Huawei boss says they'd have been 'kicked out' of NZ if they were spies

The boss of Huawei's New Zealand division says the company was "blindsided" by the GCSB's warning to Spark not to use the Chinese company's 5G equipment.

Andrew Bowater told attendees at the China Business Summit in Auckland on Monday he only found out moments before Spark made the news public in November, and it left local employees in tears.

The GCSB, New Zealand's foreign-focused spy agency, said it had identified major network security risks with Huawei's gear. Huawei is closely linked to China's ruling Communist Party, and there are concerns it could be sending critical information back home.

Bowater told reporters at the summit that wasn't true, and testing by the UK spy agency GCHQ had proved that.

"We're under more scrutiny than anybody else, and none of our competitors do the same sort of evaluation or analysis [or have] opened themselves up to that level of scrutiny."

The UK initially took a similar stance to New Zealand and blocked Huawei from building vital 5G infrastructure, but has since partially relented, allowing Huawei restricted access to "non-core" parts of the network.

Bowater says Huawei's efforts to get our Government on-side so far have gone nowhere. Requests to meet with Andrew Little, the minister responsible, have been rebuffed.

"They're saying it would be inappropriate at this point to meet directly, but we think - given the ramifications are much broader than just that project - that it would be appropriate."

The stalemate has added to tensions between New Zealand and China in recent months. Bowater said it got very hot, very fast, thanks to the geopolitics involved - with New Zealand part of the Five Eyes espionage alliance with China's superpower rival the United States.

"We'd like to get this resolved. We're up for doing whatever the Government would like - we've leapt over every hurdle so far, and we'd like to do that into the future."

Andrew Bowater.
Andrew Bowater. Photo credit: Newshub.

He said the ball is in Spark's court at the moment. The telco is yet to decide whether to try and mitigate the GCSB's concerns with Huawei, or go with another provider altogether. Either way, it reportedly still wants to roll out 5G in 2020.

Bowater said there's no evidence Huawei is a spy front for the Communist Party, and if it was, the company would have been "kicked out a long time ago".

"Our staff here, our citizens, obviously don't have to comply with any Chinese law... We have never, ever been asked to do anything by the Chinese government. We've never been asked to spy... and there's never been any evidence of anything malicious going on behind the scenes."

Trade Minister David Parker, also at the summit, said it wasn't a matter for the Government to consider, as the GCSB has discretion over telecommunications security matters.

"We make the point that those decisions aren't taken by politicians in New Zealand. They're taken by a regulator under legislation that was set up many years ago, and is blind as to country."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, speaking generally and not about Huawei in particular, told attendees at the summit earlier on Monday there will be "areas where we do not always see eye-to-eye with China, and there will be times when they do not always see eye-to-eye with New Zealand".

"This is only natural. But as long as we continue to have a relationship built on mutual respect and understanding, we can - and we will - discuss our differences in a mature and respectful manner. That's why... any differences on perspectives, they do not define our relationship."

She said the relationship between the two countries was strong, and praised China's "commitment to protect the rules-based international order", as well as its efforts to support global free trade, multilateral cooperation and fight climate change.

"China is a valued partner for New Zealand, but it was clear from my discussions... that China also values its relationship with New Zealand."