Australian minister defends comm security in China

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Australia's defense minister said Wednesday he was protecting the confidentiality of government communications after a newspaper reported he left his delegation's laptop computers and cellphones behind before flying to mainland China.

Defense Minister Stephen Smith took extraordinary precautions against Chinese espionage by leaving computers and phones in Hong Kong before flying to Beijing for a goodwill visit, The Sydney Morning Herald reported. His staff were given fresh phones in China with new numbers.

The minister took the step after such devices were "compromised" on previous ministerial visits, the newspaper said.

Smith is in China to soothe concerns over Australia's decision to deepen its military ties with the United States by hosting up to 2,500 U.S. Marines at a joint training hub. China is Australia's biggest trading partner.

The newspaper report is particularly embarrassing for Smith since Australia recently banned Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from working on a national broadband network for security reasons.

Beijing's relations with Western governments have been strained by complaints about hacking traced to China and aimed at oil, technology and other types of companies.

Smith declined to say whether he had been hacked on any previous visit to China. But he said he had taken such security measures before.

"Ministers are entitled to ensure the confidentiality of their communications, so this is nothing unusual, nothing extraordinary," Smith told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television from Beijing.

"Governments do it, private corporations do it for industrial reasons, so this is just part of the modern world," he added.

He did not directly answer when asked if he took the same security measures when visiting the United States, Australia's major defense partner.