Telecom operator Sea tel discusses the challenges and strategies facing Chinese companies abroad
When Thailand’s government backed out of an agreement to lay 870 kilometers of high-speed Chinese railway through the country last spring due to financing disputes, skeptics were quick to suggest cracks were appearing in China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) initiative.
Indeed, for a project on the scale and ambition of a modern-day Silk Road, which aims to build infrastructure connecting around 50 countries (and counting) over land and sea, most people were surprised that roadblocks hadn’t appeared sooner.
Over the past year, as another high-speed rail project failed to materialize in Indonesia and plans to build a vast industrial park sparked protests in Sri Lanka, critics having been impatiently trying to figure out the endgoal of China’s overseas infrastructural investments— will OBOR ultimately deliver anything new, or will China just ferry all the same goods to more countries somewhat faster than before?
To one Chinese-owned private telecommunication provider, the Southeast Asia Telecom Group (Seatel), the answer is quite clear: build it, but make sure you have to have something to deliver too.
“Some of the Chinese projects [under OBOR] are about building other infrastructure, such as office buildings for the local government; some…are providing equipment. Very few, practically no companies invest in or operate telecom projects,” says Zhang Yudong, Seatel’s Chief Administrative Officer. “For this product, because the end-users are the general public, we can have an idea of the feelings about the products and services from a Chinese company and the advanced technologies.”
After all, the ancient Silk Roads from which OBOR took inspiration were not so much defined, physical routes than a loose network of trading links, sustained by the appetite for fine Chinese silk and other goods. It was the silk that created the road—not the other way around.
“So far, most of the products provided, delivered, or conducted by Chinese companies [in the region] are providing basic infrastructures to the developing countries, like building bridges or building reservoirs or building roads,” Zhang says. He believes Seatel is at the forefront of something different: “Our company is in the business of providing hightech telecom communication, so if our products are excellent and outstanding, then the local people have a better impression of Chinese companies.”
Specifically, Seatel is in the business of providing what aims to be the “most advanced 100 percent 4G VOLTE [voice over LTE] mobile communication network in [the] Southeast Asia area,” according to the company’s official statements. As mobile operators usually use 4G (LTE) systems for carrying data only, reverting to 2G or 3G systems for carrying voice, Seatel’s plans would make it the first 100 percent 4G carrier in the region.