The Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has said it is still talking to the Turnbull government about participating in the 5G wireless network and might not have to register on the proposed foreign influence transparency register.
Huawei’s Australian chairman John Lord told the ABC on Thursday he had not been advised of any government decision to block the company’s participation in the 5G network on security grounds, and he said his executives were being “welcomed” in Canberra on Thursday.
Asked whether the company would be required to register as part of the Turnbull government’s proposed crackdown on foreign interference, Lord said he would wait for the final legislation.
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But he said on current information, “having done my due diligence”, registration by Huawei may not be necessary.
Lord was responding to a report in the Australian Financial Review that Huawei was “all but certain” to be locked out of the 5G build because national security agencies remain concerned about the company’s links to the Chinese government and have recommended against its participation.
The attorney general, Christian Porter, did not deny the report on Thursday morning, although he signalled the process was ongoing. He also said Australian officials were highly attentive to national security concerns.
“Most Australians would accept a logical and common sense process that when you’re building critical infrastructure and particularly in the modern age, telecommunications and IT infrastructure, then you do so in a way that takes into account national security concerns,” Porter said on Thursday.
Lord said he was surprised by the report, and insisted the government had not communicated security-related concerns to the company. “We are getting welcomed as we continue to talk to government in an open way”.
“Government officials have raised no real concerns other than to seek more information from us about the way 5G is being formed”.
Huawei has already been barred from participating in the rollout of the national broadband network as the Turnbull government muscles up against foreign influence. The government also headed off a bid by the company to build an underwater telecommunications cable for the Solomon Islands, using the aid budget to fund the proposal.
With tensions between Beijing and Canberra already heightened by recent events, Huawei could also potentially be forced on to the foreign influence transparency register the government is hoping to establish as part of its new legal regime.
On Thursday, Malcolm Turnbull and Porter were asked whether the Chinese company would be made to appear on the register. Turnbull and Porter said that was a matter for the company.
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“Ultimately, that is a question to be asked by the company itself and the people working for that company,” Christian Porter said.
Malcolm Turnbull agreed: “It’s simply ensuring that people who are engaged in the activities that the attorney referred to [in the laws], on behalf of a foreign government, a foreign political party, or a corporation controlled by one or other of those, do so transparently.
“So it’s a dose of sunlight, which I think you would, everyone would welcome.
“You can form your own assessments, but the assessments, as Christian said, as to whether somebody is covered by this legislation, will have to be made by the people concerned.”
There was scope for the government to force a company or individual onto the register through a “notice regime” issued by the attorney-general’s department.
Under the criteria the government has put forward, which has bipartisan support, a company with a foreign principal who owns more than 15% of the issued share capital or voting power would be considered related to a foreign power.
The legislation also asks whether a principal has the power to appoint a minimum of 20% of board directors or can exercise control over the company.
Huawei’s structure may expose a grey area. The Australian arm of the company has an Australian board but is owned by its Chinese parent company, which is an employee-owned cooperative
The company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, was an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army and is believed to own just under 1.5% of the company stock.
Labor’s Senate leader and the shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, who sits on the committee which is considering the government’s foreign interference legislation, told Sky News tweaks were still being made to the bill.
The government hopes to have its foreign interference legislation in front of the parliament, and passed, before the July winter break.