Australia Undersea cable deal with PNG inked amid concerns over Chinese influence in the Pacific

17:58  13 november  2017
17:58  13 november  2017 Source:   ABC News

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The Federal Government announces it will deliver a new undersea, high-speed telecommunications cable from Australia to Papua New Guinea.© ANDER GILLENEA/AFP/Getty Images The Federal Government announces it will deliver a new undersea, high-speed telecommunications cable from Australia to Papua New Guinea. Australia will deliver a new undersea, high-speed telecommunications cable from Australia to Papua New Guinea, the Federal Government has announced.

The announcement came as the prime ministers of the two countries met on the sidelines of the APEC summit currently underway in Vietnam.

Australia's Government also said it was in "close discussions" with Solomon Islands to lay a similar cable.

That decision throws into doubt an agreement between Solomon Islands and private Chinese company Huawei, which announced in July it had signed a contract to construct a cable from Sydney to Honiara.

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Solomon Islands' caretaker Prime Minister Manasseh Sogovare has backed the Australian deal, but his influence may be lessened after the election of a new prime minister on Wednesday.

The prospect of Huawei plugging into Australia's communications network had raised eyebrows within Australia, as the company had been banned from tendering for the National Broadband Network in 2012 because of security concerns.

Director of the Pacific Islands Program at the Lowy Institute, Jonathan Pryke, said the decision to build the cables was a way for Australia to maintain its presence and counter the growing influence of China in the Pacific region.

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"There's some really pointy security issues around the cable," Mr Pryke told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.

"We saw in Solomon Islands a few months ago Huawei announced that they would be delivering a cable from Solomon Islands into Australia's cable network.

"That results in some really significant national security issues for Australia.

"Having a Chinese state-owned enterprise connecting up to a piece of critical domestic infrastructure is pretty unpalatable for the Australian Government."

But Mr Pryke said he did not believe Papua New Guinea or Solomon Islands had placed much weight on Australia's national interest when making their decisions.

"They just want these cables for the benefits of their private sector and their economy," he said.

Anti-corruption activists and commentators welcomed talk that an Australian company may replace a Chinese one in building the cable between Australia and Solomon Islands.

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"There was no public tender but instead Huawei got the right … this is where the big questions of governance comes," Solomon Islands Business Magazine publisher Robert Iroga said.

The executive director of Transparency Solomon Islands, Ruth Liloqula, said there were growing concerns about the influence of Chinese companies in the Pacific nation.

"There are allegations … that they're paying under the table to make sure that their applications and other things are on top of the pile," she said.

The Federal Government said it was in discussions with an experienced Australian telecommunications infrastructure specialist about delivering the cable between Australia and PNG.

It said the cable would provide significant improvements in internet reliability and quality in PNG.

"Australia's firm support for this project is a reflection of our strong relationship with Papua New Guinea, and our desire to build an even closer economic partnership into the 21st century," Prime Minister Malcolm's Turnbull's office said in a statement.

The project was set to be well underway ahead of next year's APEC summit, which PNG is hosting in November.

"[This project] is very important for ongoing economic development," Prime Minister Peter O'Neill said in a statement.

"We are continuing to expand the use of the internet in education, as well as the application of digital technologies in the delivery healthcare."

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