Asia tech in 2021: this way to the next normal

singapore at night These are perilous times to be making predictions about the future. The bolt-out-of-the-blue that was COVID-19 rendered many forecasts this time last year almost immediately worthless by March. Governments and businesses in APAC, as in the rest of the world, have spent most of 2020 first in fire-fighting mode, reacting to stem the immediate public health and economic damage from the pandemic. More recently, there’s been a concerted attempt by larger organisations to adapt, and even thrive in the new conditions. This will continue into 2021.

In many ways, APAC is one of the regions best equipped to do so. Many countries such as China, Vietnam and South Korea have seen their public policies pay dividends through declining infection rates and a recovering economy. However, there are two important caveats: Asia Pacific is a huge region with much diversity, making it difficult to draw simple conclusions. There’s also the small matter of US-China relations, which are more than likely to continue in a downward trajectory, even with Joe Biden in the White House.

US-Sino tensions set to continue

There are many officials in both governments who may hope that the Biden era will signify a new thawing of relations with China. After all, as Veep under Barack Obama, Biden pursued a far more conciliatory approach to the Middle Kingdom. However, things have changed a lot since then, with strong bipartisan opposition to China hardening in Congress and among most Americans.

In fact, Biden has already pledged to restrict imports from China deemed a national security threat, and to hit back at any countries that try to undercut US manufacturing using state subsidies, according to The Economist. This would seem to suggest his first term could pick up from where 2020 left off, although with more clarity of messaging and unity of purpose than we’ve seen in the past four years. Expect the US to engage internationally to form a coalition of nations pushing back against Chinese geopolitical bullying, state subsidised tech exports and cyber-espionage.

For those businesses stuck in the middle of the escalating trade war, including many technology firms, this could make for another challenging year ahead. Those with manufacturing plants and suppliers in China may want to continue moving operations out to nearby countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia, that can offer what they’re looking for at the right price. An additional factor is the growing disquiet over China’s treatment of Uyghurs: as Apple found out this year, suppliers may be blacklisted by the US over alleged forced labour abuses.

It’s not just the impact of the trade war, Uyghur oppression and US national security concerns that are forcing the hand of business leaders here, it’s also the lessons learned by COVID-19 and the huge impact it had on supply chains. Diversity of suppliers and geographies will be key to spreading risk in 2021 and beyond.

China goes it alone

In response, China will increasingly look to drive self-sufficiency in tech via massive state subsidies, global espionage and huge R&D spending. It’s unlikely that it will produce a domestic operating system to rival Windows, Android or iOS in 2021, but don’t rule it out happening in the next few years. Other areas China will be looking to reduce its reliance on the US include chip-making, where Huawei’s HiSilicon has already broken into the global top 10, and artificial intelligence. In fact, China is so fixed on becoming the world leader in AI that it recently labelled it a matter of “national economic security”. The missive was intended to signal in no uncertain terms that ByteDance would not be able to sell its prized “recommends” algorithm to a US firm.

As China’s global tech swagger grows it’s also likely to be more brazen in efforts to punish US firms operating in the country, and to institute strict controls over private business. Xi Jinping has already signalled his intent to tighten the Communist Party’s grip over domestic enterprises, which could make it harder for firms like ByteDance and Huawei to claim autonomy from government and geopolitical matters in the face of US hostility. The last minute suspension of fintech giant Ant Group’s $37 billion IPO is a clear signal that no company can be above the Party.

Digital growth will help APAC bounce back

Away from China, the big story in APAC as a whole next year will be increased spending on digital transformation to drive post-pandemic growth. As we revealed earlier in the year, IDC estimates that APAC spending in public cloud will reach $34.5bn in 2020 — up from $26bn in 2019. Forrester reckons it will grow another 35% in 2021 as businesses double down on the computing model that helped to save operations during the darker days of the pandemic. This will be good news for US tech giants AWS and Microsoft Azure, although the analysts predicted Alibaba will take the number three spot revenue-wise globally thanks to its anticipated gains in 2021, pushing Google Cloud out.

However, Google will be making some notable gains in specific geographies like Indonesia, where it beat its US and Chinese rivals by launching a cloud datacentre last year. Expect these investments in various APAC countries to support a new wave of digital disruption as businesses look to meet customer and employee demand for seamless app-driven experiences. 

In migrating to these new environments, the region’s businesses must ensure that cybersecurity and data protection are designed into new technologies from the outset. In fact, cybersecurity was highlighted by over half of respondents to 2020 IDG Connect poll as the biggest IT challenge of the pandemic. Local organisations must tackle not only cybercrime attacks but also the increasingly aggressive behaviour of state-backed operatives in China and elsewhere. A recent report revealed yet another Beijing-backed APT has been targeting multiple southeast Asian governments over the past two years.

Ultimately, APAC will thrive in 2021. The World Bank predicts that growth will soar from -0.5% in 2020 to hit 6.9% as economic activity normalises once again. The trends for digital transformation present before the pandemic will gain extra urgency, and budget, over the year ahead, expanding corporate attack surfaces but also driving profits—especially those of Western tech firms. However, deteriorating China-US relations could result in a few surprises along the way: perhaps not the fireworks of previous years, but enough to make boardrooms continue to rethink their options in APAC.

This was my latest for IDG Connect, published here earlier this month.