Australia and UK trade barbs in rare split over Huawei

Australia and its close ally, Britain, are locked in a rare clash over the British decision to allow Chinese firm Huawei a role in its 5G network.

Senior Australian intelligence figures have warned that the Huawei decision could compromise Britain's security and jeopardise Britain's intelligence relationship with Australia and the United States. The three countries, along with Canada and New Zealand, are members of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.

Australian MPs from the Parliament's powerful Intelligence and Security Committee have apparently cancelled a trip to Britain amid tensions over the British decision. The committee will reportedly visit security agencies in the United States instead.

Both Australia and the US have completely banned Huawei from participating in the roll-out of their 5G networks. Australia was the first country in the world to do so.

The official reason for the cancellation of the intelligence committee's trip was that it was deferred because British parliamentary committees were still being formed following Britain's elections in December.

Unofficially, however, members of the committee claimed the cancellation was intended to protest against Britain's stance on Huawei.

A member of the committee, who remained unnamed, told ABC News: "If this is the attitude of the British, we may as well visit the Americans who we can trust more on this stuff."

The rift between the two countries, which are traditionally staunch allies, reportedly included an attack by an Australian MP on Britain's Foreign Secretary, Mr Dominic Raab.

The MP, Mr Anthony Byrne, the deputy chair of the committee, reportedly criticised Mr Raab's position during a private meeting in Australia attended by two other senior MPs and the British High Commissioner, Ms Vicki Treadell.

According to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald, Mr Byrne, a Labor MP, disputed suggestions by Mr Raab that the Huawei decision was purely "technical" and would not affect Britain's national security.

Mr Byrne reportedly told Mr Raab: "How would you feel if the Russians laid down infrastructure in your own networks? That's how we feel about Huawei."

 
 
 

The leaking of this quarrel further heightened the rift. According to ABC News, Ms Treadell wrote a "stern" letter to the chair of the intelligence committee, MP Andrew Hastie, to protest against the leak. She also reportedly wrote to the MP chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr David Fawcett, who was also at the meeting with Mr Raab.

This dispute between two close allies highlights the difficulties faced by countries which are typically friends as they balance their security and commercial interests in dealing with China.

China's Ambassador to Australia, Mr Cheng Jingye, this week attacked Canberra's approach to Huawei, saying the ban on the company was discriminatory.

"It has become a sore point, or thorny issue, in bilateral relations as it damages mutual trust between the two sides," he told Sky News.

"Despite external pressure, I think the UK has come up with a decision not to exclude Huawei from participating at least in some parts of the 5G technology development, which I think is a sensible decision."

An international affairs commentator, Mr Tony Walker, said differences among the Five Eyes partners about Huawei was threatening "a longstanding Western consensus about how to manage relations with China". He said improvements in Chinese technology were suddenly leaving US allies such as Australia and Britain with a choice between technologies developed by China and the US.

"The battle over Huawei is merely the most visible manifestation of conflict between the US, the long-time leader in technology, and China, the emerging technology superpower," he wrote on The Conversation website.

"China's advances in areas like artificial intelligence are already turning assumptions about American technological superiority upside down."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2020, with the headline 'Australia and UK trade barbs in rare split over Huawei'. Print Edition | Subscribe