Southeast Asia in the Global Digital War

Gayathry Venkiteswaran Commentary

China’s push for “cyber sovereignty” in global tech discussions is attracting an audience in regions like Southeast Asia. Here, states and the private sector are ready markets for technologies, but they are also engaged in delicate diplomacy with China and the US against the backdrop of geo-security interests. Understanding the dynamics of the region requires a nuanced critical approach.

In recent years, China’s and Russia’s calls to restrain access to the Internet, made under the guise of defending national boundaries against cyberattacks, have gained more traction. Beijing’s push for cyber sovereignty has served to justify national actions and Internet regulations and to challenge unilateralism in setting global standards and rules. China’s arguments are based on, alternately, the defensive national security approach and the rhetoric of development justice and material well-being for all.

While cautious about cyber sovereignty as a norm, some traditional proponents of a free and open Internet, including in Europe and the United States, have themselves been exploring such potential approaches in response to terrorist threats, personal data flows or content moderation on social media platforms. These debates have impacts in other regions, which become proxies for battles between the world’s superpowers. Southeast Asia is not exempt from this debate and should respond by recognising the complexities of local political priorities, pragmatic diplomacy, business opportunities and community ties.

Negotiating Geopolitics and Investments

East and Southeast Asia are home to one-third of the world’s Internet users, and many of the world’s most popular websites and mobile apps are based in Asia (although one US-based social media corporation, Facebook, outranks its mainly Chinese competitors in user base). While China’s political and economic influence is strong, most Southeast Asian countries’ approaches to this political giant also take into consideration investment opportunities and the provision of technologies to the expanding regional market.

The dominant perception is that, where China is concerned, Southeast Asia is subservient and powerless. To a large extent, the optics are substantiated: just look at the large-scale state-led investments and loans for infrastructure projects that have raised local objections for their high debt-servicing costs, lack of technology transfer and encroachment on territorial sovereignty. The region’s relative silence on human rights abuses affecting China’s Muslim Uighur community can also be interpreted as a diplomatic trade-off for other controversial concessions, such those related to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

But for most, China has been a key diplomatic partner and, in recent decades, since its integration into the global economy, a major source of investment. The launch of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) has offered much-needed incentives for development. Less discussed is the BRI’s digital technological infrastructure, or the Digital Silk Road. The initiative is mainly led by Chinese companies, albeit state-endorsed or -backed. These companies are more aggressive than their Western counterparts when it comes to developing and expanding markets for new tech opportunities, whether in e-payment, infrastructure for 5G, cloud computing or mobile devices. Market and political observers in Southeast Asia say that these Chinese tech companies and investors operate differently than their Western competitors. Alibaba and Tencent, two of the largest companies in China and competitors in the Southeast Asian market, have been known to work in joint ventures or co-ownership arrangements with local companies to retain and benefit from local brand identities (e.g. Lazada, Grab, Go Jek) as part of their expansion. Silicon Valley’s giants push their products but remain in control from their bases in the US.

And in contrast to Western, or even Indian, policymakers’ outright political and legal antagonism towards Chinese companies, Southeast Asian countries take a more pragmatic position. While cognizant of the risks to data safety and surveillance, large countries like Indonesia and the Philippines are benefitting from Huawei’s participation in areas such as undersea cable projects to meet increasing demands for better connectivity at home. This is not to say that Western tech brands don’t have a place in the region: Southeast Asia hosts a potpourri of hardware and software from a wide range of sources. For years, Indonesia was a major market for Canada’s Blackberry, and Facebook has been an important platform in Vietnam – although it is under constant scrutiny and has, at times, been complicit in state surveillance.

Surveillance, Free Expression and the Pandemic

Two observations follow from the extent to which countries in the region have adopted China-style surveillance by monitoring online access and search, blocking platforms, using CCTV in public areas and installing spyware. First, the idea of control is indeed a tried-and-tested modus operandi for maintaining political hegemony, contextualised in post-colonial histories. Second, technologies used for control and surveillance are produced globally, not just by authoritarian regimes.

Over the years, several government leaders have flirted with home-grown analogues to China’s Great Firewall in the name of protecting “Internet sovereignty”. In just the past month, the architects of the coup in Myanmar have attempted to make that a reality by introducing a law to control the Internet and by installing hardware and software to enable surveillance, reportedly with China’s help. Cambodia announced plans in January for a national Internet gateway that critics say would be used to surveil citizens. In 2015, the Thai military junta toyed with a similar idea but it was met with public resistance. Instead of creating a single gateway, the Thai parliament passed the Cybersecurity Act in 2019, which could allow the state to require ISPs to install equipment to filter or monitor Internet traffic. Other governments have expressed interest in emulating these methods, but most tend to use existing content and speech regulations to target critics. Some of these laws are legacies of the countries’ colonial pasts and are related to sedition, blasphemy, national security, lese majeste and treason. Far more effective is the use of “cyber troops” (in Malaysia and Vietnam) or “buzzers” (in Indonesia) to shape and influence public discourse. Hardware also plays a role: Malaysia bought wearable cameras for its auxiliary forces equipped with artificial intelligence-based facial recognition technology from Chinese start-up Yitu Technology. The company has an office in Singapore to improve access to markets in neighbouring countries.

