By Alfred Sasako
THE multi-million dollar optic fibre undersea cable project linking Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands with Australia was “forced down our throat”, a senior government official has told Island Sun.
The official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela never consulted senior technical officers who were handling the project.
“He [Prime Minister] simply buckled under pressure from Canberra,” the official said.
“The Prime Minister never consulted us. It was after a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he agreed with Canberra to block Huawei from the project. It was then that he told us to work on the new arrangement.
“You could say the project was forced down our throat. And when the boss succumbed to Canberra, we have lost our sovereignty, independence and our rights to make decision,” the official said.
Australia and Solomon Islands yesterday signed a contract to block Huawei from the project, effectively giving Canberra the upper hand in determining the pace and level of economic development for Solomon Islands.
The 4,000 km cable will connect Solomon Islands to Papua New Guinea and then to Australia. Huawei won a contract to build the cable in 2016, which so irritated Australia that its Department of Foreign Affairs offered to run a new tender and to pay for two-thirds of the link.
Reports say the decision will cost Australia’s foreign aid budget upwards of AU$100 million, with the spending designed to counter China’s growing influence in the region.
Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has characterised the cable contract, signed during Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Rick Houenipwela’s visit to Australia, as “a simple matter of competition”.
“We offered them an alternative to an undersea cable project, we believe it is cheaper, faster, more reliable than the competitor,” Bishop told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s AM programme two days ago.
“It’s a competitive world … we want them to have alternatives,” she added.
Australia’s handling of the project has drawn criticisms within and outside Australia with one questioning Ms Bishop’s claim that the network would be “cheaper, faster and more reliable than its competitor”.
“Sounds like some BS that would come from Malcolm Turnbull [Australia’s Prime Minister],” the anonymous observer said.
“I’ve never seen Australia build ANYTHING cheaper or faster than China, and if Turnbull gets his hands on it, it’ll be a 3rd world solution like his version of the NBN that Australia got stitched up with,” the person said.
Australia’s efforts in blocking anything with links to the Chinese government are not new. It is part of an elaborate scheme to keep a close eye on China’s activities in the Pacific.