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The infrastructure battleground: Attempting to curb Chinese influence in the Pacific Islands

Image credit: Commonwealth Secretariat (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Australia would fund and deliver an undersea high-speed telecommunications cable to Papua New Guinea (PNG). This was welcome news for the impoverished nation that is plagued by unreliable, slow and expensive Internet access, and where many telecommunication providers still rely on satellite. Turnbull also indicated that the government was in ‘close discussions’ with the Solomon Islands to provide a similar cable.

The pressing need for such infrastructure in an under-resourced Pacific region cannot be underestimated. In a globally connected world, widespread ICT access is a fundamental requirement for the Pacific Islands to achieve their development goals. Reliable and affordable Internet would allow Pacific Islanders to overcome issues of remoteness and spur inclusive economic development.

Turnbull’s office released a statement claiming that Australia’s ‘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’.

However, it’s estimated that the cable between PNG and Australia will cost about AUD$131 million, which will be be provided in addition to the current aid budget to the country of AUD$547.1 million.

Given the significant sum involved in delivering the undersea cable, Australian motives must be questioned.

To find answers, one should look no further than Canberra’s reaction to the announcement in July this year that Huawei would be building a cable for the Solomon Islands. With a loan from the Asian Development Bank, a preferred contractor in a British-American company and approval for the cable to be landed in Sydney, the government of the Solomon Islands unexpectedly announced that Huawei would deliver the project. Immediately following the deal with the Chinese company, Australia vetoed the possibility of Huawei connecting to its telecommunications infrastructure.

Cybersecurity concerns raised by ASIO had already led the Australian government to ban Huawei from tendering for contracts related to the National Broadband Network in 2012. Having a Chinese company connected to critical Australian infrastructure has long been unacceptable for the government, and fear that Beijing is attempting to infiltrate Australian infrastructure has only grown in the intervening years.

But perhaps more concerning for Canberra are China’s increasing efforts to court influence in the Pacific, thereby threatening to undermine Australia’s long-held powerful position.

Already, expensive infrastructure projects in PNG including the Edevu Hydro Project and redevelopment of Lae’s port have commenced courtesy of Chinese investment. Beijing has lent PNG millions to develop a national broadband network, create a governmental information-sharing system and build roads in Port Moresby. The cost of repaying PNG’s debt to China is now over AUD$26 million annually. Similar heavy investment is occurring in the Solomon Islands.

Turnbull’s announcement was therefore provoked by fear. In order to counter China’s growing influence in the Pacific, including the risk that Pacific nations will be unable to repay their debts to China, Australia offered to pay to complete the telecommunications cable in PNG. Turnbull’s recent suggestion that a similar arrangement with the Solomon Islands is impending also casts doubt on the opaque deal with Huawei and flags the possibility of an Australian contractor taking over.

The delivery of the undersea cables will be mutually beneficial. PNG and the Solomon Islands will receive crucial infrastructure for development. Australia will maintain its presence in the Pacific Islands while keeping an increasingly brazen China from destroying the economic and diplomatic influence carefully curated by Canberra over many years.

However, it would be remiss for the Australian government to think that this agreement would put an end to China’s growing presence in this region. While Australia should approach this with a healthy dose of scepticism and concern, the government must ensure it does not make reactionary foreign policy decisions driven by fear. Responding in this way and allowing it to cloud Australia’s engagement agenda with China prevents closer ties that will benefit Australians economically and politically.

Although taking responsibility for the delivery of undersea cables is a measured attempt to curb Chinese influence in and protect the national security of the Pacific, Australia must make efforts to rebuff Cold War-era thinking and continue to build a reciprocal, trust-based relationship with China. Only by acknowledging difference while working side-by-side will Australia have any hope of encouraging China to commit to transparency and the rules-based global order.

Emma Squires is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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