Malcolm Turnbull has severely chastised Australia’s closest security allies including the US, UK, Canada and New Zealand for failing to develop their own versions of 5G networks – the most important technology “of our time”.
Issuing a staunch defence of his government’s world-leading decision to block Huawei from Australia’s 5G rollout on national security grounds, Mr Turnbull also endorsed President Donald Trump’s decision this month to escalate as a priority the development of domestic alternatives.
Mr Turnbull said there was “no doubt Western nations have been out-competed” by China.
At present only four companies supply next-generation 5G equipment and services – two from China and two from Scandinavia – severely limiting the choice for network providers like Optus and Telstra, and AT&T and Verizon in the US.
“Ferocious competition” from China’s Huawei and ZTE on price, and “an absence of mind” in Washington and other capitals – including Canberra – has left the US, Australia, Canada, the UK and New Zealand exposed, he said.
That oversight “has got us to a position where, when network security is more important than ever, there is not one 5G vendor from the United States or its five-eyes allies.
“Indeed there isn’t one from Japan either and the closest new prospect is Samsung of Korea.”
Mr Turnbull’s lament at the lack of alternative 5G options from among Australia’s closest allies came at an ANZAC day speech in New York on Thursday (Friday AEDT), just hours after a decision was leaked that the British government will allow Huawei to build part of the UK’s network.
“It is frankly absurd that in this arguably most enabling technology of our time the US and its closest allies are not leading players”
— Malcolm Turnbull
That move, which was revealed to a newspaper by a source present at a high-level meeting involving prime minister Theresa May and senior cabinet members, has been seen as being at odds with Australia and Washington’s hard-line opposition to Huawei’s involvement in the critical infrastructure of the future.
Australia is the first to formally ban Huawei, with the US so far blocking it from government contracts. Washington has also urged allies around the world, including those in eastern Europe, to avoid using the Chinese telco.
Mr Turnbull’s remarks echo concerns raised by Mr Trump in February, when he declared that “American companies must step up their effort, or get left behind” on development of next-generation wireless broadband technology.
“I want 5G, and even 6G, technology in the United States as soon as possible,” Mr Trump wrote in a series of tweets. “There is no reason that we should be lagging behind on something that is so obviously the future”.
“I want the United States to win through competition, not by blocking out currently more advanced technologies. We must always be the leader in everything we do, especially when it comes to the very exciting world of technology!”
Mr Turnbull said when he was prime minister he discussed the lack of five-eyes 5G vendors with Mr Trump and his administration on several occasions and in “considerable detail”.
“I encouraged the president to take the lead and ensure that we had at least one viable and secure 5G vendor from the United States and its five-eyes partners,” said Mr Turnbull, who has relocated to New York for the duration of the Australian election campaign.
“It is frankly absurd that in this arguably most enabling technology of our time, the United States and its closest allies are not leading players.
“That’s why I was so pleased to see President Trump announce earlier this month that 5G is a priority for his government to ensure US companies got up to speed.”
“A nation… surrounded by friends… would be unwise to allow that neighbourly warmth to lead it to neglect its own defences.”
— Malcolm Turnbull
Mr Turnbull detailed the reasons behind his decision to ban Huawei just before he lost the prime ministership last year, saying it followed an exhaustive inquiry by Australian security experts.
Unlike previous generations of networks, 5G is critically different because high-risk functions and services that were confined to the so-called “core” of the system are increasingly being migrated to the “edge”, or the mobile phone towers and switching systems closest to users.
That change will dramatically improve speeds for customers by putting them physically closer to key elements of the network – but it also increases a thousandfold the potential entry points for hostile actors.
Australia has led the world in determining that that risk is simply too large to mitigate with alternative approaches.
“The final decision I made on national security as prime minister was to set in place a ban on high-risk vendors from our 5G network that could not meet security thresholds,” Mr Turnbull said.
“High-risk vendors were defined as those which could be subject to directions from foreign intelligence services to act contrary to our national security.
“Chinese intelligence law of 2017 makes it abundantly clear that Huawei and ZTE are subject to such obligations and accordingly they are excluded from the 5G rollout in Australia.
“Australia is the first nation formally to do so. Our decision was not taken lightly.”
Mr Turnbull said that security threats must be assessed as the combination of capability and intent.
“The former can take years or even decades to put in place, if at all,” he said.
“Intent on the other hand can change in a heartbeat, which is why a nation that feels it is surrounded by friends – particularly well-armed ones – would be unwise to allow that neighbourly warmth to lead it to neglect it’s own defences.”
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