Julie Bishop has defended Australia’s decision to fund an undersea communications cable to the Solomon Islands, saying regional neighbours needed options other than China.
Australia has stepped in and will use the aid budget to largely fund the cable which will connect the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to Australia. It did so to head off a bid by Chinese company Huawei, which Australia has blocked from having any role in building the NBN for national security reasons. The government is also under pressure to exclude Huawei from the new 5G network, AAP reports.
Money will come from the aid budget, with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull telling reporters that it will be in the order of AU$200 million (US$151 million).
Australia and Solomon Islands will jointly fund the construction of a domestic telecommunication cable network linking remote provinces to Honiara.
It will link Auki in Malaita Province, Noro in Western Province, and Taro in Choiseul Province, with Honiara.
Bishop, the Foreign Minister, was unwilling to discuss the security concerns which drove the decision to use the aid budget and squeeze out Huawei.
“What we have offered the Solomon Islands, and they have accepted, is an alternative to the offer, and ours is cheaper. It’s likely to be faster results for them, and technically superior. And also more resilient,” she said.
“We put up an alternative, and that’s what I believe Australia should continue to do. We are the largest aid donor in the Pacific.
“We are a long-standing partner of 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 PNG, and they accepted it.”
In New Zealand last week, Houenipwela told Sky News: “We have had some concerns raised with us from Australia and I guess that was the trigger for us to change from Huawei to now the arrangements that we are now working with Australia on.”
In a statement, Turnbull said Houenipwela’s visit was an opportunity to discuss shared challenges and strengthen bilateral ties.
“We value our strong and enduring friendship with Solomon Islands, and work as partners to ensure stability, security and prosperity in the Pacific region,” he said.
Huawei’s Australian CEO John Lord said last week the company is privately owned by its employees, and denied any national security concerns based on involvement from Beijing.
“We provide those vendors — Optus, Vodafone, TPG, and perhaps the Telstras — with equipment. They operate the equipment. Now, we may do maintenance, but that maintenance is done by the over 700 employees — who are Australians — for Huawei, or we subcontract it. We don’t have Chinese nationals doing the maintenance on the equipment we provide to the major telcos,” he explained.
“We believe that all telcos should be open, and equipment should be checked. We build equipment on the supposition that nations or companies or rogues will try and crack your equipment. So to have the best cybersecurity is the best business.”
Telecommunications provider Vocus entered an agreement with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in January to scope out the design, construction, and procurement of the Australia-Papua New Guinea-Solomon Islands subsea cable.
The agreement with the government is worth AU$2.8 million (US$2.1 million) to Vocus, according to tender documents.
Beyond telecommunications, the two countries are partnering on information security.
“We have also deepened our cooperation on cyber issues with the establishment of a Cyber Security Operations Centre in Solomon Islands, as well as Honiara’s agreement to partner in a Technology for Development Challenge as part of Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy,” Turnbull said.
Australia’s aid budget to the Pacific island nation is AU$146 million (US$110 million) in the next financial year.
Australia and her regional allies are pushing back at the use of soft diplomacy by China to spread its influence and presence in the region, by building infrastructure.