Australia’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne has stressed that the federal government’s ban on 5G technology from Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is not about that company specifically, but about protecting Australia’s national interests.
“We have taken the strongest advice from intelligence agencies in this country, the strongest technical advice as to the best way to protect Australia’s national interests in the establishment of a 5G network here,” Payne said during a panel discussion at the Lowy Institute in Sydney on Monday.
“As a member of the National Security Committee, that’s the advice upon which I rely. We took a long time to consider the implications and to come to that decision, and we have where appropriate and possible been prepared to share that information in appropriate circumstances — not publicly, in intelligence terms,” she said.
“So we are resolved on the position that Australia has taken. Other countries will make their own decisions … the one Australia has made is not directed at any one company, or two companies, or five companies, or eight companies. It’s directed at protecting our national interest.”
Australia’s Ambassador for Cyber Affairs Dr Tobias Feakin explained that 5G is a “comprehensive infrastructure change in the way that [Australia does] business, and the way that our societies will function”.
That makes it “one of the most fundamentally important infrastructure decisions a country will make”, according to Feakin.
“It was important to show that we could make a decision around where companies’ linkages led back to, what kind of policies they held that were in close association with a given country where they were based,” he said.
“So the decisions around it were more about accountability and transparency again, which is something which is so, so important. We need to be able to trust the infrastructure, and all the things that we then go forward to deliver on the back of it.”
Feakin said that he receives “frequent requests” through his diplomatic position to explain the decision and some of the information supporting it, and that he’s been “quite comfortable with sharing that”.
Lowy Institute executive director Michael Fullilove noted that recent comments by US President Donald Trump “seemed to offer an olive branch to Beijing in relation to Huawei”.
Wouldn’t it be awkward for Australia if the US changed its policy after Australia had made its decision?
“I think the engagement between our intelligence agencies has been very important in our decision-making process, and we’ll continue to prioritise that,” Payne replied.
Australia invests another AU$10m in Cyber Cooperation Program
Monday’s event saw the release of a detailed 2019 progress report on Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy.
The strategy was launched in October 2017 by then Foreign Minister Julie Bishop. It was one of the first documents of its kind in the world, and it was hawkish.
In her strongly worded speech, Bishop officially confirmed for the first time that Australia possessed an offensive cyber capability, and was prepared to use it.
“Just as we have international rules that guide how states behave, and how states should behave towards each other, the international rules-based order that’s been in place for about 70 years, so too must states acknowledge that activities in cyberspace are governed by the same set of rules as military and security activities in traditional domains,” Bishop said at the time.
“Having established a firm foundation of international law and norms, we must now ensure that there are consequences that flow for those who flout the rules.
“Australia has developed offensive cyber capabilities. We are open about that, and this strategy that I’m launching today provides more detail on how we authorise and use these tools. We put this information on the public record because we want to be clear that our capabilities must be used in accordance with domestic and international law, as well as norms of responsible behaviour.”
On Monday, Payne repeated the strategy’s central message, saying it sets out how the nation will ensure an “open, free, and secure cyberspace”.
“That means Australia pursues policies that deliver security, stability, and reliability, as well as opportunities afforded by confident, open, and trusted cyber interactions,” Payne said.
The minister announced a further AU$10 million commitment to the Cyber Cooperation Program, which the government touted as a great success.
This increases the total investment in cyber capacity building across ASEAN and the Pacific to over AU$48 million.
Projects completed so far include the construction of a National Cyber Security Centre in Papua New Guinea and cooperation with businesses to strengthen cyber resilience. The latter includes work with Qantas to improve the cybersecurity awareness of airlines across South-East Asia, as well as with the Commonwealth Bank to translate customer advice on cybersecurity into Bahasa Indonesia.
“The government has translated into Thai, Vietnamese, and, again, Bahasa Indonesia, and made freely available ASD’s ‘Essential Eight’ cybersecurity steps for companies, in all of those languages, which can protect users from a significant number of cyber threats and risks,” Payne said.
The minister ended on another hawkish note, however.
“Over the past three years, we have we have seen an increase in the willingness of states and non-state actors to use the internet for malicious and indiscriminate ends. Certainly, in the past three years, more countries have developed cyber capabilities and demonstrated a willingness to use them,” Payne said.
“2019 will be a pivotal year in the development of the rules of the road in cyberspace. Two key UN bodies will meet this year to further strengthen the international framework that governs cyberspace.”
The first is the catchily-named United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Developments in the Field of Information and Telecommunications in the Context of International Security (UNGGE), where Australia has been a key participant in the creation of the 11 international norms for nation-state behaviour in cyberspace.
The other is the newer Open Ended Working Group, which is open to all UN members to discuss international law and norms of state behaviour in cyberspace.
“We are urging like-minded nations to throw their support and resources behind these international efforts that will build trust and transparency,” Payne said.
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