The incoming foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, has defended a decision that shut Chinese telecommunications giants out of Australia’s 5G network, saying it was necessary to protect national security.
The decision to bar Huawei and ZTE from supplying equipment to Australia’s 5G network was made amid the Liberals’ leadership ructions late last week, meaning it was largely overshadowed by the political turmoil.
But the decision did not go unnoticed abroad. It angered the Chinese government, which labelled it wrong and said it would compromise business relationships.
“The Australian government has made the wrong decision and it will have a negative impact to the business interests of China and Australia companies,” China’s commerce ministry said in a statement on its website.
Payne, who will soon be sworn in as foreign affairs minister, on Monday defended the decision, saying it was not targeted specifically at Huawei and ZTE. She said it applied to any company that had obligations that clashes with Australia’s national security.
“It’s targeted and aimed at solely protecting Australia’s national interests, and the protection of Australia’s national security. That is our first responsibility as a government, it’s our first responsibility as a national security committee,” she told Sky News on Monday.
There are significant fears that Huawei and other Chinese telcos could be compelled by Chinese security services to help with intelligence gathering under new laws passed last year. The national intelligence law requires all organisations and citizens to assist the country’s spy network.
Those fears were alluded to in the statement released last week by then treasurer and acting home affairs minister, Scott Morrison, who has since become prime minister.
Morrison’s statement said there was a risk from companies who were “likely to be subject to extrajudicial directions from a foreign government that conflict with Australian law”, though he did not name Huawei or ZTE specifically.
Payne on Monday acknowledged concerns about the Chinese government compelling such companies had played a role in the decision.
“That is part of the legal system in which they work, so yes that is a concern,” she said, adding that it had been a “well-considered” decision consistent with others made across the world.
A statement from Huawei, however, said the decision was “politically-motivated” and “not the result of a fact-based, transparent, or equitable decision-making process”. It added that the move was not in the best interests of the Australian people.
The company said that “interpreting Chinese law should be left to qualified and impartial legal experts” and said the national intelligence law could not be used to compel telcos to install backdoors, listening devices, or compromise the telecommunications equipment of other nations.
“A mistaken and narrow understanding of Chinese law should not serve as the basis for concerns about Huawei’s business,” the company said. “Huawei has never been asked to engage in intelligence work on behalf of any government.”
Chinese state media has roundly condemned Australia’s decision. It was described as a stab “in the back” to Huawei, and “disappointing and poisonous” to bilateral cooperation.
Huawei has struggled to make good on recent expansion plans. Its attempts to expand into the United States were dealt a blow when the Pentagon raised security concerns about Huawei phones and ordered retail outlets on US military bases to stop selling them.
In the United Kingdom, a government report found the company’s broadband and mobile infrastructure equipment provided only “limited assurance” that it posed no threat to national security.