The U.S. ambassador to Australia has stressed that the United States is confident that Australia can protect the security of its telecommunications networks and by extension those of its Five Eyes intelligence partners.
The assurance comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would not hesitate to “simply disconnect” or “separate” from Australia if the Victorian state’s involvement in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) threatens telecommunications security.
U.S. Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr. issued a statement on May 24 to “set the record straight.”
“The United States has absolute confidence in the Australian government’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners,” he said.
Culvahouse said the United States has made no secret of its concerns about the security risks to 5G networks but commended Australia’s “leadership on the issue.”
The ambassador clarified that Pompeo was asked by Sky News to address a hypothetical, and Pompeo was careful to note that he wasn’t familiar with the state of Victoria’s BRI discussions with China.
“We are not aware that Victoria has engaged in any concrete projects under BRI, let alone projects impinging on telecommunications networks, which we understand are a federal matter,” said Culvahouse.
“If there were telecommunications initiatives that we thought put the integrity of our networks at risk, of course we would have to take a close look at that, as the secretary suggested.”
Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has signed two agreements with Beijing’s National Development and Reform Commission, progressing the state’s involvement in the BRI. A third agreement is due to be signed middle of 2020.
One area of co-operation outlined in the second agreement was to “increase participation of Chinese infrastructure companies in Victoria’s infrastructure construction program and promoting co-operation of Victorian firms in China”.
In an interview with Sky News, Pompeo said that he did not know the exact details of Victoria’s BRI commitments.
But he said that the United States would not take any risks with its telecommunications infrastructure, including through its work with Fives Eyes intelligence partners, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
“We’re going to protect and preserve the security of those institutions,” he said during the interview.
“I don’t know the nature of those (Victoria’s) projects precisely, but to the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defence, or intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate,” Pompeo said.