Australia sup­plants China to build un­der­sea ca­ble for Solomon Is­lands

The Guardian Australia - - News / Politics - Amy Re­meikis

The Aus­tralian govern­ment has stepped in to help build a key piece of in­fra­struc­ture for the Solomon Is­lands, as con­cerns about Bei­jing’s at­tempts at “soft diplo­macy” con­tinue to grow.

Mal­colm Turn­bull an­nounced that Australia would jointly fund con­struc­tion of an un­der­wa­ter telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion ca­ble net­work, which will link re­mote Solomon Is­lands com­mu­ni­ties to Ho­niara.

Huawei had been ear­marked to build the ca­ble, af­ter the Solomons orig­i­nally awarded the con­tract to the Chi­nese com­pany – a move that prompted Aus­tralian in­tel­li­gence and se­cu­rity chiefs to warn against the deal.

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The ca­ble is to have an Aus­tralian link point, to al­low the Solomons and Pa­pua New Guinea to con­nect to Australia’s fi­bre op­tic ca­ble in­fra­struc­ture. Syd­ney, Townsville and the Sun­shine Coast are all be­ing con­sid­ered as con­nec­tion points.

Huawei has been banned from govern­ment con­tracts to build Aus­tralian in­fra­struc­ture over con­cerns that its links to the rul­ing Chi­nese com­mu­nist govern­ment could jeop­ar­dise Australia’s se­cu­rity.

Last year Nick Warner, who heads the Aus­tralian Se­cret In­tel­li­gence Ser­vice, the agency which deals with for­eign in­tel­li­gence, was re­ported to have warned the for­mer Solomons prime min­is­ter Manasseh So­gavare against Huawei’s in­volve­ment.

Australia stepped in to fill the gap, with fund­ing put aside for the 4,000km ca­ble in the bud­get.

While for­eign aid fund­ing was frozen, Australia has con­cen­trated its ef­forts on the Pa­cific, af­ter re­ports about the con­ces­sional loans Bei­jing has been pro­vid­ing coun­tries in the re­gion have con­cerns that China is seek­ing to in­crease its in­flu­ence in the re­gion.

Of the $4.2bn Australia will spend on for­eign aid in the next year, $1.3bn is ear­marked for the Pa­cific.

Julie Bishop said the Solomon Is­lands ac­cept­ing the Aus­tralian of­fer made sense, as it was “cheaper” and “likely to be faster re­sults for them, and tech­ni­cally su­pe­rior”.

“We put up an al­ter­na­tive, and that’s what I be­lieve Australia should con­tinue to do,” Bishop said. “We are the largest aid donor in the Pa­cific.

“We are a long­stand­ing part­ner of the Solomon Is­lands and I want to en­sure that coun­tries in the Pa­cific have al­ter­na­tives, that they don’t

only have one op­tion and no oth­ers, and so in this case, we are in a po­si­tion to be able to of­fer a more at­trac­tive deal for Solomon Is­lands and Pa­pua New Guinea and they ac­cepted it.”

Turn­bull at­tempted to play down the se­cu­rity con­cerns about the ca­ble, say­ing in­stead Australia was happy to see the Solomons and PNG grow.

“There have been a num­ber of ca­ble projects that have been con­tem­plated, with re­spect to the Solomon Is­lands over the years,” he said.

“You’ve re­ferred to one of them. What we are do­ing is pro­vid­ing very prac­ti­cal and sub­stan­tial sup­port and aid as part of our for­eign aid pro­gram, to pro­vide that telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions in­fra­struc­ture which will en­sure that the Solomons Is­land has ac­cess to 21st cen­tury telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, which, as I was dis­cussing with the prime min­is­ter [Rick Houenip­wela] to­day, it is go­ing to be vi­tal for ed­u­ca­tion, for com­merce, for eco­nomic devel­op­ment, in ev­ery as­pect of their so­ci­ety, just as it is in ours.”

Houenip­wela will spend time in Queens­land, a key trad­ing part­ner with the Solomons, as well as Syd­ney and Can­berra dur­ing his trip, which fol­lows the of­fi­cial end of the Aus­tralian-led peace­keep­ing mis­sion in his na­tion, which be­gan in 2003 and ended last June.

with Aus­tralian Associated Press

Pho­to­graph: Getty Im­ages

The Solomons PM Rick Houenip­wela with Mal­colm Turn­bull in Can­berra on Wed­nes­day. Australia has stepped in to fund an un­der­sea ca­ble for his coun­try rather than al­low a Chi­nese com­pany to build it.

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