While attention has focused on the export of Chinese technologies and capabilities, it is interesting to note that most surveillance technologies used in Southeast Asia are sold by Western companies or are based on the infrastructure of US-based platforms such as Facebook and Google’s YouTube. The use of the German/UK spyware FinFisher was detected in Malaysia in relation to the 2013 general elections and was used by the Indonesian government in 2016. Like the Italian company Hacking Team, FinFisher markets its interception and surveillance tools to governments and enforcement agencies. They were used to spy on Bahraini activists, and new versions of its spyware were detected in Myanmar in 2018. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, which revealed that the company accessed the data of millions of Facebook users to target them for political campaigns, provides another example. Whistleblower Christopher Wylie revealed that countries like the Philippines, which had weak regulatory frameworks, served as a “petri dish” for private companies to test their technologies or strategies.

Recent developments involving cyberterrorism threats, widespread election-related disinformation and the Covid-19 pandemic have shifted the discussions about surveillance and Internet controls globally. Within national borders, surveillance has increased with the adoption of contact tracing apps introduced during the pandemic. The development and use of these apps, which are often secured during closed-door conversations between state agencies and contractors and sometimes have weak technical infrastructure, has raised concerns over privacy risks and the potential for state and corporate surveillance, as noted by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in its report on Covid-19 and surveillance tech. Singapore’s government admitted in Parliament earlier this year that data from its ‘TraceTogether’ app could be used for police investigations, despite initial assurances that it would only be used to fight the virus.

Across Southeast Asia, the pandemic has certainly heightened state control and the use of censorship to tackle false information or fake news, terms that have come to represent a broad spectrum of expression deemed critical of the ruling governments, especially those faced with challenges to their legitimacy. Examples of regulations related to Covid-19 include the presidential decree signed by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in late March 2020 granting the government broad emergency powers, including the criminalization of “false information”. Elsewhere, individuals who use social media to express themselves and criticise the government have come under investigation or been threatened with arrest, as reported in Malaysia and Indonesia. Transboundary propaganda has also been a feature of the pandemic: a report by DoubleThink Lab traced the Covid-19 infodemic trail from China to Southeast Asia, with Taiwan being a critical node in dissemination of disinformation over Facebook, WeChat and Weibo. The main focus of the propaganda is countering anti-China narratives, such criticism of the Chinese government’s lack of transparency about the origin and spread of the virus. There are multiple willing audiences: Chinese who have strong ties with the home country, are frustrated with second-class treatment in their adopted countries or are sceptical of the anti-Chinese narratives coming out of the US.

Understanding Dynamics

When it comes to global governance, the binary dichotomy of the West versus the rest, of freedom versus control or of privacy versus surveillance may limit our understanding of the complexities of the politics of technology, as Yu Hong and G. Thomas Goodnight argue. To understand Southeast Asia, mind Yu Hong and Thomas Goodnight’s suggestion that states and societies will have their own “interpretations amidst techno-economic trends, amidst their values, interests, and capacities”. The relationships between the Chinese stakeholders – the government, its companies and the people – and the rest of the region is complex. Regional scepticism of China’s influence is significant. The #MilkTeaAlliance is an example of a civil society movement uniting the region in solidarity against China’s dominance, whether related to the origins of the pandemic, its claims in the South China Sea or the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

Yet at the same time, the historical ties and personal social relations resulting from centuries of migration and mobility are also an essential characteristic of the region. Overseas Chinese who play important roles in Southeast Asian economies have also supported China (when it was still a closed economy) by acting as investors and middle persons to lead negotiations for government-to-government cooperation. Overseas Chinese themselves are not a homogenous group; the earlier generations of the diaspora (huayin) and the newer emigrants (huaqiao) have different ways of responding to China’s role in national and international politics. But their digital lives involve Chinese platforms and tools – they use Huawei devices, keep in contact through Weibo and WeChat and shop on platforms like Taobao – as much as they do South Korean technologies and US brands. As such, to problematize the debate as China and its supporters versus Western values, in Cold War-esque language, ignores how these countries and societies constantly negotiate their political, social, cultural and economic relationships.

Civil society in the region has long supported the adoption of a human rights framework for businesses, including digital infrastructure. Advocates also want conversations to take into account the lack of access, political struggles and tech business models that disadvantage local communities. At this juncture, Renata Avila Pinto’s observations are an important reminder of the threat of digital domination or colonialism where a large part of the world is “fully dependent on critical infrastructure, software, and hardware provided by a handful of companies based in a small group of countries”.

Thumbnail image: Credits to aroma he on Unsplash


About the Author

Gayathry Venkiteswaran

Gayathry Venkiteswaran is Assistant Professor of media, gender and politics at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. She has over 20 years of experience as a journalist, editor, media activist, researcher and media educator, working in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. Her publications include articles and book chapters on the use of the ICTs by civil society and digital rights in the region, gendering the study of the Internet, media freedom, reforms and journalist safety in Southeast Asia, media and transition in Myanmar, freedom of association and assembly online and freedom of expression and religion online in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia and Pakistan.

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