key stronghold thanks to strategic partnerships with all the major telecoms players in the region, from Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia to Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
Mahathir’s visit comes at a time when Huawei has been vilified by the West, in particular the US, over national security concerns as countries start to deploy superfast, next-generation 5G wireless networks. Mahathir is in Beijing to lead Malaysia’s delegation to the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing this week.
Shenzhen-based Huawei did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Huawei is the front runner when it comes to 5G technology and is the world’s biggest supplier of telecoms equipment by market share. Washington, however, claims the company is a front for Chinese espionage and its accusations have prompted all members of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing community – Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand – to question dealing with the company.
In Southeast Asia, however, US calls to boycott Huawei have largely fallen on deaf ears. Earlier this month, Malaysia’s deputy minister for international trade and industry, Ong Kian Ming, toured a Huawei training centre in Cyberjaya and commended the company for investing in the country.
Some of Malaysia’s major telecoms operators, such as Maxis and Celcom Axiata, are already key customers for Huawei in Southeast Asia. Last month, Maxis began its first 5G live trials in Malaysia with Huawei equipment following a recent announcement that the two companies would work together to “accelerate 5G”.
Last week, Mahathir had the first 5G phone call in Malaysia using a Huawei 5G smartphone, according to local media reports.
In the Philippines, Globe Telecom has praised Huawei for being “ahead of its competition” in terms of technology, with security consultants for the operator giving Huawei a “clean bill of health”.
Huawei’s focus on Southeast Asia is for good reason. The region has a largely youthful population of more than 600 million, compared to Europe’s ageing but slightly larger headcount of more than 700 million. More significantly, some 350 million people in its emerging market are already online, with many primarily accessing the internet via a mobile device.
In Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia for example, users spend about four hours a day on the mobile internet – twice as long as users in the US and UK, according to a 2018 report by Google and Temasek Holdings.
During his China itinerary this week Mahathir will also visit the offices of artificial intelligence company SenseTime, according to a press release from the prime minister’s office.
“China is a close friend and an important partner to Malaysia,” said the release. “This visit is expected to strengthen the long-standing friendship between Malaysia and China, as well as foster wide-ranging cooperation between the two countries.”