Honiara-- China has been making inroads into the Pacific region, marking its footprint where it can and splashing cash in desperate islands where any foreign investment is embraced.
In July, China’s state-owned company Huawei announced the signing of a US$53 million contract with Solomon Islands’ Manasseh Sogavare-led government to build a submarine cable between Honiara and Sydney.
But Australia, citing security reasons, won’t allow the Chinafication of the region. 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.
Australia thus proposed a counteroffer that prompted Solomon Islands to reconsider its internet cable project agreement with Huawei. Australia’s offer was a “good one,” according to Minister of Communications Minister Peter Shanel.
“Around the same time, Australian media reports emerged about alleged bribery involved in the Sogavare government agreeing to give Huawei the contract,” RNZI reported.
Sogavare has since been ousted in a vote of no-confidence in November. Shanel said that as soon as the cabinet paper had been advanced, the new government would be able to find out more about the offer, invite the potential contractor over to Honiara and have a technical team assess it.
On the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam last month, Australia also announced it would deliver a new undersea, high-speed telecommunications cable to Papua New Guinea.
Director of the Pacific Islands Programme 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. “There's some really pointy security issues around the cable,” Pryke told the ABC's Pacific Beat program.
Pryke said Solomon Islands’ deal with Huawei would result “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.”
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.
China has funded 218 projects between 2006 and 2014 across the region, covering agriculture, communications, education, energy, health, infrastructure, sanitation and humanitarian assistance, according to the Lowy survey.
The national totals included $190 million to Tonga, $255 million to Samoa, $400 million to Fiji, $55 million to the Cook Islands and $270 million to Vanuatu. With $700 million, Papua New Guinea ranked as the biggest recipient nation.