RICHARD EWART:

The Australian plan to upgrade communications links in both PNG and Solomon Islands is being billed as a money saver by Canberra. The Government is less inclined to talk about security issues in curbing China's growing influence in the region. The Minister for the Pacific, Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, says better internet connectivity will certainly have a positive impact on the economies of both the Solomons and PNG.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

We know from World Bank Research that improving internet access and connectivity, not only translates into more GPD for a country and it's been estimated that in the Pacific that's about $5 billion, but it can actually create close to 300, 000 additional jobs. We know how important connectivity is and so therefore as part of that, we are working with both PNG and with the Solomon Islands on ways that we can improve submarine cable access.

BRUCE HILL:

Now, there was some concern in Australia when the Solomon Islands announced that their undersea communications cable would be built by a Chinese company. There were security concerns, weren't there, about that. Is this plan for both PNG and Solomon Islands to have Australia more or less help them out with it, a way of keeping the Chinese influence out of those countries?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, let's not forget that the Solomon Islands submarine cable company did not actually apply for a submarine cable landing permit. Now, obviously any application by that company, or any company for that matter, would be considered on its merits and in accordance with our own statutory framework and as part of that, the Attorney General would take into account matters of international law and of course national security. We never got that application from the Solomon Islands and so now, as we are looking at working on this project which would encompass both undersea cable connections from Australia to Papua New Guinea and also to the Solomon Islands, we think that this is a very good thing that we are doing. It's looking at two countries, two of our close neighbours who do need submarine cables and this is a way of looking at- if I can put it two for one and looking at ways that we can assist both Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands get what they need.

BRUCE HILL:

Well that wasn't really an answer to the question which was about Australian concerns about Chinese influence in these countries.

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well, I think that you have to… obviously any application, whether it be by a Chinese company or any other company, would be considered on its merits and would take into account consideration of international obligations and of course of national security.

BRUCE HILL:

Let me ask a more direct kind of question then. Is Australia concerned about growing Chinese influence in the Pacific?

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

We work closely with China and we try and work very constructively with China. However, from our perspective we are very conscious that investment and overseas development assistance has to be investment that aids the development of that country. Australia has focussed its investment in the Pacific in aid for trade, in health and in education, in infrastructure that will ultimately assist the generation of economic growth. As I've said repeatedly, our objective is security, stability and prosperity in the Pacific and therefore we would encourage countries - all countries- that do invest in the Pacific to concentrate on overseas development assistance that achieves these objectives, but more importantly adds to the economic growth and the economic stability of the respective countries.

BRUCE HILL:

This submarine cable connecting Australia with Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, how are those countries going to be able to pay for this? Will it be cheaper for them to take this Australian option? What will Australia's involvement in it be and could they take this money out of the Australian aid budget perhaps? 

CONCETTA FIERRAVANTI-WELLS:

Well this is… our intention is that Australia will provide the majority funding for this cable. Obviously there'll be a financial contribution from the Government of Papua New Guinea and we envisage that the bulk of it will come out of our overseas development assistance, but at this stage we don't know what the full costs are. We believe that there will be significant efficiencies from implementing both the cables at the same time and therefore reducing the costs rather than having two separate parallel projects, because that's what both countries had been contemplating.

RICHARD EWART:

Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells is Australia's Minister for the Pacific, speaking there to Bruce Hill.

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