Information released by WikiLeaks has revealed Australia and America had security concerns about Huawei two years before New Zealand deepened its relationship with the Chinese telecommunications giant.
The disclosures are contained in US embassy cables in 2008 outlining an investigation that was being conducted into Huawei by the Australian Attorney-General’s Department.
The investigation was part of a national security review of bidders for the Australian national broadband network.
It involved consultations with a raft of government agencies including the Defence Signals Directorate and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO).
The department told the US embassy that it was “well aware of issues related to Huawei” and indicated it would contact the US government for more information.
Since then ASIO has advised the department that Huawei’s involvement in the national broadband network could compromise national security because of concerns about cyber attacks originating in China.
As a result, the department blocked the government-owned company responsible for building the A$36 billion network from using equipment supplied by Huawei.
Huawei opened an office in New Zealand in 2005 and has since done extensive work here, including looking after Vodafone’s fixed-line network and building 2degrees mobile network.
However, their involvement in the government’s $1.35 billion Ultrafast Broadband (UFB) fibre network has raised serious concerns, given that Australia and the US have blocked them from becoming involved in similar undertakings.
Auckland-based defence analyst Paul Buchanan believes the company is almost certainly a front for Chinese intelligence and Prime Minister John Key now appears to be tempering his earlier enthusiasm for them.
In 2010, after reportedly meeting Huawei executives at the Shanghai World Expo, he told TVNZ’s Q & A programme that the company should be a leading contender to supply equipment for the UFB network.
“At the end of the day, from New Zealand’s perspective, I mean we are looking for value for money,” he said.
“So let’s take ultrafast broadband. They’ve got a lot of expertise in that area, Huawei is a big player, they’re bigger round the world, they’ve got a huge partnership in the United Kingdom, for instance," he said.
And then last year he despatched Trade Minister Tim Groser, Communications Minister Steven Joyce and Finance Minister Bill English to China for discussions with the company.
Their visits were described as “invaluable” by former Victorian state premier John Brumby, who chairs Huawei’s Australian subsidiary.
“As a recently appointed director of Huawei Australia, I can tell you that the time these ministers spent with Huawei in China was very much appreciated,” he said.
But today, in the light of mounting concerns about Huawei, Mr Key seems to be soft-pedalling.
Through a spokeswoman he told NBR Online that he “did not actively encourage Huawei to supply Crown Fibre Holdings with equipment for UFB. He simply mentioned Huawei as an example of Chinese companies that had the expertise and was already partnering other countries”.
And he hedged on whether he had had any meetings with Huawei.
“The prime minister has not had any meetings with representatives of Huawei in New Zealand or overseas.
"However, Mr Key meets hundreds of people every week as he travels throughout New Zealand and overseas, and it is possible he has come across representatives of the company at some stage, but he has no recollection of this happening. “
Asked whether Mr Key could have met someone from the company when attending the Shanghai World Expo his spokeswoman said:
“The PM meets many people every day but we stand by our response that the PM has had no 'meeting' with representatives of Huawei.
"He may very well have been introduced to them at the Shanghai Expo, or they may have been at an event he attended, but he has no recollection of this.”
NBR Online also asked Mr Key whether he has sought or been in receipt of any advice from his security agencies about the advisability of doing business with Huawei and whether he intended to review New Zealand’s ongoing relationship with the company.
His spokeswoman said: “We do not discuss issues of security, but the prime minister has already said he is comfortable with the current arrangements.”
Huawei, meantime, maintains there are no security issues with the company and says the company's record "speaks for itself".