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A rock and hard place: finding the balance in technology collaboration with China

Jan Harrison | China Fellow

As the world enters a new decade, a new frontier of technology has started to divide nations, as governments scramble to understand the implications for national security. These concerns have been shared across the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) and have re-ignited international debates on cyber-security and fragmented bilateral relations between nations. Most notable is the case of, Huawei, China’s pioneering telecommunications company in 5G technology. Huawei’s inclusion in a list of “high risk vendors” banned from implementing 5G in Australia has heightened tensions between China and Australia at a critical time for the bilateral relationship.

The Australian Government’s decision to squeeze Huawei out of any dealings with domestic enterprises has had vast repercussions for the Sino-Australian relationship. The nationwide ban is premised on the belief that Huawei–included in a list of high risk vendors–could be called on by the Chinese government to share its data and information under national laws. Following the decision, board members of Huawei Australia were dismissed along with over 500 staff members, effectively throwing in the towel on its ambitions for the Australian market. This mirrors moves by Australia’s chief security ally, the US, in shutting out Huawei over its links to the Chinese military, and discussion among the Five Eyes intelligence grouping featuring Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the US on similar actions.

The decision was untimely for some Australia telecommunications providers, with TPG having to discontinue its 5G rollout plans and merge with Vodafone in order to patch up the company’s $135 million losses. Guiding Australian companies to collaborate with Nokia, Ericsson or Samsung–the leaders of 5G technology outside of China–certainly has its caveats. Whilst everyday consumers will stay connected, albeit at a higher price, Australia’s lack of largescale 5G accessibility could contribute to falling behind on groundbreaking “Internet of Things” technologies. Moreover, the burden also falls on the Australian Government and security advisors that now must deal with a disgruntled China.

At a critical time in the bilateral relationship between Australia and the People’s Republic of China, the Huawei issue still lingers. Rumblings from Huawei have turned into public, grass-roots demonstrations against the ban. Local town halls featuring a majority Chinese and Chinese-Australian population have rallied–under the auspice of Huawei–to change the social sentiment towards Huawei and its presence in Australia.

China’s ambassador, Cheng Jingye, has accused the Australian Government’s decision against Huawei as “politically motivated” and refutes that any allegations made towards China over cyber-espionage and other foul play are overblown. Although these comments between ambassadors and envoys rarely lead to considerable flashpoints, they continue to feed the growing elephant in the room–the relationship between technological dominance and national security.

The Australian Government has been stuck between a rock and hard place for some time when it comes to China. Being tugged on both ends by its strongest security ally and its largest trading partner, the United States and China respectively, Australian officials are often criticised on both ends for either their hawkish China stance or lack of independence from the United States. As the United States continues to warn other European nations from allowing Huawei to operate in within their borders, Australia has clapped-back at the UK for letting Huawei develop in Britain.

The decision to look elsewhere for 5G development may well be warranted on the grounds of national security, yet the fiasco between China, Huawei, and Australia has created a problem for the future. Australian technology has benefited greatly from international collaboration, in particular with China, and Australia will now have to reconsider not only, how it develops its technological expertise, but with whom.

As technology reaches new heights, China continues to play a leading role. In 2019 alone China spent over AU$500 billion in research and development and is on track to reach its “Made In China 2025” goal as the leader in information technology, robotics and machine learning. Australia as had a relatively stable relationship with China for a number of years and whilst national security is of the utmost importance, conversations should be moved away from accusations and measures should be taken towards more equitable collaboration and stronger partnerships in technology.

Australia lags considerably behind China heavily in the race to fully operational 5G networks and doesn’t compare when it comes to Chinese Artificial Intelligence capabilities. The questions to ask are can Australia shut out China for good, forever citing national security concerns? Can Australia afford to, not only lag behind in a world so heavily reliant on technology, but also expose itself to possible Chinese backlash from these decisions?

When it comes to telecommunications and other consumer technologies, Australia needs a defined policy that balances national security and technological advancement. To prevent the nation falling further behind and increasingly reliant on external technologies, domestic research and development requires a significant reform. In a pale comparison, AU$10 billion was spent on domestic Australian research and development in 2019 . Additionally, Australia should avoid deferring to the Huawei decision as a reference point for all collaboration with China and still keep its doors open to Sino-Australian technology partnerships in the coming years.

Jan Harrison is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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