SYDNEY – The move by Chinese corporations to buy submarine cable projects and telecommunications companies in the Pacific islands has become a major concern for Australia and the US over the possibility of spying.
This region has long been the backyard of Canberra and Washington. But they increasingly find themselves scrambling for influence with Beijing, which has strengthened its presence there by building infrastructure.
The US has warned Pacific island nations of the security threat posed by China’s Huawei Marine bid to build a $ 72.6 million underwater cable linking the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru, Reuters reports.
Washington sent diplomatic notes to Micronesia in July expressing strategic concerns about the project as Huawei Marine and other Chinese companies are required to cooperate with Beijing’s intelligence and security services, the report said, citing sources. He noted in a follow-up report that Republican senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio told Micronesia in a letter dated Sept. 18 that China could use its way into the project to carry out “a campaign of geopolitical espionage and coercion.”
Huawei Marine used to be under the umbrella of Huawei Technologies, a Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer that was subject to US sanctions, before being acquired by China’s Hengtong Group.
The East Micronesia Cable project is supported by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. The bidding process ended in May and the World Bank and ADB are currently reviewing bid evaluation reports, according to sources.
Submarine cables are needed to repair the weak telecommunications infrastructure in the Pacific islands. Such equipment is important from a security point of view because of the enormous volume of data flowing through it. As Washington is in charge of Micronesia’s defense under a decades-old agreement, it appears Washington is concerned that Beijing will be able to obtain classified military and other information.
“Companies that are required to liaise with domestic government intelligence agencies and conceal such cooperation, as is the case with Chinese companies, pose a risk to the integrity and security of data traveling through submarine cable systems,” said Michael Shoebridge of Australian Strategic. Policy Institute.
Australia has removed Huawei Marine from submarine cable projects in the past. In 2018, they decided to finance the construction of an undersea cable between Sydney, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and excluded Huawei Marine, which had received orders from the Solomon Islands. And in October, that is decided to finance submarine internet cable connection to the Pacific island nation of Palau along with the US and Japan.
There is also talk of Chinese companies entering the cell phone business in the Pacific islands. Australian media reported that China Mobile is interested in acquiring the Pacific Digicel Jamaica operation.
A Digicel spokesperson confirmed to the Nikkei that telecommunications had received unsolicited approaches from a number of parties with respect to its operations in the Pacific. The spokesman declined to comment further because discussions with the parties were confidential.
Digicel is believed to control 90% of the mobile phone market in Papua New Guinea and more than half in Vanuatu and Tonga. The Australian government is considering offering financial support to local bidders surrounding Digicel’s Pacific operations to block Chinese companies from acquiring politically sensitive assets, according to the Australian Financial Review.
The South Pacific island nations have been at the forefront of the battle for dominance between the US and China, and hold geopolitical significance for Washington and its ally Canberra.
Beijing held a video conference with 10 of the region’s 14 island nations in late November. Although the topic of the meeting was the coronavirus pandemic, the joint press release issued afterwards included a sentence stating that “Pacific Island States reaffirm to uphold the principle of One China,” affirming that Taiwan is an inalienable part of one China.
The Solomon Islands and Kiribati cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 and switched to Beijing. China has reportedly offered infrastructure support to the two countries for some time, and agreed that October to fund a stadium for the Solomon Islands.
The US and Australia fear that if Beijing builds structures in the region that can be used for military purposes, it could monitor their military activity.
A Chinese company and Papua New Guinea fisheries minister have signed a memorandum of understanding to build a $ 147 million “comprehensive multi-functional fishing industry estate”, according to Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The location of the proposed facility is only about 200 km from the Australian coast. The possibility has drifted away from the Chinese side building a port for this business, which could further fuel tensions in the area.