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Australia flexes muscles against China in Solomon Island undersea cable deal

Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne (L-R), China's PLA Lieutenant-General He Lei and Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan listens to U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2018
Australia's Defence Minister Marise Payne (L-R), China's PLA Lieutenant-General He Lei and Canada's Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan listens to U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis' address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore June 2, 2018 REUTERS/Edgar Su

Australia’s concerns about Chinese influence in the South Pacific has forced it to agree to fund an undersea internet cable connecting the Solomon Islands to the internet. Previously, the island nation had signed a deal with the Chinese technology company Huawei, to lay the cable.

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Australia will fund a cable that will connect the Solomon Islands and neighbouring Papua New Guinea to high-speed internet through Sydney. This is not the first time that Australia has blocked Huawei. In 2012, the company was blocked from bidding for contracts on Australia’s national broadband project, reportedly due to cyber-security concerns

Huawei has long denied any links with the Chinese government.

Australia’s foreign minister this week said its Solomon island cable was just a better deal than what Huawei was offering. But cybersecurity expert Greg Austin told RFI that security was part of the decision.

“The issue was of greater Chinese influence in the South Pacific, which the Australian government is quite wary about. And I think that concern opened up the way for people in the security agencies to say to the government to say there is additional concern around Huawei,” he said.

But he questions the concerns. There are about 200 undersea cables on ocean floors around the world, and it does not matter who lays them, he says: “The communications that go through those cables can be intercepted at any point on the cable, and after they leave the cable. So the idea that you can somehow secure communications by making sure that only friendly companies install them is a little far-fetched.”

Australia worried about China

“There’s a real mentality around that Chinese corporations are an intelligence concern. And I don’t think that’s the case,” says Austin.

Though he says he agreed with the government’s decision not to allow a Chinese-owned company to bid on Ausgrid, an Australian electricity company, in 2016.

“There is more sensitivity,” he says of an electrical grid. “A decision to turn the power off to a particular area could have enormous strategic consequences, in a way that interception of this or that message would not have the same security impact.”

Australia has long been wary of China, but the relationship is complicated, because China is Australia’s largest trade partner, even as the United States is Australia’s biggest security ally.

Southeast Asia expert David Camroux says Australia should be concerned by a growing push by China to exert more influence in the region.

“We know that elsewhere in Asia-Pacific, Chinese investment - if one looks at a country like Cambodia - has made these countries dependent, and they have become almost client states,” he told RFI. “That’s not going to happen in Australia. But there is genuine concern about the type of Chinese investment.”

Last month Australian officials expressed concern over a Chinese-financed wharf in Vanuatu, another neighbouring island country. Australia said if Vanuatu defaults on the loan, China could seize land that would be within striking distance of Australia’s east coast.

Vanuatu insisted it will be able to pay back the loans, and it can make its own decisions regarding China. But Australia’s reaction is telling.

Camroux says that moves like Australia’s taking over the Solomon islands cable project will happen increasingly in the region, as pushback: “China has become much more assertive, both in actions and in words, and that is causing the sort of backlash. We are at the beginning - not just in Australia - of what we will see amplified in coming years of a backlash about Chinese assertive behaviour.”

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