Huawei calls a Canberra scrum

The Chinese telco's two-year sponsorship deal with the Canberra Raiders rugby league club could not be a more overt attempt at winning favour from Australia's government.

Huawei could hardly have made a more overt attempt to win its way into Canberra’s good books.

The Chinese telco, which might overtake Ericsson as the world’s largest in the near future, has announced a two-year lead sponsorship deal with the Canberra Raiders just a week after news emerged that the federal government has effectively banned it from participating in the national broadband network tender process.

It also comes amid conflicting reports about whether Telstra Corporation was entirely comfortable appointing Chinese businessman Timothy Chen, a previous employee of Microsoft, Motorola and AT&T Bell Laboratories, to its board amid the concerns for Huawei. If any such concerns existed, it appears Telstra has overcome them.

The Raiders, who finished near the bottom of the league ladder in 2011 in an underwhelming season, have won two of their four games this year and are touted as the "sleeping giant of the NRL" on nrl.com.

The Huawei sponsorship deal, which will last until the end of 2013, could not have been more blatant in its imagery. "The announcement today used the iconic image of Parliament House as a backdrop, re-enforcing the Raiders commitment to the national capital and surrounding region,” Huawei said in a statement this morning. It’s the NBN contracts, which require the blessing of the halls of Parliament House, that Huawei is after.

The Chinese telco continues to suffer from the work history of its founder and chairman Ren Zhengfei, who once served in the People’s Liberation Army. While he was forced out of the PLA three decades ago, the worry is that his company might have the slightest of chances of maintaining ties to the unified military arm of the Chinese government and allowing it access to the bowels of Australia’s most important infrastructure project could be a strategic mistake. There’s a hint of conspiracy theory about it, but it’s enough of a political hot-potato to worry the government.

Huawei has worked hard to tackle this perception head on. Its Australian board was established with former foreign minister Alexander Downer and former Victorian premier John Brumby as directors, covering both ends of the political spectrum. To emphasise the point, former rear admiral and current chairman of DMS Maritime Services, John Lord AM, was tapped as chairman, addressing the national security angle.

Lord said that the Raiders deal means that the Canberra-based rugby team has collected 140,000 news fans around the world in the form of Huawei’s global employee base. It’s a crucial distinction that Huawei is trying to push that it may be a Chinese-based company, but it’s a global enterprise.

Still, Huawei sits on the outer of Canberra’s thinking when it comes to the NBN if the previous contract decisions are anything to go by. Canberra’s concerns for Chinese companies operating in Australia isn’t something that’s exclusively felt for the communications sector – remember when Minmetals wanted to purchase OZ Minerals assets that apparently neighboured sensitive government security assets?

Given the green light that Labor has given the US to increase its military presence here – engineered in the hope of checking China’s growing regional power – and our increasing connectedness thanks to the NBN, being of Chinese origin in this sector is looking like being more of a hindrance than an asset for some time to come.