news Prime Minister Julia Gillard has strongly defended the Government’s decision to ban Chinese technology giant Huawei from making bids to supply equipment to the National Broadband Network project, rejecting suggestions the move would cause diplomatic ructions and emphasising the Australian Government’s right to make its own choice.
The decision, made late in 2011, was revealed over the weekend, causing uproar in Australia’s technology and political spheres, with many praising the government’s option on national security grounds, claiming a close relationship between Huawei and the Chinese Government and military, and others damning the Government for a decision which some saw as illogical and reminiscent of cold war hostilities towards communist states.
Speaking at a press conference in Sydney this morning to launch the NBN’s three year rollout plan and flanked by Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Gillard faced down a number of questions from the media on the issue. The Prime Minister said in making the decision on Huawei, she had “stood up for Australia’s national interest”.
“Once again, I do reiterate the decision we have taken is not in breach of any trade rules or trade arrangements with China, it’s simply not true, it is a decision open to the government,” Gillard told journalists. “We have taken it for the right reasons, with the right process, based on the right advice about a piece of criticial infrastructure for the nation’s future. I do note that in China, people also make decisions about their nation’s future and the rollout of their own telecommunications, they want to make those decisions for themselves, completely understandably. So do we.”
The revelation of the Government’s move represents the latest in a long-running series of attacks on Huawei by various organisations in Australia. Throughout the past several years, a number of media outlets and other groups have attempted to link Huawei as a private corporate entity with Chinese political and military interests, citing such claimed links as evidence for why the company may not be suitable as a supplier of telecommunications supplier to major government or private sector projects.
However, throughout that period, Huawei has strongly denied that any undue influence exists on its commercial operations. In addition, no technical proof of any so-called ‘backdoors’ in Huawei’s infrastructure has ever been presented in public.
Pushed on the issue this morning, Gillard declined to provide any details about the advice, reportedly from agencies such as the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation and the Defence Signals Directorate, on which the Government had made its decision to blackball Huawei from participating in NBN tenders. “I’m not commenting in detail on what ultimately are national security matters,” the PM said.
A number of other major networking hardware suppliers from diverse international countries, such as Nokia Siemens Networks (Finland), Ericsson (Sweden), Cisco (the United States), Alcatel-Lucent (France) and others have won major contracts with NBN Co over the past several years. However, none of those firms have had their foreign interests questioned in public by NBN Co or the Government.
The Financial Review, which broke the news, this morning wrote that the Government’s decision “reeks of Cold War conspiracy theories”, while a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson reportedly said the country hoped Australia would provide “a level and indiscriminate market environment for Chinese companies instead of wearing coloured glasses and obstructing Chinese companies’ normal operations in Australia in the name of security”.
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell also slammed the move yesterday, saying it was a “huge insult” to Huawei. “Huawei is a international company, Huawei has a presence in this country, Huawei is trusted to deliver telecommunication services in this country,” he reportedly said. “I think it is a huge insult to a company that comes from a country where every state and national government should be seeking to further trade and investment ties.
However, Gillard rejected suggestions Australia’s relationship with China would suffer as a result of the move.
“We’ve got a strong, robust relationship with China,” the Prime Minister said. “We are deeply engaged at every level, we have a strong economic relationship, increasing ties at every level, diplomatic ties, multilateral ties, people to people links, and you will continue to see our relationship with China strengthen and grow. Now does that mean there will never be a moment where we see things differently? Of course not. There will be moments where we see things differently. And I’m not surprised that this is a moment where we are seeing one thing differently.
“But it would be a great error indeed to move from a moment where we are seeing one thing differently, and then extrapolate that to the full dimensions of the relationship, a very grave error indeed.”
NBN Co chief executive Mike Quigley, whose company had reportedly been evaluating Huawei as a potential supplier to the NBN, declined to disclose how his company’s engineers had reacted to the ban, or whether NBN Co had checked Huawei’s equipment for back doors. “Frankly, I really don’t want to comment, either one on tender processes or on issues which, as the Prime Minister has said are issues of national security,” he said. “We as a government business enterprise execute on the instructions given by our shareholders. I really won’t comment on those kinds of issues.”
Implications for other projects?
The company continues to be a key supplier of networking equipment to major Australian telcos such as Optus and Vodafone, and the company has also conducted trials of its equipment with Telstra. Other Australian telcos it works with include AAPT, vividwireless, Primus and TPG. In addition, the company has been selected as a key supplier for a fibre-optic submarine cable between Australia and New Zealand, as well as the New Zealand Government’s own national broadband network project.
In an interview its director of corporate & public affairs, Jeremy Mitchell (a former executive with Telstra) gave with Sky News over the weekend, Huawei emphasised its global presence. Mitchell stated that internationally, Huawei was “the global leader in building NBNs”, and in fact the second-largest supplier of telecommunications technology in general. “Of the 9 NBN’s being built around the world we are delivering 8 of them, and that also includes the United Kingdom where for the last 6 years we have been the sole supplier of the technology we would like to put in the Australian NBN,” he said. “So we are clearly the world leader, we have the best technology, so we do believe we can play a role in the Australian NBN.” Huawei, he added, worked with 45 out of the top 50 telecommunications companies globally.
Asked by journalists whether the fact that Huawei equipment was used by corporations and Australian allies abroad had compromised those systems, Gillard said: “Of course not”.
“We took a specific decision about the NBN,” the Prime Minister said. “On other decisions, including on decisions involving NZ, we’ll continue to take a prudent approach, and if we’ve got anything to say to our friends in NZ about that, then at the appropriate time we will. We’ve made a decision about critical infrastructure in Australia and that is the national broadband network. I stand by that decision, it’s in Australia’s national interest.”