Thu, Jun 14, 2018 - Page 1 News List

Australia persuades Solomons to drop Huawei for cable

AFP, SYDNEY

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela, left, and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sign an underseas cable agreement yesterday in Canberra.

Photo: AFP

Australia is to help fund and build an underseas communications cable to the Solomon Islands, it was agreed yesterday, after the Pacific nation was convinced to drop a contract with Chinese company Huawei Technologies Co (華為).

The Solomon Islands and Huawei in late 2016 inked a deal to construct the fiber-optic cable from Australia to Honiara to improve its often unreliable Internet and telephone services.

However, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela last week said there had been a change of heart following “some concerns raised with us by Australia,” without elaborating.

The move comes with Australia refocusing its foreign aid programs to win hearts and minds in the island nations of the Pacific, as China flexes its muscle in the region.

It last month pledged more than A$1.3 billion (US$986.5 million) in its national budget to fund projects such as the communications cable, which would also link up with Papua New Guinea.

Canberra and other regional capitals have become increasingly alarmed at Beijing’s push into the Pacific through “soft diplomacy,” which could potentially upset the strategic balance in the region.

Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop refused to detail what concerns Canberra had with Huawei.

“I would not elaborate on security issues, that’s not appropriate,” she told reporters. “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 a faster result for them and technically superior.”

Huawei was blocked from bidding for contracts on Australia’s ambitious national broadband project in 2012, reportedly due to concerns about cybersecurity.

Huawei has long disputed claims of any links to the Chinese government.

Australian Secret Intelligence Service Director-General Nick Warner and other senior officials visited the Solomons last year and returned with concerns about Huawei being permitted to plug into the nation’s telecom infrastructure, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported.

They reportedly believed that, while Huawei was an independent company, it retained links to the Chinese government and could pose a threat to Australian infrastructure in the future.

After meeting Houenipwela in Canberra yesterday, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that his nation would also jointly fund a domestic telecom cable network linking remote provinces in the Solomons to Honiara.

“As we step up our engagement in the Pacific, we are working as partners with Solomon Islands more closely than ever to ensure stability, security and prosperity in the region,” he said.

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