Australia’s Minister for the Pacific has revealed Canberra will explore options to support Vanuatu with a high-speed undersea internet cable, following discussions with the country’s Prime Minister, ABC reports.
Just earlier this month, the Turnbull Government confirmed it would spend $136 million to build an undersea cable linking Solomon Islands to Australia, a project the Solomon Islands Government had originally inked with the Beijing-linked tech company Huawei.
Australia offered to take on the project instead after raising security concerns with the Solomon Islands Government.
In the lead-up to the high-level visit, Vanuatu’s Infrastructure Minister Jotham Napat had indicated they would also be asking Australia for help to fund a multi-million-dollar internet cable project for that country.
Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells confirmed Vanuatu Prime Minister Charlot Salwai asked for assistance with a similar project to his country, which is marginally closer to Australia.
“Australia is willing to explore options to support Vanuatu’s communications sector,” Ms Fierravanti-Wells told the ABC’s Pacific Beat program.
“This could include potentially undertaking a study of Vanuatu’s telecommunications sector, and needs analysis of what their requirements are.
“We are responsive, we understand that telecommunications is vital infrastructure in the Pacific and we would look to assist as we explore what Vanuatu’s needs are.”
Mr Salwai’s visit comes after media reports in April raised speculation China had an interest in growing its military strength in the Pacific region.
Vanuatu and China both denied the countries held talks about building a Chinese military base on the Pacific island nation.
Dame Meg Taylor, the head of the leading regional body the Pacific Islands Forum, said by making such requests it appears Pacific countries are leveraging the concerns about China’s growing influence in the region.
“I think I would do that too if I was a Prime Minister as well,” she said.
Dame Meg is currently in Australia for high-level consultations between the Forum Secretariat and the Australian Government.
“Australia is also looking at it very much through their own strategic interests and their influence in the region and security in the region. I think that’s what politics is all about,” she said.
In 2014, a private Vanuatu company completed the country’s first submarine internet cable linking the capital Port Vila to the international fibre optic network via Fiji, and construction has begun on a second cable that will link to the Solomon Islands.
Vanuatu’s Infrastructure Minister Jotham Napat said last week that in light of Australia’s investment in the Solomon Islands cable, Vanuatu should get a similar deal.
“The support that the Australian Government is providing to the Solomons Government, they have to do the same for Vanuatu,” Mr Napat said.
Australian taxpayers will foot most of the bill for the 4,000-kilometre Solomon Islands cable, which will also connect Papua New Guinea to high-speed internet, paid for with funds from the Australian Government’s $1.3 billion aid commitment to the Pacific announced in May.