A New Age of Digital Authoritarianism: Vietnam and China's Digital Strategy

23 Mar 2020
By Raymond Wang
A New Age of Digital Authoritarianism: Vietnam and China's Digital Strategy
The Fourth Industrial Revolution brings with it a new arena for geopolitical rivalry. In a context of digitalizing societies, it is not difficult to see that similarities between countries like Vietnam and China might be aligned in their approach to this trend. Vietnam is looking to close its digital gap and become a leading technology player in ASEAN. Meanwhile, Chinese technology companies are rapidly developing their capabilities in digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and data analytics, and are looking to export them.

It might appear that China and Vietnam are natural digital partners.

However, these technologies also bring about a myriad of national security concerns for Vietnam. As a result, Vietnam has assiduously avoided becoming China-dependent in its digital adoption efforts.

China’s Digital Strategy
Two special reports published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) explore the increasing influence of Chinese technology companies, shedding light on China’s digital strategy and how it leverages repressive technologies. In some cases, it exports its own ideas of internet sovereignty at the cost of human rights. An example of this is how the Chinese tech sector implements repressive technologies both at home and abroad to strengthen the surveillance state. Freedom House argues some Chinese tech firms might be expanding the repressive capabilities of authoritarian governments with tools such as telecommunications hardware, advanced facial recognition, and data analytics technologies.

With their shared socialist political systems and the links between their political parties, one might expect Vietnam to be an obvious candidate for partnerships with Chinese tech companies.  Indeed, countries such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe [JW1] have already employed Chinese firms on projects aimed at increasing their surveillance capabilities. Is Vietnam on a similar path, or will its history of caution in engaging with China draw lines around how open it is to new technologies from China? 

Cooperation in Cybersecurity
In the space of cybersecurity, there appears to be a limited level of cooperation between Vietnam and China.  ASPI identified at least one project of ‘particular interest’ in this space. In 2018, digital forensics and security company Meiya Pico completed construction of a digital forensics lab in Ho Chi Minh City in order to increase the cybersecurity capabilities of local authorities. Meiya Pico states that the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security collaborated with its Chinese counterpart on this project, and that its completion marks a strengthening in bilateral law enforcement security cooperation between the two nations.

The construction of the lab fits into a broader Chinese digital strategy to contain cybercrime. Previously, Meiya Pico was financially backed by the Chinese government to deliver digital forensics training for police in various countries in the Indo-Pacific, including Thailand, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Vietnam’s new digital forensics lab appears to be the first lab constructed by Meiya Pico, taking the initiative a step further.  

It is unclear what kind of effect the forensics lab will have over Vietnamese cyberspace and data security. The most likely outcome is the strengthening of the digital surveillance capabilities of local authorities. Meiya Pico is no stranger in providing snooping tools. In fact, the company was linked to a spying app which allowed Chinese police to extract data from citizens’ mobile phones. When installed, the app MFSocket allowed police to view images and audio files, location data, call logs, messages and the user’s calendar and contacts.  

In early 2019, Vietnam moved towards emulating the Chinese model as it enacted its own Internet censorship laws. Under the new laws, companies such as Google and Facebook must remove content deemed offensive by Vietnamese officials as well as store all data in Vietnam. The nation’s current trend towards digital authoritarianism increases its need for repressive technologies and it may be just one critical factor driving its cooperation with China.

It is important to note that the impact of cyberattacks is felt strongest in the Asia-Pacific region. Vietnam is no exception. While the development of the forensics lab could be aimed at crushing dissent within the country, it is just as likely to be used as a legitimate tool to address threats from hackers. As time goes on, it may become increasingly more difficult to discern between these kinds of efforts, regardless of China’s involvement with them.

Vietnam’s Digital Independence
In 2019, Vietnam followed the lead of Australia and the United States in rejecting proposals for a Huawei-backed 5G network. In the meantime, its neighbors such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines have all allowed Huawei to roll out 5G networks. Viettel, Vietnam’s largest mobile network intends to transform the country into the first in ASEAN to develop a 5G network without the help of Huawei.

“It’s a bit sensitive with Huawei now. There were reports that it’s not safe to use Huawei. So Viettel’s stance is that, given all this information, we should just go with the safer ones,” said Le Dang Dung, CEO of Viettel during an exclusive interview after the decision had come to light.
The network provider is partnering with Nokia and Erikson to develop the 5G network, shunning the lower cost from Huawei in favor of national security. Smaller carriers across the country have also followed suit.

Perhaps in response to possible pushback, Le Dang Dung stated that the decision was not tied to any geopolitical considerations, making sure to distance the decision it from the US ban on Huawei and leaving the door open to future collaboration with Huawei, should ‘favorable information’ be revealed later.

Still, the decision is a significant indicator of the Vietnamese government’s growing distrust of technology developed by China. Vietnam’s desire for autonomy is linked to the history and ongoing issues in its territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The decision may also come out of a desire to strengthen security ties with the US, despite the US not having any 5G alternative of its own.

Door closed, but not locked
All countries face tradeoffs and risks when allowing Chinese companies to build critical infrastructure. Vietnam has taken a decisive but cautionary stance by shutting China out of its 5G network, joining the ranks of the US and Australia.  Its choice clearly reflects that the government considers the potential security risks to outweigh the lower cost of a Huawei network. While the presence of Chinese digital forensics providers indicates China has not been locked out entirely, nor are its companies being allowed unconditional access. Limited cooperation exists in the cybersecurity space and a growing partnership may form from the desire for the Vietnamese to close their surveillance technology gap. For now, even if Vietnam wishes to emulate the digital authoritarian model of its northern neighbor, it will only seek their help as a last resort. 

Raymond Wang is an Intern with the Perth USAsia Centre.


Raymond Wang
Raymond Wang
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