We were coming to the end of a lukewarm mishmash of Japanese and western cuisine – eaten with chopsticks – when a troupe of diminutive workmen in hard hats appeared to the left of the refractory area. In the adjacent room, the keynote had hardly ended, yet the line of workers were marching purposefully towards the auditorium.
This was at last week’s Huawei Mobile Broadband Forum in Tokyo. And to my amazement they surged straight into the still-delegate-packed space and began loudly dismantling the stage.
There were lots of occasions last week where the difference between east and west could be acutely felt. After all, this was a Chinese company hosting an event in Japan. It was evident in the presentation style of the speeches, the Mandarin and Japanese translation and, of course, the fundamentally different approach to media. Yet these variances may also highlight bigger rifts that, in our new world order, are only likely to accelerate.
Over the last couple of years Huawei has become a recognised brand for smartphone handsets outside China. This has not necessarily fully assuaged general apprehension about Chinese surveillance in western markets, but as a supplier of consumer devices it has gradually become established. What it is less well known for, outside of Asia, is its mobile broadband business.
This doesn’t look set to change any time soon. Despite several UK focused case studies, via BT-owned EE at the event, its 5G strategy seems firmly focused on Asia. As Huawei’s CEO-in-rotation Ken Hu put it, the company has no “big plans” for the US market and is placing its emphasis on countries like Japan, China and India.
An Asian company which targets Asia ought not to come as any sort of surprise really, but it still might be significant. This is because phenomenal Asian growth has for a long time made the region a market that western IT companies desperately want to be a part of. It sees sales people salivating at the cash potential and numerous strategy meetings dedicated exclusively to the subject.
Yet everything about the Asian market is different from its western counterparts. Many big companies talk at length about the difficulties of targeting multi-lingual European countries – and how this sets them up for expansion elsewhere – but Asia provides this tenfold with the added zest of it being completely alien from western markets to start with. It is hard to get in, and even harder to stay in, which gives local companies a clear advantage.
On top of this, the rapid toppling in world order – between Brexit in the UK, the arrival of Trump in the US, along with wide scale political upheaval across Europe – is likely to have an impact on everything as we know it. Business included. The concerted western focus on ‘emerging’ – or at least non-western – markets is likely to shift (or at least change in texture) over the next few years. Because globalisation – however you chose to define it – has already taken a bit of a bashing.
In the technology business there are already a number of things which make Asia stand out. The continent is generally behind other markets for technology, which in turn, makes it more prone to security concerns. China has attempted to address this by passing its highly controversial cybersecurity law. Yet many critics believe this will render the country even more insular, as the law stipulates that data must be stored within Chinese borders. This could further suppress foreign companies in a country which is already notoriously difficult for outsiders to penetrate.
Of course, Asia is a very diverse region. The recent perception nose dive Asian poster child Samsung has taken – between exploding phones, faulty washing machines and multiple office raids – has been astronomical. But like widespread political upheaval across the globe this has been partially tied to local events.
So, what does all this disruption – and not in the normal technology sense – mean? Well, despite some very vocal critics, it seems unlikely that anything will truly halt the advance of globalisation – especially in business. But markets like Asia have always been hard for western companies to tackle – and the same is true the other way round – so, as fault lines deepen, local companies may begin to gain even more of an advantage in their home regions.
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Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond