Experts clash over Huawei's NBN ban

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Updated: Are links to cyber attacks 'prudent' or 'absurd'?

International policy experts are divided over the Government's decision to block Chinese networking vendor Huawei from bidding from NBN work over security fears.

Although former foreign minister Alexander Downer described suggestions that Huawei is somehow involved in cyber warfare as 'completely absurd', a University of Sydney academic said the Government's decision was right.

The Australian Financial Review reported on Saturday that the Government had banned Huawei from tendering for work on the next-generation network last December due to "concerns over cyber attacks originating in China".

A spokesman for the Attorney-General's office said the Government had a responsibility to protect the "integrity [of the NBN] and that of the information carried on it."

"This is consistent with the government's practice for ensuring the security and resilience of Australia's critical infrastructure more broadly," the spokesperson said of the decision.

Huawei has long battled perceived links to the Chinese Government and security fears over the potential for 'backdoors' to be included in telecommunications equipment.

Downer - who joined the Huawei Australia board last year - was scathing of the links drawn between Huawei and cyber attacks.

"This whole concept of Huawei being involved in cyber warfare presumably ... would be based on the fact that Huawei comes from China," Downer told the ABC's AM program.

"This is just completely absurd."

A 'prudent' decision

Corporate affairs spokesman Jeremy Mitchell told AM there was "no way" that Huawei would ever risk installing backdoors into its products.

But according to University of Sydney's John Lee, an expert with 10 years' experience in Chinese international relations, said the government's decision was right.

He said there were "absolute links" between the company, the government and the People's Liberation Army.

Lee said there were issues of transparency within the company, with Huawei refusing to disclose names of its executives or verify the voting process by which executives were elected.

"It is a prudent move," Lee said of the NBN ban. "It is basically unthinkable that Huawei would be at an arms' length from Beijing.

"The system the company comes from is extremely closely monitored and controlled by the Chinese Government."

The telecommunications sector was one of the 'seven strategic industries' that Beijing had designated last year to accelerate foreign trade and grow foreign funding channels. 

Those included next generation communications, high-end equipment manufacturing, energy-saving and environmental protection, new energy, bio-science, new material and new energy vehicles. 

Lee said those industries, and telecommunications in particular, were subject to an "explicit policy of control and close monitoring" by the government.

"Huawei is openly spoken of as a national champion by the government which has reserved it special credit and reserved access to markets -- and that doesn't happen without certain government interests."

Greens communications spokesperson Senator Scott Ludlam said the Government was "right to be cautious, but needs to make the case for the ban public”.

“The Government is prudent do all it can to protect the integrity of the NBN," Ludlam said.

"While it is unlikely ASIO would issue a security warning for trivial reasons under these circumstances, the Government should explain the decision.

"As Huawei has not been accused of breaking any Australian laws, the Government’s apparent intervention in NBN Co’s tendering processes raises questions that need answering.

"If the Government has evidence that there is a dangerously close relationship between Huawei and Beijing’s political and military interests, it should make that information public."

Huawei's NBN plans

Huawei's Mitchell told ABC Radio National that the company was still hopeful of winning NBN work, despite the ban.

He was initially dismissive of suggestions that the ban was over Huawei's business practices, real or alleged.

"What the Government made clear though was that [the ban] wasn't about Huawei particularly," he said.

"It wasn't about anything we had done or were likely to do in our endeavours as a business."

Mitchell said it was "important we don't paint China with one brush" when it comes to linking Chinese entities with the country's image as a source of internet security attacks.

He said that such attacks "come from around the world". He also said it was important that government and industry "work together to ensure the safety" of the NBN.

And he said that Huawei would extend a number of offers to the Government in a bid to re-enter the race for NBN work.

These included offers to open its source code or to limit NBN work to Australian citizens with appropriate security clearances.

"We're happy to put in place anything that is required," Mitchell said.

Darren Pauli contributed to this story.

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