Global tech company Huawei has become the biggest corporate sponsor of overseas travel for Australia’s federal politicians, research released on the eve of a crucial decision by Canberra about Australia’s digital future reveals.
The research is based on 12 trips by Australian federal politicians to visit Huawei’s headquarters in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
The trips involved business class flights, domestic travel, free accommodation and meals.
The international flights alone would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.
5G decision looms
The report comes amid government debate about whether the Chinese telco giant should be allowed to provide equipment for Australia’s next generation communications network, 5G.
Several politicians have called for the company to be banned due to national security concerns.
A decision about locking certain companies out of the 5G network is expected to be made by the National Security Committee of Cabinet in the next few weeks.
The ABC has spoken to four senior Australian officials who all suggest Huawei will be denied access.
Huawei remains under suspicion
Huawei is one of the world’s largest providers of telecommunications equipment and the third largest provider of smartphones, after Samsung and Apple.
However, it continues to be the target of criticism over its connections to the Chinese Government, including allegations it is involved in state-sponsored espionage.
In 2012, Huawei was banned from involvement in Australia’s national broadband network on the advice of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation.
“[5G]’s going to be one of the most important pieces of infrastructure for the 21st century economy and there are some real national security concerns about Huawei’s participation,” Fergus Hanson, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s International Cyber Policy Centre, said.
Huawei paid for more trips than Chinese government
The new research, released exclusively to the ABC by ASPI, shows that between 2010 and this year Huawei sponsored 12 trips for federal politicians out of a total of 55 trips paid for by corporations.
That means Huawei paid for more than one in five of all corporate-sponsored trips in the last eight years.
Those who took the trips include Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Trade Minister Steve Ciobo, former trade minister Andrew Robb, former speaker of the House Harry Jenkins and eight other Labor and Liberal politicians.
All 12 politicians declined interviews. Three – Mr Jenkins, Stephen Jones and Jim Chalmers – provided emailed responses stating they had attended the all-expenses paid study tours at the invitation of Huawei and other China lobby groups, in order to examine China’s technological growth.
Huawei also sponsored almost twice as many trips to China during the period than did the Chinese government, which paid only for seven trips, the ASPI report shows.
Trip sponsorship ‘raises questions’ of Huawei’s motives
There is nothing illegal about paying for politicians’ travel on “study tours”, nor it is illegal for politicians to accept such trips.
However, it is not the first time Huawei’s corporate largesse has attracted attention.
In 2012, British media drew a link between Huawei’s attempts to be involved in the UK’s communications infrastructure and a series of overseas trips for MPs.
“The Australian Prime Minister is about to make one of the biggest decisions of the year on whether Huawei should be able to participate in the 5G network,” Mr Hanson said.
“So of course Huawei’s sponsorship of all this travel for Australian politicians raises questions about what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to influence Australian politics.
“It raises questions about whether or not politicians should be accepting any trips from corporations to travel to other countries … particularly when there’s serious national security concerns involved.
‘Huawei is transparent’
Huawei rejected suggestions it was doing anything improper.
“Huawei doesn’t apologise for making people more aware about who we are and what we do,” Huawei Australia’s director of communications, Jeremy Mitchell said.
Huawei is transparent about such travel, he said.
“We openly invite media, business, think tanks and politicians to visit us and understand us better.
“The more people who see and experience the world-leading innovation Huawei is delivering, the more people will understand the benefits we bring to Australia.”
Chair ‘surprised’ about extent of travel sponsorship
Huawei Australia chairman John Lord will deliver a speech on Wednesday to the National Press Club calling on Australia to embrace the Chinese telco.
When Mr Lord, a former rear admiral in the Australian Navy, was asked by ABC radio earlier this month about Huawei-sponsored travel, he said few of the trips were fully sponsored.
“Mostly, with these groups, even the non-politicians will get themselves to China. And it’s only the actual Huawei bits that we cover. Obviously, if you come on to our campus, which is huge, and we give you lunch,” he said.
When the ABC presented him with the ASPI findings last week, he said he was surprised to hear Huawei was the biggest sponsor of travel.
“I am surprised, but also I’d say when you say corporate [sponsorship of travel], normally we invite them on a visit when they’re visiting China as a side trip — it isn’t a direct from Australia to China deal,” Mr Lord said.
“This is how we go out and offer many, many different organisations the chance to visit.”
The ASPI report suggests otherwise, pointing to declarations made by the politicians themselves that reveal that most of the 12 trips involved business class return flights to China, domestic travel, accommodation and food that were paid for entirely or in part by Huawei.
“It’s not how I understood it,” Mr Lord said.
“It’s up to each politician to make their own declaration and they have their own rules. The majority of politicians, and I have escorted four or five groups up there in the past seven or eight years, the majority have been on the arrangement I described [in the Radio National interview].”
Three of the all-expenses paid trips did occur prior to Mr Lord becoming chairman.
However, the other nine were all paid for — including flights and accommodation — by Huawei in concert with other groups such as the Australia China Business Council or University of Melbourne think tank Asialink.
Five Eyes countries use Huawei in systems
A small number of federal politicians, including Labor MP Michael Danby and Liberal senator David Fawcett, have warned against allowing Huawei access to 5G.
While the US and Australia have resisted Huawei’s involvement in their communications infrastructure, Canada, New Zealand and the UK — the other members of the global intelligence sharing network called “Five Eyes” — have allowed Huawei to embed in their systems.
In February, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was reportedly briefed on concerns held by the US about Huawei’s involvement in Australia’s 5G network during a meeting in Washington.
5G is the next iteration of Australia’s phone and internet network and is expected to provide a huge leap forward for emerging technology such as driverless cars, remote surgical operations and virtual reality, as well as allow more reliable video streaming, ushering in a new generation of more powerful smartphones.