(AFR)– A US congressman who serves on the influential House intelligence committee has warned that if the Turnbull government allows China’s Huawei to help build 5G wireless networks in Australia, the Canberra-Washington security partnership could be damaged.
Republican Michael Conaway said Chinese telecommunications firms Huawei and ZTE pose a “serious national security threat” to US government communications with allies – such as Australia – in the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing partnership.
“Because of the high level of intelligence sharing between Five Eyes countries, I have concerns that the presence of Huawei or ZTE in any of these countries could present a significant risk to our co-ordination, and ultimately, US national security as a result,” he told The Australian Financial Review.
Mr Conaway has introduced a bill in Congress to stop Huawei winning US government contracts.
The latest hawkish US warning comes after the Financial Review revealed last month that senior Trump administration security and intelligence officials raised concerns with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Washington about Huawei being a supplier to the soon-to-be-rolled-out 5G wireless networks.
Underlining the potential for a diplomatic stoush between Canberra and Beijing, Huawei last week hit back at suggestions that its world-leading technology could be used by the Chinese government to spy on Australians or wreak economic or security disruption.
The battle is awkward for the Turnbull government, as it tries to delicately manage relations with its No.1 security ally, the US, and largest trading partner, China.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton faces a crucial choice on whether to wade into the private sector telecommunications market and dictate to Telstra, Optus and Vodafone if they are allowed to use Huawei’s globally dominant technology to build the lightning-fast 5G networks.
Christopher Painter, formerly America’s top cyber diplomat and a White House national security official, said the government should apply a “risk management” framework that considers the power of 5G technology, the risk posed by a potential actor and whether the risk can be mitigated.
“It’s hard to mitigate this kind of risk given 5G is a core technology.
“It’s not just listening in or gathering information, it actually could be used to cause widespread disruption potentially.
“5G is not just about telecommunications. It’s going to be the platform for the internet of things and everything basically.”
The new-generation 5G wireless technology will not only enable a super-fast mobile phone network, but it will also underpin the speedy transfer of data to power the so-called “internet of things”, self-driverless cars, industrial robots and medical equipment.
Huawei’s global chief executive Ken Hu told the Financial Review last week that US and Australian concerns are based on “groundless suspicions” and were unfair to the company.
“We welcome discussions and even debate if it is based on facts,” he said.
“We are very happy to conduct open and transparent discussions with the Australian government and telecom operators.”
Other US allies, including Five Eyes partners Britain and Canada, have given the green light to Huawei to operate in their markets.
Huawei is considered to have possibly the best and most cost-effective telecommunications hardware and software in the world, thanks to relentless investment and European and American players losing ground.
Huawei was banned from tendering on the National Broadband Network five years ago – a move opposed by then communications spokesman Mr Turnbull.
American and some Australian intelligence officials do not necessarily believe that Huawei is an imminent threat, but rather that it could be coerced by the Chinese government in the future if geopolitical tensions arise.
Mr Painter, who has been visiting Canberra, said the US had concerns about how much power China’s government can potentially wield over companies like Huawei.
“The concern is in China, like Russia, the state has a lot of control over companies,” he said.
“And if there were a time that it was in the interest of the state to act against the Australia or the US, that creates a vulnerability.”
Because the software can be continually updated, intelligence experts believe the government would need to be perennially vigilant.
In a major step, Huawei recently gained entry as a member of the Department of Communications’ new working group on 5G.
Huawei has provided mobile network equipment for Optus and Vodafone and is trialling 5G for the companies before a scheduled roll-out next year.
Telstra, a former government-owned entity, almost exclusively partners with Ericsson as a supplier.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute head of international cyber policy Fergus Hanson said the government must step in to create a level playing field for all telco companies.
“What the market needs is a signal from government on what its position is,” he said.
“If a telco takes the high road and says they’re not going to have Huawei products and as a result has a network that costs more and potentially has fewer bells and whistles than competitors that use Huawei technology, then they are going to be at a competitive disadvantage.
“Similarly, if a telco uses Huawei products and then the government decides the products pose too much of a security risk, there will be huge remediation costs involved ”
The Turnbull government signalled last week Huawei would be subject to a national security review for 5G.
The Department for Home Affairs said the recently enacted telecommunications sector security reforms (TSSR) would allow the government “to provide risk advice to mobile network operators or the relevant minister to issue a direction”.
American telco giants AT&T and Verizon recently caved into American political pressure and ditched plans to sell Huawei’s mobile phones in the US.
After meeting Mr Turnbull last month, the Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, obliquely referenced the issue saying the US and Australia had discussed partnering on cyber-security issues including “ongoing work to mitigate risks” in the supply chain.
And earlier this month, the heads of the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency told the Senate Intelligence Committee they would advise Americans against using products or services from Huawei and other Chinese smartphone makers.
FBI director Chris Wray told the committee “we’re deeply concerned about the risks of allowing any company or entity that is beholden to foreign governments that don’t share our values to gain positions of power inside our telecommunications networks”.