Amid ongoing controversy around Chinese investment in Australia and issues of national security, telecoms giant Huawei has launched a new charm offensive in the country.
Huawei was ruled out of the bidding to build the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN) in 2012, on “national security” concerns, despite the fact that China is Australia’s biggest trading partner and was about to sign a landmark free trade deal.
It was the first of a series of contentious decisions by the Australian Government on Chinese investment, which has underlined how schizophrenic Australia policy on China has become.
On the one side is China as the most important economic partner, and the United States on the other as the most important defense relationship.
Stuck in between, Canberra has struggled for a consistent policy and the public debate has been highly charged by ongoing reports of cyber attacks by China against Australian defense and intelligence agencies.
Chinese interests were ruled out of buying Australia’s largest agricultural business and more recently two Chinese bidders – State Grid and Cheung Kong – were prevented from investing A$10 billion ($7.6 billion) to buy the power grid in New South Wales. This is despite the fact that State Grid already operates the same infrastructure in the neighboring state of South Australia.
The original Huawei decision was a controversial one by the former Gillard Government, but it didn’t mean that Huawei had given up on Australia. Since then it has been building its presence by increments.
It is building a 5G network with mobile provider Vodafone, for example, trialing NB-IoT technology in suburban and central Melbourne. So far, Australia’s intelligence community is yet to object.
In July, the company made a series of announcements on how it wanted to work with the Australian Government to make Australian cities “smarter” and “safer.”
Jo So, Huawei’s chief technology officer, said at the time that it was a “matter of trust.”
“I think the Australian government has a lot more trust in us today than before,” he said.
“I would love to offer Australia our public safety solution. Huawei is ready.”
Given the recent history of suspicion from Australia, it was more than ironic that Huawei is offering a public security solution, and it will be fascinating to see how it plays.
The platform has already been implemented in 100 cities across 30 countries, using IoT data technology to analyze and integrate key information of a city’s core operating systems.
Within Australia, it would seem that the Federal Government in Canberra is pretty much alone in having issues with Huawei.
The company is already working in Melbourne with the Victorian State Government on technologies for data analysis and management of key utility systems.
And in a nice PR move, Huawei is taking ten top Australian ICT students off to its Shenzhen HQ for some intensive study and training.
Whatever reasons the Australian Government had for ruling against Huawei in 2012, the true intelligence on which the decision was based remain submerged.
But the company’s new charm offensive won’t have been helped by allegations in the respected Four Corners investigative program about Chinese-sponsored cyberattacks.
The program recently claimed that the Defence Department’s elite research division and trade body Austrade has suffered significant cyber infiltrations from Chinese based hackers.
Huawei wasn’t mentioned or blamed for any of this, but the allegations all play into a consistent theme that Australia cannot trust large Chinese telecoms and data companies.
It’s an intriguing environment in which to try again with Canberra.