U.S. diplomat says confident Australia can ensure telecom security

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The U.S. ambassador to Australia said on Sunday that his country was confident its ally would be able to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its partners.

The assurance from Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr comes after remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seemed to suggest that America would “simply disconnect” from any country whose telecom services had been compromised by China’s involvement.

Pompeo made the comments in an interview with Sky News that discussed the southern Australian state Victoria’s investment in China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI).

“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,” Culvahouse said in a statement.

The Five Eyes refers to the intelligence alliance that also includes Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom

“We have made no secret of our concerns about 5G, and we commend Australia for its leadership on the issue. The Secretary was asked to address a hypothetical, and he carefully noted he was not familiar with the State of Victoria’s BRI discussions.”

Victoria has signed a deal thought to be worth more than a billion dollars to work with the China strategy that prioritizes infrastructure investment.

“Every citizen of Australia should know that every one of those Belt and Road projects needs to be looked at incredibly closely,” Pompeo told Sky News.

“Some of them may just be straight up commercial transactions ... But nearly each one has some cost to it”, such as conditions placed in debt documents or concessions to the Chinese Communist Party to get projects built, he said.

“To the extent they have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens or security networks for our defense and intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect. We will simply separate.”

Australia was one of the first countries to raise security concerns around China’s 5G telecommunications network.

Trade tensions have recently worsened between the countries after Australia called for an independent investigation into the origin of the coronavirus outbreak, and China raised duties on Australian barley by 80%.

U.S.-China ties are also on a weak footing, with Washington accusing Beijing of mishandling the outbreak and adding dozens of Chinese companies to an economic blacklist.

Reporting by Melanie Burton; Editing by Himani Sarkar