Donald Trump’s latest attack on China’s tech has put a target on eight Chinese payments apps © AFP via Getty Images

Happy New Year, everyone. Welcome back to #techAsia. To bring in 2021, we are unveiling a new section — “Our take” — that aims to highlight our views on a big trend or development in the region. In this week’s issue, it looks at the prospects for Sea, south-east Asia’s ecommerce sensation. Also, don’t miss Yuan Yang, the FT’s deputy Beijing bureau chief, on how Joe Biden may adopt a fresh approach to China’s tech. And finally, where is Jack Ma?

The Big Story

US president Donald Trump has issued an executive order banning transactions with eight Chinese apps, including Alipay, the payment app affiliated with Alibaba, and Tencent-owned WeChat Pay, describing the companies as national security threats.

The ban is to take effect in 45 days, nearly a month after Mr Trump is due to leave office.

Key implications: The US president said the ban would apply to Alipay, CamScanner, QQ Wallet, SHAREit, Tencent QQ, VMate, WeChat Pay and WPS Office, and would be administered by the commerce secretary.

However, there were questions over whether the ban would stick. In August, Mr Trump issued sanctions against WeChat and TikTok, but a California judge subsequently blocked the WeChat order while judges in Washington DC and Pennsylvania halted the TikTok ban.

In another reversal, the New York Stock Exchange initially said it would delist China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom from the New York Stock Exchange but abruptly reversed course this week, sowing confusion in Washington and on Wall Street.

Upshot: While Alipay and WeChat are widely used in mainland China, they do not have a broad user base in the US. Both apps require a valid Chinese ID and mainland bank account to register.

Mercedes’ top 10

  1. Take that back . . . The New York Stock Exchange shocked policymakers and markets by reversing a decision to delist China’s three main state-owned telecoms companies.

  2. Taiwan’s Foxconn is stepping up its push into electric vehicles — but can it extend its traditional tech dominance into a crowded market?

  3. Speaking of the new year, it is only a few days in and already global chip dealmaking is off to a flying start.

  4. China’s appetite for undersea cable projects and telecoms groups in the Pacific is unsettling Australia and the US.

  5. Japan is accelerating plans for remote-controlled fighter aircraft in response to China’s military technology advances.

  6. Don’t miss this reflection from the FT’s Yuan Yang on what the Trump administration did with its China tech policy — and what Biden could do.

  7. Where is Jack Ma? Definitely not on his talent show Africa’s Business Heroes. And nowhere to be seen in public in China, either.

  8. Japan telecoms giant NTT is undergoing a green transformation in an effort to fit in with a decarbonising world.

  9. Chinese tech giants Tencent and Huawei are sparring over revenue sharing in an increasingly public spat.

  10. Finally, another good one from John Thornhill, who breaks down the three big questions faced by Big Tech in 2021. More predictions for Asia tech here.

When sages speak

  • Here is some biting criticism from Amrita Narlikar and Samir Saran of the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think-tank, on the recently agreed EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. “It signals to China that the EU now not only turns a blind eye to but actually rewards its increasingly aggressive behaviour,” say the authors.

  • This interesting update on China’s digital “Belt and Road” strategy is worth a read, courtesy of Rogier Creemers of the China Copyright and Media website. It shows that one of China’s aims along the “Belt and Road” is to seek policy harmonisation among participating countries.

  • This data comparison of the US vs China by CSIS, a Washington-based think-tank, is thought provoking. It shows that while one prevalent narrative pits the two superpowers as vying to be number one, the truth is that in several metrics, they are both far from global leaders.

Our take

Last year marked the point when the Chinese ecommerce frenzy truly spread to south-east Asia. Sea, a Singapore-headquartered gaming and online shopping platform, touched a $100bn valuation. A big reason for the investor enthusiasm was the meteoric growth of its Shopee platform during the coronavirus pandemic, beating even Alibaba-owned Lazada in crucial markets in the region.

But all this comes at a cost. Founded in 2009, Sea has never made a profit despite having a successful and profitable gaming business called Garena. Garena has subsidised the lossmaking Shopee and more recently Sea’s payments business SeaMoney. But as with Chinese ecommerce peers listed in the US, including Alibaba, Pinduoduo and JD.com, its share price rocketed up last year, making it one of the best-performing stocks of 2020.

Many analysts believe that Sea will be able to turn a profit in the near future. But our take is that they may wait a while yet. In its latest results in November, the company reported a net loss of $425m, more than double the loss a year earlier. The cash burn is unlikely to subside. Shopee has plenty of competition, including a potential new mega-rival in Indonesia’s Gojek and Tokopedia, which are set to merge (more in Art of the deal). Not to mention that with the addition of SeaMoney, Sea is now also competing with Grab and Gojek — the ride-hailing platforms-turned-“superapps” with large payments businesses.

But if investor enthusiasm in the US for Chinese ecommerce platforms is any guide, Sea has room to run. The company last month upsized its capital raising to more than $2bn. Meanwhile, another US-listed Asian online ecommerce business, China’s Pinduoduo, has also never been profitable and there are big questions over whether it ever can be. That didn’t stop it from becoming a more than $200bn company in 2020. If this is an Asia ecommerce stock market bubble, the music hasn’t stopped yet.

Spotlight

Tony Xu, chief executive of the US food delivery giant DoorDash, has always had a need for speed. Born prematurely in Nanjing, his parents decided to name him “Xun”, meaning “speedy” in Chinese, not only because he was born early but also because his delivery took just a few minutes.

He did not keep that name for long. After moving to the US with his parents in 1989, Xu soon found his name was too difficult for his American friends to pronounce. So he decided to rename himself Tony, after Tony Danza, star of the classic sitcom Who's the Boss, which Xu watched after school every day to learn English.

While Xun is no longer his legal name, Xu has not lost his penchant for moving fast. The 36-year-old executive took DoorDash public in December just seven years after he founded the company while studying at Stanford University. The company now accounts for 50 per cent of the US food delivery market, well ahead of Uber Eats’ 26 per cent and Grubhub’s 16 per cent.

Art of the deal

We did not see this one coming. After spending much of 2020 in merger discussions, Indonesian technology start-up Gojek looked almost certain to merge this year with its rival, Singapore-headquartered Grab.

Wrong. Instead, the Indonesian ride-hailing and payments group is in advanced talks with another local unicorn, ecommerce company Tokopedia, for a tie-up that would create a $18bn tech giant. With a combined 138m monthly active users on their platforms, the companies would make a formidable player across Indonesia’s fast-growing mobile population. The plan is to IPO on the domestic stock exchange by the end of the year, in what will be the first test of the south-east Asian country’s ability to produce listed tech champions.

So what next for Grab? Well, a Gojek-Tokopedia tie-up doesn’t necessarily preclude a merger down the track. Grab management said this week that revenues have returned to well over 100 per cent of pre-coronavirus levels and the company is still competing fiercely with Gojek in Indonesia among a number of south-east Asian countries. But Grab may be wondering if digging its heels in against Gojek at the bargaining table was worth it.

Smart data

New unicorns by region

Asia experienced a pullback in the number of new “unicorns” minted in 2020. At the end of December, the region had created 20 new start-ups worth more than $1bn, down from 34 in 2019. This was largely because of a drop in the number of start-ups joining the unicorn club in China, which awarded eight in 2020, down from 17 a year earlier, according to CB Insights, a consultancy.

India, meanwhile, minted seven new unicorns, the same total as in 2019. The number of new unicorns in the US bucked the declining trend, rising from 65 in 2019 to 68. Overall, the global unicorn club swelled by 106 in 2020, down from an increase of 122 in 2019.

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