Deal to be inked for Solomon Islands undersea internet cable Australia stopped China building


It is the 4,000 kilometre cable that Canberra did not want Beijing to build.

But today, Australian and Solomon Islands officials will sign up to the first stage of a multi-million-dollar contract to sink an undersea high speed internet link between the impoverished Pacific nation and the Australian mainland.

Getting to this stage has taken diplomatic pressure and rare intervention from one of Australia’s top spies.

Australian intelligence agencies never wanted the Solomon Islands to allow Chinese company Huawei to build the link, and were keen to prevent it happening.

And the backdrop for today’s signing is especially acute, given Federal Parliament is soon to debate foreign interference laws curbing the influence of overseas powers.

The original cable contract struck between Solomons and Huawei has been viewed as a prime example of Beijing seeking to flex “soft diplomacy” in the Pacific.

Australia is intent on using its own political muscle in the Pacific region in response.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela is currently visiting Australia, and will meet with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra when the two countries will sign off on where the cable will land in the Solomons.

Eighteen months ago, it was very different.

The Solomons Government had inked a deal with Huawei in late 2016 to consider constructing the cable, in a bid to improve the nation’s often unreliable internet and phone services.

But the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) confirmed this year it would step in and foot most of the bill — effectively forcing Huawei from the project.

Senior officials, including spy boss Nick Warner, were visiting the Solomon Islands in July 2017 as Australia’s 14-year peacekeeping mission wrapped up.

Concerned about Huawei being permitted to plug into Australia’s telecommunications infrastructure, they told the local government that Canberra was unlikely to grant the company a so-called “landing point” for the cable on the Australian mainland.

They believe that while Huawei is an independent company, it retains links to the Chinese government and could pose a threat to Australian infrastructure in the future.

It was at that time Australian officials offered to step in, with a deal that’s been described to the ABC as “very generous” and almost halving the cost of the project for the Solomon Islands government.

DFAT is now funding about two thirds of the cost of the cable to the Solomons and to neighbour Papua New Guinea, and a $2 million scoping study by Sydney company Vocus has been completed.

Money has been allocated in the Budget, but is being kept under wraps before the project is put out to tender. However, it is believed it could cost the aid budget more than $100 million.

Government sources have told the ABC that Australia’s Pacific neighbours should not be left in a position where they only have China to turn to for infrastructure investment.

Australian concerns over Huawei are not new. It was blocked from being allowed to work on the construction of Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), and there are new concerns about its potential involvement in the development of the nation’s 5G mobile network.

Solomons PM not publicly outlining security concerns

Rick Houenipwela became Solomon Islands leader after the contract negotiations, and was highly critical of the process.

He was grilled on what pressure Australian officials had put on his government while in New Zealand last week.

“We have had some concerns raised with us by Australia, and I guess that was the trigger for us to change from Huawei to now the arrangements we are now working with Australia on,” Mr Houenipwela said.

“I don’t have any exact sort of briefings on that particular aspect of what specific security issues are.”

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Security experts have welcomed the decision by the Federal Government to intervene.

“We’re not as major an infrastructure player in the Pacific as we should be,” Peter Jennings from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute told AM.

“And frankly, if Australia’s not prepared to step up and do that, in five years’ time the South Pacific will be very much a Chinese lake as is the South China Sea.”

DFAT officials have defended Canberra’s involvement in the project, and argued they had been talking to our Pacific neighbours for some time.

“Both the Solomon Islands government and the Papua New Guinea government have been exploring for some time a range of different options in terms of financing a cable,” the department’s Pacific division’s Daniel Sloper told Senate Estimates last month.

“In discussion with us, we looked at options that could deliver that as fast as we could and with a reliable and sound technology.

“There was an agreement between the governments that we could provide that in the time period they were looking for.”

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He said the Chinese telco had not approached the Federal Government to connect into the Australian network by the time Canberra stepped in.

“In terms of Huawei, the company you mentioned, at no point did that company or, in fact, the Solomon Islands’ responsible telecommunication authority that would be submitting applications put forward an application to Australia.”

by Matthew Doran and Stephen Dziedzic
ABC News


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