Skip to main content

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull speaks during the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26), in Glasgow, Scotland, Nov. 4, 2021.PHIL NOBLE/Reuters

Former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who banned China’s Huawei Technologies from providing equipment for his country’s 5G wireless networks, says Canadians should ask themselves a question as they ponder whether to do the same: are they comfortable with leaving a vital piece of infrastructure vulnerable to the Chinese government?

A decision on whether to formally ban Shenzhen-based Huawei from Canada’s 5G networks – and presumably from successor networks still in development, such as 6G – is expected soon from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.

Mr. Turnbull, who was attending the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday, said in an interview that a key factor is trust: can China be relied upon not to manipulate Huawei’s technology for its own benefit?

He said the plight of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor should offer Canada sufficient insight. The two men were jailed for more than 1,000 days on charges Ottawa described as fraudulent. Their detention was widely regarded as retaliation for Canada arresting Meng Wanzhou, a Huawei executive, on behalf of the United States.

“You’ve just had two of your citizens held as hostages. You’re not dealing with a government … that pays too much attention to the rule of law,” Mr. Turnbull said. “You can’t fool yourself about that.”

He said Australia never accused Huawei of spying or being a “bad actor,” but simply concluded that allowing the company’s equipment in telecom networks was too risky.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief urges collaboration in face of ‘revisionist, autocratic powers’

“Canada has to, and will, make its own call on this. But we did a very thorough technical analysis on this,” he said.

“It wasn’t a political decision. I asked the Australian Signals Directorate to see if they could find a way to mitigate the risk. And the conclusion was we couldn’t. So that was why we made the call.”

According to Mr. Turnbull, the question facing Australia was: “Do you want the capability to do things adverse to your national interest in the hands of a company that absolutely would have to act at the direction of the Chinese government?”

When asked if Ottawa should ban Huawei, Mr. Turnbull offered this response: “The only reason not to would be if you are comfortable with a large part of one of your most vital enabling technologies being potentially able to be interfered with, misused, at the behest of the Communist Party.”

Mr. Turnbull said the manner in which China piled punitive trade actions on his country after current prime minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the origin of the novel coronavirus should show how comfortable Beijing is with breaking rules to punish others.

“The pattern of behavior suggests they are not averse to using some coercive leverage,” he said. China blocked Australian imports of a range of goods, including lobster, beef, barley and wine.

Mr. Turnbull argued that China is exhibiting conflicting behaviours as it both restricts trade with Australia and applies to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. “There is a sort of almost cognitive dissonance going on,” he said. “How do you say ‘we’re going to use trade as a means of beating you up for daring to raise questions about the origins of the coronavirus and at the same time we want to join a free trade agreement with you’?”

A woman wearing a face mask browses her smartphone as another masked woman walks by the Huawei retail shop promoting its 5G network in Beijing. Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull says a key factor in deciding whether to ban Huawei from Canada's 5G networks is trust: can China be relied upon not to manipulate Huawei’s technology for its own benefit?Andy Wong/The Associated Press

Mr. Turnbull’s government brought in a foreign influence registry to call attention to people working for foreign governments in his country. Two former Canadian ambassadors to China have urged Canada to adopt a similar registry. The idea was also proposed by Canada’s Conservative Party in its 2021 election platform.

Australia’s registry is similar to a foreign agents registry put in place in the United States more than 80 years ago.

Asked if Canada would benefit from such a registry, the former Australian leader said there’s nothing to be lost by more transparency. “If somebody is working for or acting on behalf of a foreign government or political party or corporation, why shouldn’t it be a matter of public knowledge? … If what you are doing is fine, why aren’t you prepared to tell everyone about it?”

Mr. Turnbull advised Canadians to talk softly but act defensively on security matters.

“The lesson is: avoid boisterous rhetoric. Leave that to the Americans,” he said.

“There is no point being gratuitously belligerent. We don’t need to be flamboyant. Just get the job done.”

“Just calmly and consistently defend your sovereignty.”

He said America can afford to be more outspoken than middle powers.

“China absolutely understands the difference between superpowers and the rest. China tolerates things from the Americans that would send them off the deep end if it came from Canada or Australia.”

In a sign that Ottawa is taking a tougher approach to China, the federal government ordered a Chinese state-owned telecom in August to cease operating in Canada, over national security concerns. China Mobile was told to either wind up its subsidiary, China Mobile International Canada (CMI Canada), or divest itself of the business. The order came to light after the telecom challenged it in court on Sept. 7.

In July, the government unveiled revised guidelines laying out new areas of concern for Ottawa as it scrutinizes foreign takeovers and investments in key sectors of the economy, as well as funding of high-end research. The move was in response to concerns raised by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about the loss of intellectual property and sensitive technology to foreign countries such as China.

After the arrest of the Michaels in late 2018, the federal government rebuffed questions about whether it would follow key allies and ban Huawei, saying it was still conducting a cybersecurity review of 5G.

Officials at Canada’s major telecommunications companies have told The Globe previously that they expect Ottawa to bar Huawei. BCE Inc., Telus Corp. and Rogers Communications Inc. have opted instead to use 5G gear from Finland’s Nokia, Sweden’s Ericsson or South Korea’s Samsung.

The Canadian telecom executives said they believe Ottawa will give them two to three years to phase out their current Huawei gear, because it is unlikely the government will compensate them for the billions of dollars required to rip it out and replace it immediately.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct