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The Future of Asia 2019

Thailand casts wide net for 5G partners amid Huawei concerns

Ericsson and Nokia are among the potential beneficiaries

Pichet Durongkaveroj, Thailand's minister of digital economy and society, speaks at the Future of Asia conference on May 31. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

TOKYO -- Thailand is opening its doors to all global 5G vendors at a time when the leader in the field, China's Huawei Technologies, is being shut out of other markets as a security risk.

"We are equally worried about the security issues of 5G," Pichet Durongkaveroj, Thailand's minister of digital economy and society, said in Tokyo on Friday.

Pichet was speaking at the annual Future of Asia conference hosted by Nikkei. Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith was also among the dignitaries who spoke on the second day of the two-day event.

Pichet did not address whether Thailand would join the U.S., Japan, and other countries to shut the Chinese telecom gear giant out of their 5G rollouts, but said that his country will "invite all vendors" to take part.

"There will be Ericsson and Nokia, so this is for all players," the minister said.

5G will allow the transmission of larger volumes of data at faster speeds compared with current 4G service, paving the way for advanced solutions such as autonomous manufacturing.

Besides inviting all 5G equipment vendors, Pichet said Thailand has sought Japan's help for cybersecurity training.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith

Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith acknowledged on Friday that his country is indebted to China and multiple other lenders but insisted the burden is manageable and stressed, "If we don't borrow, Laos, as a least-developed country, won't develop further."

Thongloun, in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on the sidelines of the Future of Asia conference, said his country will have to pay back not only China but also Japan, Vietnam and international organizations including the World Bank. However, he said his government has its "own measures to manage the debt and ensure balance in the public debt sector," noting Laos only borrows money for "high-efficiency projects which are long-term, with low interest rates."

Since 2013, the IMF has been raising doubts about Laos' ability to service its debt if it moves ahead with plans to build a China-Laos railway, in addition to other capital-intensive projects. The $6 billion cost of the railway represents almost half the country's gross domestic product.

Laotian Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith talks about the formation of a new world order at Nikkei's Future of Asia conference in Tokyo on May 31. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

Thongloun strongly denied worries about a Chinese "debt trap," saying "the observers who have concern for Laos in terms of debt repayment [...] may not have enough or sufficient information on how the government assesses those projects."

Earlier, in a speech, Thongloun mentioned China's Belt and Road Initiative as a valuable new mechanism for international cooperation. Laos shares a border with China and has been supporting the infrastructure investment drive.

Asia, the prime minister said, is devising new ways for countries to work together as the region takes a bigger role on the world stage, suggesting cooperation is crucial amid persistent U.S.-China tensions and a shifting global power balance.

Thongloun told the conference -- where "seeking a new global order" is the main theme this year -- that Asian countries have been "the initiators of new cooperation mechanisms that are all-encompassing and comprehensive."

The prime minister's comments largely appear to reflect Laos' position vis-a-vis China. Ian Bremmer, the president of Eurasia Group, pointed out that "there will be countries in the world where China will be dominant ... and they will align with Chinese standards," giving Laos and its neighbor Cambodia as prime examples.

In a prerecorded video message shown at the conference, Bremmer said that in five to 10 years, as China boosts infrastructure investments in certain markets, "it's going to make those markets more challenging" for countries other than China.

Australia Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull

Australia's former prime minister on Friday presented a case for his country's quick decision to shut out China's Huawei Technologies from its 5G network, stressing the dramatic expansion of internet connectivity can make the technology an instant threat.

"The reality is that the 5G network is the platform which enables the internet of things," Malcolm Turnbull told Nikkei's Future of Asia conference in Tokyo. This is an "enormous capability" for any individual or entity.

Turnbull suggested that Huawei's current aims are not the real issue. "Does it have the intent? Well, the reality is, the definition of a threat is a combination of capability and intent," he said. "Capability can take years, decades or even it can never be able to be put in place. But intent can change in a heartbeat."

Former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defends his decision to block Huawei at the Future of Asia conference in Tokyo on May 31. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

New 5G networks will enable the transmission of much larger data volumes 100 times faster than in the past. Australia attracted global attention last August when it banned Huawei as well as China's ZTE from providing 5G equipment, setting the stage for the U.S. decision to effectively blacklist Huawei in May.

The former prime minister said Australia identifies "high-risk vendors" as those bound by the laws of their country to provide support and assistance to their government and to their intelligence services when required. "If you look at China's national intelligence law, you see that Chinese companies are bound to that," he said.

Beijing has repeatedly denied that this law applies to Chinese companies' foreign operations. In February, a foreign ministry spokesperson said the government asks companies to "strictly abide by local laws and regulations when doing business overseas."

Myanmar Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor Kyaw Tint Swe

Bangladesh is not cooperating in Myanmar's efforts to repatriate and provide residence cards to all refugees who fled its western region, a senior Myanmar official told a conference here on Friday.

Kyaw Tint Swe, a minister for the Office of the State Counselor, said Bangladesh has not honored a bilateral arrangement inked in November 2017 meant to facilitate the repatriation of Rohingya and other minorities who fled ethnic violence in the state of Rakhine.

The repatriation process should have begun in January 2018, he said, but to date no Rohingyas have returned via the official channel.

"Some 200 people have come back on their own will from Bangladesh through a very difficult journey," Kyaw Tint Swe said at the International Conference of the Future of Asia, organized by Nikkei.

Implementation of the 2017 repatriation agreement has been repeatedly delayed, despite a deal signed last year with two United Nations agencies to ensure that Rohingya are guaranteed a safe and voluntary return.

Myanmar Union Minister for the Office of the State Counsellor, Kyaw Tint Swe, speaks during 25 th international conference on The Future of Asia on May 31, in Tokyo. (Photo by Yuki Nakao)

But human rights groups say without legal protection such as citizenship, Rohingya refugees will continue to face persecution in Myanmar, where they are denied freedom of movement and access to healthcare and education.

Kyaw Tint Swe said the Myanmar government is ready to grant all those who come back with a "certificate of residence" while those who are eligible can apply for citizenship.

The minister said besides Rohingya, some 444 Hindus are also trapped across the border in the area of Cox's Bazar and have not been released by Bangladesh despite official requests from Myanmar.

"Some 20 Hindus have returned on their own arrangements. None came back via the official channel," he said.

More than 720,000 Rohingya Muslims fled Rakhine state into neighboring Bangladesh since 2016 to escape a campaign of violence that the United Nations has said may amount to genocide. Myanmar authorities deny the allegations, claiming they were carrying out an anti-terror operation.

Nikkei staff writers P Prem Kumar, Cliff Venzon and Kentaro Iwamoto contributed to this article.

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