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Australia is busy making friends in the Pacific to try to muscle China out

Pristine beaches, turquoise oceans and warm hospitality aren't the only attractions offered by some of Australia's closest neighbours in the South Pacific.

They're also throwing open the doors to foreign investment, forcing Canberra to sit up and realise it needs to throw its relative weight around when exercising soft diplomacy in the region.

It's a message that seems to be getting through. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop argues Pacific nations shouldn't be left in a position where they only have China to turn to for capital.

With one breath, there's fierce debate in Federal Parliament about curbing foreign influence in Australia. But the next moment, Canberra is seeking to ensure its own influence, reputation and clout in the Pacific isn't diminished.

Vanuatu's Prime Minister Charlot Salwai will get the full pomp and ceremony welcome to Parliament House this morning, a week-and-a-half after his Solomon Islands counterpart Rick Houenipwela received the same treatment.

While in town, Mr Houenipwela signed a deal with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for a 4,000-kilometre, high-speed, undersea internet cable between Honiara and Sydney — a project Australian taxpayers will foot most of the bill for.

The cash from the foreign aid budget was thrown at the cable once Australia's intelligence agencies caught wind that Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei was not only sniffing around the project, but already had an in-principle deal with the Solomons.

Concerns about the security risk Huawei presents are well documented around the world.
Mr Salwai is likely to ask Mr Turnbull to chip in for a similar project to his country, which is marginally closer to Australia.

It will provide another opportunity for Canberra to try to ward off seemingly attractive offers from Beijing.

"China follows a development path that is completely different from that of traditional major powers," China's ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye told a business forum in Parliament House last week, defending his nation from reports it was leaving small Pacific countries laden with debt.

"China never interferes in the internal affairs of other countries."

That's not the way Canberra views it. Despite arguing our relationship with Beijing is strong and robust, there has been strain in recent months.

There is tension even if the relationship isn't broken, as China's appetite for influence across the globe becomes insatiable.

It's a conundrum for Australia's Government — the might of the world's second-largest economy and its aggressive state-driven expansionist policies make competing for diplomatic territory difficult, but Australia doesn't want to cede to China as the dominant power in its own backyard.

China has already snaffled up broadcast frequencies in the Pacific abandoned by the ABC's Radio Australia amid crippling budget cuts.

But it is relatively small infrastructure projects like internet cables to the Solomons that are being viewed as Australia's way back to prominence.

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