Australia and Huawei in PNG: more than too-little-too-late diplomacy

Governments rarely monitor and evaluate their diplomatic outcomes and study lessons learned. That’s strange given the extent to which they evaluate and scrutinise foreign aid spending, defence acquisitions and intelligence-collection efforts.

Because so much of diplomacy’s work occurs behind closed doors and many foreign ministries, Australia’s included, tend to avoid talking at length about policy and strategy (especially if it involves China), it is hard for outsiders to get a sense of what went right and what went wrong.

Yesterday, in an interview with Reuters, Papua New Guinea’s minister for public enterprise and state investments, William Duma, revealed the PNG government’s intentions to stick with Huawei for the build of its national broadband network. This is despite a last-minute internet infrastructure package put together by Australia, the US and Japan, described by US Chargé d’Affaires James Caruso as a ‘counteroffer’.

Duma’s comments—which included, ‘We have an existing agreement’ and ‘It’s about honour and integrity, once you enter into a deal and an arrangement you go with it’—became incredibly frank when it came to the counteroffer. He described it as ‘a bit patronising’.

Unless the Australian government can change minds at the highest levels in PNG or Prime Minister Peter O’Neill uses his minister’s comments to whip up an ever better deal—neither of which is impossible—this may mark the end of the road for the Australia–US–Japan last-minute dash to dislodge Huawei from building the country’s Exim Bank of China–financed network.

Obviously, the counteroffer came about because of the Chinese Communist Party’s extended sphere of influence in the Pacific islands. But concerns go beyond an emerging major power’s increasing activity in our neighbourhood. Particularly in the cyber and national security domains, the Chinese state comes with a set of uncomfortable strings attached, including an evidenced history of broad and aggressive cyber espionage and intellectual property theft; a tightening control of industry that encompasses companies like Huawei; and a set of new expansive intelligence laws and regulations. All of this needs to be carefully considered, particularly when you weigh up Australia’s public investments, the scope of our business presence in PNG, and a likely connection to the Australia-funded Sydney – Port Moresby – Honiara undersea cable.

There’s no denying the end result is bad news for Australia, the US and Japan (and also for India, whose diplomats expressed concerns about Huawei’s work in PNG back in 2010 to then foreign minister Sam Abal). Coming so soon after APEC, where Australia’s engagement was largely characterised by a string of Australian government ICT and electricity aid announcements, and in a region that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has referred to as ‘our patch … our part of the world’, it’s a particularly acute blow for Australian diplomacy.

But it’s also a blow worth studying. The result offers the government an opportunity to do some thoughtful self-examination so we don’t drift our way into this situation again.

The Australian government has been on a long journey to get to this point and it’s known about PNG’s Huawei deal for a very, very long time. Even if the deal and the official signing were missed in mid-2013 when it first started taking shape, diplomatic cables must have started trickling in in 2014 after O’Neill touted the project on his party’s Facebook page. Coverage of the deal was scarce in 2015, but in 2016 attention kicked back up again as details of the arrangement were slowly fleshed out and reannounced.

Given this history, the counteroffer—the details of which only started hitting the media a couple months ago—was a welcome initiative. But obviously, incredibly late.

But the last-minuteness of the offer wasn’t the only problem, and there are a couple other issues worth examining beyond the rushed timeline. For example, it’s not clear that the necessary groundwork was laid—the all-important advocacy and influence component that makes diplomacy work on the ground.

When I was last in Port Moresby two months ago, and after wading through the China flags and new Hikvision surveillance cameras lining the streets and a huge Chinese government delegation—with heavy security—who were in town to celebrate the 69th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, it became clear that the recently announced counteroffer had some seriously hard work in front of it.

First, it was obvious that major cyber policy and technical decisions were being considered by the PNG government, and that millions of dollars of ICT-related aid was being pumped into the country—in an environment completely unsupported by an active public discourse on cyber issues. Public debate is incredibly important. It informs, shapes, and can sway, government policy and business decisions. During the discussions I had, it was clear there was enormous interest in media reporting, analysis and research that went beyond the very basics mentioned in aid announcements, but that there was lack of both people to talk to and places to go to find that sort of content.

Already coming from behind—and without a sustained effort made by the countries involved to stimulate, participate in and support an informed and local public discourse—the counteroffer effort was hampered from the beginning.

Second, the PNG government officials I spoke with (from different departments and agencies) had a lot of questions about Australia’s NBN and 5G experiences, and about Huawei’s work overseas and its connections to the Chinese state. Many I spoke to were particularly interested in learning more about China’s national intelligence law that came into effect in mid-2017. There was also a real appetite for the Australian government to provide more sustained technical advice to inform current and future cybersecurity decisions.

All these questions would ordinarily be welcome. But with the counteroffer already being discussed behind closed doors, the fact that most people I spoke with didn’t already have the answers to so many of these questions was worrying and telling. We can’t forget that this was all being rushed through smack in the middle of APEC preparations. The Australian embassy would have been swamped. But to get this over the line, dedicated additional resources needed to be put in place (in Australia’s case, from DFAT, or by pulling in support from Home Affairs and/or the Australian Cyber Security Centre).

The Australian government has plenty of very recent lessons to share on its 5G and critical infrastructure experiences. Importantly, there’s an abundance of open-source information at the government’s disposal (a lot of which was generated and analysed here at ASPI from March to September 2018). This information needed to get in a lot of different hands—in government and outside of government—and it needed to be argued for again and again, and again. In the future and given the enormous amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on ICT and cyber initiatives in PNG, posting a technical officer from the Australian Cyber Security Centre to Port Moresby would fill an important gap, prove a useful complement to the high commission’s make-up of policy expertise, and pay back enormous dividends to the government.

This news should be taken as yet another wake-up call for Australia. It’s yet another consequence of dropping the ball in the Pacific years ago—something that the government is actively trying to rectify (for example, through recent infrastructure and ICT announcements, including a fibre-optic rollout). Probably the most important lesson for the Australian government, which is reflected at multiple points in this journey, from 2013 to now, is that the government needs to spend more time watching our region, listening to our Pacific islands neighbours and then strategising our engagement with the region, whether that be on ways to better help with internet connectivity, critical infrastructure or the clear impacts of climate change—all issues which our neighbours say they care about.

The government’s recent announcement of an Office of the Pacific is a very welcome one, and frankly it couldn’t come soon enough.