Australia to cement internet deal with Solomons as leaders meet in Canberra


Australia stepped in to fund the undersea cable to prevent a deal with Chinese telco Huawei

The Turnbull government’s recent promise to build an undersea internet cable from Australia to the Solomon Islands will dominate the diplomatic agenda when the island nation’s visiting leader meets with Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra today.

The government revealed taxpayers would pay for a large chunk of the cable – reportedly two-thirds of the price – in the recent 2018 Budget.

The exact cost was not revealed in the Budget papers for “commercial-in-confidence” reasons, but would be met from within the existing aid budget.

The cable will be a significant leap forward for communications in the Solomon Islands, which currently relies entirely on satellite networks.

Australia stepped in to fund the cable after the Solomons originally awarded the contract to Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.

The head of Australia’s foreign spy agency ASIS, Nick Warner, reportedly warned the Solomons’ former prime minister the deal could create a cybersecurity risk by giving the Chinese firm a direct connection to the back-end of Australia’s internet network.

Foreign minister Julie Bishop said the Australian option was both "cheaper" and "technically superior". 

"We put up an alternative, and that's what I believe Australia should continue to do," Ms Bishop told reporters at Parliament House on Wednesday.

"I want to ensure that countries in the Pacific have alternatives [for aid], that they don't only have one option." 

Australia froze its overall foreign aid spending in the Budget, but concentrated more of its spending in the Pacific region to counter the increasing soft-power influence of China in the region. Around $1.3 billion of the roughly $4.2 billion budget will be spend in the region.

Australia will also help Papua New Guinea build a cable. Both nations will contribute some of the cost.

Solomon Islands prime minister Rick Houenipwela will sit down with Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull on Wednesday.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is weighing up whether Sydney, Townsville or the Sunshine Coast will be the best Australian link point.

Mr Turnbull said Mr 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 in a statement.

Australia's aid budget to the Solomons alone is $146.1 million in the next financial year.

Mr Houenipwela's wife Rachel is accompanying him on the trip which includes visits to Brisbane, Bundaberg, Sydney and Canberra.

He is also expected to deliver a speech at the Australian National University.

The visit comes almost a year after the lengthy Australian-led peacekeeping mission to the Solomon Islands wrapped up.

The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands began in 2003, involved 15 countries, and concluded at the end of June last year.

Rampaging violence and lawlessness was tearing apart the Solomon Islands at the turn of the century when then-prime minister John Howard committed to a rescue operation.

Mr Howard was keen to avoid a "failed state" on Australia's doorstep, fearing the tiny nation could become a terrorist safe haven and trans-national crime hub.

More than 1,700 federal police officers and 7,200 Australian military personnel were deployed at an estimated cost of $2.8 billion.

-with AAP

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