The US ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr has clarified comments the US Secretary of State made about Victoria’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road initiative.
Responding after Mike Pompeo said on Sky News his nation could “simply disconnect” from Australia if Victoria’s trade deal with Beijing affects US telecommunications, Mr Culvahouse issued a statement on Sunday 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,” Mr Culvahouse said.
Mr Culvahouse said the US has made no secret of its concerns about the security risks to the 5G networks, but commended Australia’s “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,” Mr Culvahouse said.
“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.
“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.”
Mr Pompeo acknowledged in the interview he didn’t know the exact nature of projects that may stem from Victoria’s participation in the infrastructure initiative.
China’s trillion-dollar initiative is a global infrastructure push aiming to recreate the glory days of China’s ancient Silk Road trade routes.
But Mr Pompeo said the US won’t take any risks with its telecommunications infrastructure, including through its work with its Fives Eyes intelligence partners in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.
“We’re going to protect and preserve the security of those institutions,” he said on Sunday.
“So I don’t know the nature of those projects (in Victoria) 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 and intelligence communities, we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate.”
Victoria signed up to the belt and road program in October amid federal government criticism.
The first agreed area of co-operation under the agreement was to “increase participation of Chinese infrastructure companies in Victoria’s infrastructure construction program and promoting co-operation of Victorian firms in China”.