New Zealand is in talks to minimise the security risks posed by using Huawei equipment in 5G infrastructure, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Tuesday - raising the prospect of compromise on an issue straining Wellington-Beijing relations.
New Zealand's intelligence agency last November barred the country's biggest telco Spark from using Huawei equipment in its planned 5G network, citing "significant security risks".
Beijing expressed "deep concern" over the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) action against the Chinese telecoms giant, saying firms should compete on a level playing field.
It was part of a wave of bans on Huawei in a growing number of countries over fears the company's equipment could act as an espionage backdoor for China, which Beijing labels "groundless".
Ardern said talks were under way between GCSB and Spark to see if the fears about Huawei's involvement could be addressed.
"There has been no final decision... it is now currently with Spark to mitigate the concerns that have been raised," she told TV3.
Asked if this meant Huawei was back in the running to participate in the 5G rollout, Ardern replied: "They never were not." "The GCSB have raised concerns, that is in the public domain," she added.
"They've gone back to Spark with those concerns and now the ball's in Spark's court." Spark confirmed talks were under way but said it would was yet to decide whether to submit a revised 5G plan.
Ardern declined to give an opinion on whether she thought Huawei could be trusted.
"I'm not here to pass assessment on vendors -- our legislation is vendor and country neutral," she said.
Her comments come after the Financial Times reported that British intelligence had concluded the security risks posed by using Huawei equipment were manageable.
Ardern said her understanding was that the British assessment was not yet complete and New Zealand would act on its own independent appraisal regardless. She sought to ease concerns the issue was becoming an irritant in relations with China, New Zealand's largest trading partner.
"Are there complexities in New Zealand's relationship with China? Yes. But do we have a mature relationship that can manage those complexities? Yes we do," she said.
A number of seemingly minor hitches in relations with China have emerged in recent weeks, which some observers say collectively amounts to Beijing sending a message of displeasure.
They include an Air New Zealand aircraft being turned back on a flight to Shanghai over faulty paperwork, cancellation of a tourism reception in Wellington and Ardern's long-awaited trip to China being delayed by "scheduling issues".