NOOSA – As China Mobile lines up to swoop on Digicel’s mobile phone networks in the south-west Pacific, Australian security agencies are pushing hard to stop it.
The last thing they and their allies want in the fiercely-contested region is a Chinese telco giant taking over strategically important infrastructure in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands.
Digicel Pacific, owned by Irish billionaire Denis O’Brien, has been in financial bother for some time and is wanting to unload its telco assets in PNG, Fiji, Tonga, Nauru, Samoa and Vanuatu.
O'Brien is reported to be seeking more than $2 billion for the assets.
Australian telco Telstra is considering buying the networks and the Australian government is mulling plans to provide most of the financing.
The Morrison government could use Export Finance Australia to provide subsidised loans or loan guarantees to help Telstra acquire the Digicel assets.
Foreign policy experts say this is is the most likely way to stop the China purchase and potentially spying on US, Australian and other installations in the south-west Pacific and to limit China’s influence in the region.
The Australian government has previously sought to limit Chinese interest in telecommunications by banning Huawei from involvement in Australia’s 5G mobile network and shutting it out of building an undersea high-speed internet cable to the Solomons.
Foreign policy expert Philip Citowicki told the ABC that O’Brien “would be acutely aware that raising the spectre of Chinese coercion will capture the attention of Australia and its allies.
“It is a cynical move, but one that is nevertheless rooted in reality,” Citowicki said.
“Countering such strategic moves are a costly but necessary reality for Australia and like-minded allies.”
Digicel has confirmed it has received unsolicited approaches from a number of parties interested in its Pacific operations.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the deal could see the Australian government need to stump up $1.5 billion.
Sources: Wall Street Journal, Capacity Media, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Sydney Morning Herald