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Forging a free and fair future for communications technologies to preserve Pacific sovereignty

By Jack Goldsmith

Submarine internet cables are increasingly composing the vital arteries of communication that unite the South Pacific. While rich continental states largely exercise exclusive sovereign right over their cables, the South Pacific’s sparse, scattered islands render the region’s small states reliant on great and middle powers for the construction and operation of this integral modern architecture. In recent years, China has excelled at the development and application of new telecommunication technologies. Given its atrocious human rights violations in Xinjiang, and apparent disregard for state sovereignty via the Belt and Road Initiative, its emergent interest in the South Pacific should impel a greater response from Australia to ensure that the sovereignty and dignity of South Pacific states is preserved for the next generation. In open defiance of China’s ambitions for an authoritarian regional order, Australia and its Pacific family should crowdsource ideas from the region’s youth as to what values should be instilled into a regional understanding of technology use.

As the world is enveloped by faster and more accessible new communications technologies, the need for their securitisation becomes more apparent. The Asia-Pacific region is poised to become one of the largest consumer markets for this next generation communications tech. In particular, the South Pacific has a lot to gain, as it has historically suffered from limited connectivity. The region’s geography makes robust, reliable and affordable internet connectivity difficult, as its islands are many, and are often a great distance away from communications hubs in urban centres. The limited choice afforded to Pacific communities renders greater value for what infrastructure exists, and what is to be developed.

Submarine internet cables could be the technology most critical to communications developments in the coming decades. Currently channeling 97% of the world’s internet, they form the critical nexi of interstate and intrastate communication. While not a new technology, their securitisation has become a serious concern for state operators due to the rising geopolitical tensions. The Pacific is a recent focal point of concern.

Those who construct and operate submarine internet cables enjoy exclusive operational access, posing huge security vulnerabilities for host states, such as those in the Pacific - with fewer cables and therefore limited options. Not only are operators able to switch cables off at their discretion and monitor the information travelling through, but are also responsible for maintenance and repair of the cables. It is often private companies with the expertise and capital to operate the cables, leaving small states dependent on telecommunications companies, which are often much bigger than the states themselves, for the function of basic modern infrastructure.

When prospective contractors are undergirded by an authoritarian power such as China, the existing and potential security concerns of this critical infrastructure become particularly salient.

In recent years, China has displayed its intent to exercise greater influence in the Asia-Pacific’s telecommunications industry. The state-affiliated Huawei in particular enjoys an enormous presence in communications infrastructure construction across South East Asia, and is increasingly attempting to venture into the Pacific. Historically, Vanuatu’s e-government services and a $53 million data centre in Papua New Guinea were produced by the telecom giant.

But while it holds substantial investments in the Pacific, Huawei has yet to establish a firm presence in the region. One of its biggest infrastructure proposals, a submarine internet cable connecting Port Moresby and Honiara, was intercepted by Australia in 2018 and replaced by the recently completed $200 million Coral Sea Cable. This hasn’t stopped Huawei however, as the firm has recently sought to construct the East Micronesia Cable in Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia. Thankfully, there are indications that the deal may be scrapped, and the proposed line fed into Australia’s existing Coral Sea Cable, but Huawei’s enduring determination to gain a foothold in the Pacific cybersphere remains a great strategic concern.

If future Huawei deals reach fruition, adoptive states will be subject to a power asymmetry of David and Goliath proportions. Communication lines both within and between adoptive states would undoubtedly be monitored, jeopardising the basic tenet of privacy upon which political, economic and strategic communication is conducted. It is not inconceivable that mass data aggregation algorithms analogous to those revealed in the 2020 Zhenhua leak would harvest the information of thousands of users to construct a comprehensive census of each state. A compromised communications architecture would corrode trust between states, and impede regional unity and multilateral enterprises. All of these vulnerabilities would contribute to the erosion of individual state sovereignty.

The solution, then, is to categorically reject all proposals by Chinese state-affiliated companies. Instead, solutions could be sourced from the generation most affected by the coming communications revolution: young people. This should be accomplished by continuous, open dialogue among Pacific communities in order to articulate the wants and needs of those who have historically not been offered a platform.

Digital technologies themselves have the capacity to galvanise mass youth action against global problems. Climate change, racial discrimination and wealth inequality are just some of the causes helmed by young people in the digital age. A platform of free and fair communications infrastructure is but another issue we should demand action on.

A basic framework could demand greater autonomy in charting regional standards; only accepting technologies that edify sovereignty, and do not transgress international norms. This would inform future technological development and empower smaller Pacific states against the titanic telecoms industry, both private and state-supported.

Young people hold the keys to the world we will inherit. Though we may blame prior generations for the current state of the world, we possess the innate potential for change. Instead of staying paralysed by our indignation, we should cultivate these energies into crafting solutions. When threats to our regional integrity and channels of trust manifest, we must be cognisant of their implications in order to properly address them.

A shared vision of a prosperous future for our region must be premised upon the mutual acknowledgement of sovereignty, and this begins by engineering a communications nexus informed by this principle.

This piece was originally published in APYD's inaugural anthology Raising Our Voices.


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