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Is Huawei a Security Threat? Vietnam Isn’t Taking Any Chances

EntertainmentIs Huawei a Security Threat? Vietnam Isn’t Taking Any Chances

HANOI, Vietnam — The battle for technological dominance between the United States and China is splitting the world in two, though not always along the lines you might expect.

American allies such as Britain and Germany have signaled that they are unlikely to back Washington’s effort to stop countries from working with the Chinese technology giant Huawei, which American officials call a Trojan Horse for Beijing’s cyberspies. Australia has barred the firm from building its next-generation 5G cellphone networks, even though its economy depends on China’s appetite for natural resources. South Korea and the Philippines have not, despite past frictions with China.

And then there is Vietnam. At first glance, this fast-developing nation might seem to be a natural customer for Huawei. Its economy is entwined with China’s, and Beijing has embraced the country’s Communist Party leaders in Hanoi as ideological brethren.

Yet Vietnam’s leading mobile carriers appear to be keeping Huawei out of their 5G plans, even if the government’s fear of incensing Beijing likely prevents them from saying so.

That means Viettel and Huawei could still partner up someday, Mr. Thang said. “For the future, we don’t know.”

But observers expect that Vietnamese carriers will err on the side of caution when they sign commercial 5G agreements. China and Vietnam fought a brief but bloody war 40 years ago, and Hanoi has watched warily as its northern neighbor’s wealth and military ambitions have grown ever since.

“The whole world needs to be careful with China,” said Maj. Gen. Le Van Cuong, the former director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security. “If a superpower like America regards China as a cybersecurity threat, then of course Vietnam has to.”

Huawei has long denied that it takes orders from Beijing or that its products are a security risk.

“Vietnam has not been a strong 4G market for Huawei, and we have modest ambitions for 5G there,” said a company spokesman, Joe Kelly.

Mobile internet coverage has increased quickly in Vietnam, and the government is in a hurry to develop its networks further. Today, even remote mountain, coastal and island communities have 4G. Vietnamese leaders say they want 5G connections ready next year, hoping that ultrafast internet will give a jolt to economic development.

But the country’s sour recent relations with Beijing may have made officials nervous about entrusting the task to Chinese companies. Although the two nations see eye-to-eye on censoring and controlling the internet, they have been at odds for years over territory in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea. After China placed an oil rig off Vietnam’s coast in 2014, marauding crowds of Vietnamese workers stormed factories and attacked Chinese laborers.

In response, Hanoi has cautiously cultivated closer ties with Washington. Still, China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner, and Chinese companies have brought in capital and job opportunities. Living in China’s backyard means Vietnam must keep its powerful neighbor close, but not too close.

The country was not always so wary of Huawei’s telecom equipment. When Viettel began building its 3G network a decade ago, it signed agreements with Huawei and another Chinese supplier, ZTE, according to the research firm TeleGeography.

Thanh Son Dang, a partner in Hanoi at the law firm Baker McKenzie and a former general counsel for Viettel, said that Vietnam’s laws regulating the telecom industry sent a clear signal to companies about where their priorities should lie.

“In any regulation, the government of Vietnam always highlights the importance of national security,” Mr. Dang said. The ghosts of wars with China and the West are never far from mind, he said.

Huawei may not be officially banned in Vietnam, but officials here go to great lengths to avoid talking about it.

Last month, Vietnam’s deputy minister of information and communications, Nguyen Thanh Hung, agreed to an interview with The New York Times. But when a Times reporter arrived in Hanoi, the Ministry of Information and Communications postponed the interview repeatedly over the course of a week.

In the end, no interview took place. The ministry also declined to answer written questions.

Mr. Thang, a deputy general director at Viettel, was initially more open when he met a Times reporter at the company’s offices in Hanoi.

Viettel has been developing its own software and equipment for many years, Mr. Thang said, and employs 300 engineers in research and development. It has designed and produced its own base stations, which exchange radio signals with cellphones, and its own computer systems for billing customers’ accounts, Mr. Thang said.

Most mobile carriers simply buy these things from outside vendors such as Ericsson or Huawei. Mr. Thang said that Viettel had deployed around 1,000 self-produced 4G base stations across Vietnam, Cambodia and other countries.

But when asked whether Viettel’s aim in developing its own equipment was to help keep its networks secure, Mr. Thang first consulted in Vietnamese with a company communications officer, Le Duc Anh Tuan, who then answered in English.

The most important reason for Viettel to develop its own software, Mr. Tuan said, was so it could respond more nimbly to customers’ changing needs. Security was not the main factor, he said.

Asked why Viettel didn’t use Huawei in Vietnam but did use Chinese suppliers elsewhere, Mr. Tuan said that equipment makers gave the company different deals in each country. “We have many partners,” he said, and Viettel considered each of them on its merits.

At that point, Mr. Thang quietly asked another colleague in Vietnamese how much time had been promised for the interview.

One hour, she replied.

“Why so long?” he said.

Mr. Thang gave vague answers to a few more questions about Huawei before Mr. Tuan said that only five minutes remained in the interview, and that Mr. Thang did not have anything more to say about Huawei.

Chau Doan contributed reporting from Hanoi.

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