By Carl Joseph
Prime Minster Gaston Browne is suggesting that “out of an abundance of caution” – and in deference to ongoing tensions between the US and China – that he has passed on a deal with Chinese multinational technology giant Huawei.
The company provides telecommunications equipment, electronics and smartphones. Specifically seeking to upgrade the handset retail component of APUA iNet’s brand, the government-owned entity had sought to complete a US$40 million Chinese-facilitated loan arrangement at an interest rate of two percent that would span over the next 20 years.
But the PM, speaking on Pointe FM, said the government had decided to forego the deal amid friction between the US and Huawei – despite describing the loan terms as the “best in the market”.
“When the Chinese give a loan of two percent interest, which ordinarily we would have to borrow at seven or eight percent, they are [essentially] providing a subsidy on the interest [amounting to] six percent for 20 years,” Browne explained.
The deal, he continued, could have saved the country as much as US$48 million over the next 20 years.
The US has been outspoken against the UK’s decision to allow Huawei into its 5G phone network in the future. The US claims there is a risk the Chinese state could exploit Huawei equipment to conduct surveillance.
But Britain’s spy agencies believe any risk can be contained as long as Huawei is only allowed a 35 per cent or less share of each mobile company’s network.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we have chosen not to go with Huawei,” Browne said. “And you can see where we are taking the interest of the United States into consideration. [The United States has] made a claim where they say Huawei has been spying on them and stealing their technology.
“We don’t know that to be true, but we do not want to get into that sort of geopolitical exchange,” he explained, despite the fact that the deal had no telecommunications component.
“Foregoing this loan from China at two percent is not necessarily in our interest, but we understand the consequences of the propaganda, that they would say that China is utilising the telecoms infrastructure in Antigua and Barbuda to get into their broadband system and to spy and we don’t want to get involved in that kinda politics,” he added.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke at a policy discussion on US/Caribbean relations at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel last week, warning Jamaica and its neighbours against accepting “easy money from places like China”.
PM Browne dismissed Pompeo’s notion, saying, “I hear all kinds of stupendous arguments that [the Chinese] are colonising us with grants. They are giving us a grant now of $120 million to build low income homes for our people and we gladly accepted.”
The US’s top diplomat had also made strong assertions that China posed a threat to national security in the Latin American and Caribbean region.
“The People’s Republic of China has never approached us to take any action against the United States or any other country for that matter,” Browne responded.
“This idea about security threats of China as a result of them helping countries to build capacity, I really cannot see the rationale in that type of thinking,” he added.
Browne identified the US as an important partner for the country, saying that “80 percent of our trade takes place in the United States and we have historical ties. There is no way that we could have a hostile relationship with the United States”.
Despite his cautious stance on the Huawei issue, the PM said that he will not allow either the US or China to dictate Antigua and Barbuda policy or “who our friends should be”.