Huawei: Waiting for the blowback

James Riley
Editorial Director

That the federal government banned Huawei from participating in the 5G network roll-out in Australia was hardly unexpected. It makes official what had been backgrounded for some time.

But the timing of acting Home Affairs Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement is extraordinary.

With the Turnbull government in full meltdown on Thursday morning, the political brains trust decided this was the best time to make public a critical national security decision with serious and long term implications for one of our most important international relationships.

If nothing else, this is a shockingly cavalier way to treat Australia’s largest trading partner.

The fact that the announcement was co-opted into a leadership fight is a disgrace and demonstrates – as if anyone needed it demonstrated yet again – that domestic politics trumps international relations every time.

Leaving aside the concerns of the intelligence agencies that underpin the decision to ban Huawei from the 5G networks build, the manner and timing of making the decision public was disrespectful, and many Chinese – and the Chinese government – will be rightly offended.

So what happened here? The decision about the 5G networks has been a long time coming. There was a process. The China relationship was too important to leave open any possibility of the decision being undermined by a perception that the process was hijacked.

Which of course is what happened. Peter Dutton resigned as Home Affairs Minister as he applied the blow-torch to Malcolm Turnbull in the leadership battle.

And then, just 36 hours as newly-appointed acting Minister for Home Affairs Scott Morrison felt the Huawei/ZTE decision had to be announced immediately.

A cynic might think the announcement was co-opted into a domestic political fight, and that it was Scott Morrison – with the Prime Minister’s backing – parading his national security credentials while dog whistling a familiar tune.

This announcement was about blunting the political momentum of his rival Peter Dutton, who, at the time was pressing hard for a second party room leadership ballot. And it promoted Scott Morrison as a leadership contender.

Again, notwithstanding the intelligence agencies’ specific security concerns, this seems an extraordinarily cavalier way to treat a sensitive announcement that affects our largest trading partner.

The Australia-China relationship ebbs and flows. For the past year it has been frosty. There is crankiness all ‘round. Ministerial visits to China have been put on ice in 2018 (only trade minister has visited China this year, and only to Shanghai.)

The stop-start nature of the relationship is enough to give even a casual observer of China whiplash. Two weeks ago the Prime Minister was giving the China-Australia a rather thorough polish – emphasing the close ties in science and technology – in a speech that was considered a ‘reset’ for the relationship.

And today we’re back to throwing national security concerns about China into a tawdry – and bloody – domestic political contest.

Australia has every right to set its own national security agenda and to determine who is allowed to participate in the building of such an important national infrastructure as the 5G network.

But the manner in which the decision was made public was careless and it was disrespectful. It’s not a great way to do business.

And now we await the inevitable blow-back.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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