TENSIONS between Australia and China finally appear to be easing.
Last week, the Prime Minister gave a speech on international education proposing “clearer thinking” on the relationship and the rapidly changing world.
It was a marked shift from a relationship soured by a year of aggressive rhetoric and back-and-forth threats.
But one looming government decision may restart the fire.
A RETURN TO DIPLOMACY
It’s been a tumultuous year for Canberra and Beijing.
For over 12 months, tensions have risen over the Turnbull government’s foreign interference laws, and Australia’s stance on the South China Sea.
Beijing responded by freezing out Australian officials, slamming the nation in a series of state-media op-eds, and warning Chinese students living in Australia in what some described as a hit on our lucrative international student revenue.
Speaking at the University of NSW last week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced something of a turnaround.
“We continue to welcome students, tourists, researchers and investors from China,” he said. “We welcome China’s remarkable success and we have embraced its many opportunities.”
He stressed that “mutual respect” was “more important than ever” as China and other nations continue to grow economically.
Mr Turnbull also acknowledged Australia would advance its own interests, based on a relationship of mutual respect and understanding with China.
“For our part, we act to advance Australia’s prosperity, ensure the independence of decision making and secure the safety and freedom of our people,” he said.
“And in doing so, we support an international order based on the rule of law where might is not right and the sovereignty of all nations is respected by others — a principle President Xi endorsed when he addressed a joint sitting of the Australian parliament in November 2014.”
The speech was hailed as a success — at least as far as “resetting” the damaged relationship goes.
But with the Turnbull government still set to rule on the future of 5G mobile network Huawei, it may be too soon to celebrate.
THE FUTURE OF HUAWEI IN AUSTRALIA
Huawei is the world’s third-largest smartphone maker, behind only Apple and Samsung, and the largest supplier of wireless networking equipment.
Western intelligence agencies have raised concerns about the company’s ties to the Chinese government for years, and the possibility that its equipment could be used for espionage, despite a lack of public evidence to support these suspicions.
The company currently provides some of the equipment used to deliver 4G mobile connections in Australia, including Optus and Vodafone, but Canberra is still considering whether this should extend to the nation’s upgraded 5G network.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute cybersecurity expert Tom Uren said if Huawei was to succeed, it would likely be with partial restrictions that prevent the company from taking part in critical aspects of our 5G network.
“They were barred from the core of the NBN network, for example, so similar high-priority parts of the 5G network might be off-limits,” he told news.com.au.
Huawei isn’t the only potential 5G supplier to be linked to the Chinese Communist Party.
Rival networks Nokia and Ericsson — which Telstra relies on — manufacture much of their equipment in Chinese factories linked to the Chinese government, Fairfax Media reported this morning.
The article notes that Nokia joint venture company Nokia Shanghai Bell displays its ties on its Chinese Communist Party web page, while the board of Ericsson’s Chinese joint venture partner, Nanjing Panda Electronics, houses several directors with Communist Party positions.
But Mr Uren said there’s a difference in the level of risk between a company with ties to China, and one where equipment is actually based and designed there, noting that the latter equipment would be vulnerable to in-built security flaws.
“A majority of the risk — by which I mean more than half, but not all — lies in the design of equipment rather than the manufacture.
“It is certainly possible to subvert a supply chain, but it is much harder than designing and manufacturing a product with built-in vulnerabilities.
“For example, to subvert some equipment at a factory, the attacker must understand the equipment well enough to replace or modify just parts of it to introduce new vulnerabilities but also still works. This is trickier than controlling the hardware and software from the beginning.
“So China-based factories introduce some risk, but it is not as great as China-based and China-designed.”
That said, he believes a partial as opposed to total ban on Huawei will be more “politically palatable” for Beijing, suggesting this will help keep tempers in check.
In an earlier interview, Mr Uren said it would be impossible to employ Huawei without some degree of risk.
“The main concern is that they could covertly intercept our communications, and get access to our devices — computers, phones, anything with a signal,” he told news.com.au.
Mr Uren said being on the network would give them the opportunity to hack our private data, and feed this back to the Chinese government.
“There’s been a number of US reports documenting how the People’s Liberation Army has collaborated with companies to get valuable negotiation information, or get intellectual property.”
A spokesman for Huawei told news.com.au the Chinese government does not own any shares in the company.
The company has gone to great lengths to convince Australia it is trustworthy.
“We obey the laws in every country in which we operate in, over 170,” the company’s Australian chairman John Lord told the National Press Club last month. “In Australia, we follow Australian laws.
“To do otherwise in any one country would be corporate suicide.”
The Turnbull government is expected to finalise its review of the 5G network at the end of this month.
By Gavin Fernando