The US ambassador to Australia has tried to iron out a diplomatic wrinkle after Mike Pompeo appeared to imply sensitive information-sharing between the two countries may be at risk over Victorian participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The ambassador, Arthur Culvahouse Jr, said in a statement issued late yesterday that he wanted to “set the record straight” after seeing the headlines that arose after the secretary of state’s interview on Sunday morning.

Culvahouse said the US had “absolute confidence in the Australian government’s ability to protect the security of its telecommunications networks and those of its Five Eyes partners” and it commended Australia’s leadership on the issue of 5G network security.
Insisting Pompeo had been answering questions about a hypothetical, the ambassador said the notion that Australia would pursue initiatives risking the integrity of networks was “a very remote hypothetical”.

The diplomatic clean-up stems from an interview Pompeo gave to Sky News Australia’s self-styled Outsiders program early yesterday (notwithstanding the fact the US secretary of state would arguably fit the very definition of an insider).

When asked about the Victorian state government’s participation in Xi Jinping’s signature infrastructure scheme, Pompeo urged the citizens of Australia to scrutinise any proposals “incredibly closely”, saying while the US would continue to work with “great partners like Australia”, his country “will not take any risk to our telecommunications infrastructure, any risk to the national security elements of what we need to do with our Five Eyes partners”:

I don’t know the nature of those projects 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. We’re going to preserve trust in networks for important information. We hope our friends and partners and allies across the world, especially our Five Eyes partners like Australia, will do the same.

(Unfortunately the interviewer, Rowan Dean, did not follow up with a question to check the likelihood of the US “simply disconnecting” with Australia as Dean had to move on to his next question, which began with: “President Donald Trump – I love his tweets, they’re brilliant, great sense of humour … ”)

Pompeo’s comments raised eyebrows in Canberra because the Australian government has already blocked the Chinese-owned Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network in response to security advice – a decision, made in 2018 and backed by the US, that Beijing still cites as a source on ongoing diplomatic tension, as Amy reported earlier this year.

The comments also raised questions in Victoria, given the state government’s agreement to explore areas of cooperation with China over infrastructure investment is in its early stages and no particular projects have been locked in. A Victorian government spokesperson said yesterday the state would not agree to telecommunications projects under the Belt and Road Initiative – and noted telecommunications regulation was a federal responsibility.

For his part, Scott Morrison told reporters at a press conference yesterday the federal government had never supported Victoria’s BRI decision, and it was “the usual practice for states to respect and recognise the role of the federal government in setting foreign policy”.

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