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Huawei: Where does Australia stand?

Josephine Warnant | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

When planning 5G roll-out, countries must weigh up national security priorities against strengthening diplomatic relationships.

The global roll-out of the 5G network has caused geopolitical tension as nations take a stance on the security risk that Chinese company Huawei poses.

5G is being introduced throughout the world to bring faster network speed and lower latency, so that the mobile communications network can hold more connections at one time. Developing 5G networks is an important pathway to accessing new and revolutionary technologies like virtual surgeries.

Huawei is a Chinese multinational technology company that provides telecommunication equipment and sells consumer electronics and smartphones.

In 2019, Huawei’s revenue hit $122 billion and ranks as the world’s second largest smartphone seller.

Headquartered in Shenzhen province, the company was founded by Ren Zhengfei, but despite Huawei saying it has no links to the government, the ownership of the company is unclear.

In 2018, the Turnbull government banned 'high risk vendors'including Huawei—from taking part in the 5G roll-out.

This decision was based on security advice and concerns that these vendors could build in access points that would allow them to hack into 5G networks in Australia.

The Chinese government has accused Australia of discriminating against Huawei by preventing it from operating in the country.

Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye said that “I mean, it is a discrimination against the Chinese company. At the same time, it doesn’t serve the best interest of the Australian companies and consumers”.

The United States has also been campaigning against Britain’s decision to allow Huawei to provide 5G technology. The US has banned Huawei from rolling out 5G and warned European allies that using Huawei technology could put intelligence relationships at risk.

It is unclear how the impasse between the US and UK on this issue will be resolved.

Controversially, the British government has given Huawei permission to roll-out the 5G network throughout the UK. Britain’s security community has said they believe that any risk Huawei equipment posed to national security could be contained.

Following recent talks between British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne, concerns were raised about the impact of Britain’s engagement with Huawei on intelligence sharing between the UK and Australia.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Labor MP Anthony Byrne criticised Raab about the UK’s decision to allow Huawei to build its 5G network. The ABC also reported that the Australian Parliament’s intelligence and security committee cancelled a planned visit to the UK after confidential discussions with Australia about the Huawei policy were leaked.

Both the UK and Australia are part of the Five Eyes alliance, with Raab saying that it was possible to protect Britain’s core infrastructure by restricting high-risk vendors to 35 percent of the next-generation network and keeping them away from sensitive locations.

This point of tension raises serious concerns about Australia’s continued intelligence relationship with the UK and whether the Huawei decision will impact the UK-Australia alliance.

The geopolitical tension regarding the power of Huawei is not expected to dissolve soon and is symptomatic of a wider suspicion of the motives of government backed Chinese companies.

This ongoing struggle to maintain secure intelligence networks is complicated when allied countries perceive risks differently.

Canada is the final member of the Five Eyes group that is yet to decide, with nations also looking to Germany to provide leadership on the issue.

The issue here lies in a lack of viable, secure options for the roll-out of the global 5G network. This is a result of years of inaction and missed opportunities on technological innovation.

Australia and the UK must look towards each other to provide support to manage the security issues emerging in the age of 5G, rather than engaging in negative dialogue around the decision to use Huawei technology.

Josephine Warnant is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

This article was commissioned for YAIA's International Women's Day initiative.


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