Pacific Island countries, with their sprawling geography, have been caught in a digital divide. Lack of critical, digitally enabling infrastructure slows down development progress and widens the gap between Pacific communities and the global economic system at a time when many countries are undertaking rapid digital transformations.
The recent announcement of a joint Australia-US initiative to enhance digital connectivity in the Pacific is a strategic manoeuvre in a region increasingly shaped by digital power dynamics. Under this deal, Australia and the United States will fund Google and a consortium of other companies to build submarine cables linking Fiji and French Polynesia to Australia and the United States, with branching units for Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
By ensuring the region’s digital platforms are built and partly operated by companies that originate in democratic nations, Australia and the United States are not just laying down cables but also laying the groundwork for a more democratic, open and accountable digital space. And they are offering Pacific countries an alternative to China’s Digital Silk Road.
Like it or not, the digital realm is as geopolitically contested as strategic ports and sea lanes. Concerns that China Telecom was interested in purchasing the Pacific’s largest telecoms carrier, Digicel, prompted the Australian government to underwrite Telstra’s purchase of the network in 2021. A recent announcement that Digicel Pacific would replace its Huawei infrastructure with Nokia equipment shows the original decision to purchase the network is delivering strategic dividends for Australia.
In 2022, Solomon Islands secured a $100 million loan from China for Huawei to build 161 mobile communication towers in the country. Before that, fears that China would build the undersea cable linking Solomon Islands and PNG to Australia prompted the Australian government to step in and pay for an alternative provider.
Beyond geopolitics, there’s a genuine need for digital transformation in the Pacific. Internet connectivity is a lifeline – it opens doors to education, healthcare, e-commerce and communication. Global connectedness is a key tool of empowerment for civil society actors.
This connectivity is not about bringing Netflix to Nauru; it’s about enabling a fisherman in Fiji to access market prices, a farmer in PNG to better manage crops, a student in Vanuatu to take online courses, or a clinic in Solomon Islands to tele-consult with specialists. The potential applications are limited only by resources and imagination. For Pacific countries, digital connectivity isn’t a luxury; it’s a pathway to economic development.
The 2022 Aus-PNG Network Emerging Leaders Dialogue on digital connectivity generated dozens of recommendations for how Australia could foster a robust digital ecosystem with PNG. The dialogue emphasised the need for a collaborative digital ecosystem between the two countries, recognising the potential for digital technology to drive transformative change.
Australia can contribute to building an integrated digital environment that supports e-governance, regional security, responses to climate change and natural disasters, digital education, healthcare solutions, and economic growth.
However, with greater connectivity comes greater vulnerability. The cyber realm is still a relatively new frontier for national security and community safety, one fraught with threats ranging from cyber espionage to data theft to online abuse.
In PNG, cybercriminals launched a successful attack in October 2021 on government financial systems, targeting hundreds of millions of dollars, including from Australian aid funds. In Vanuatu, an attack in November 2022 caused all government systems to be offline for more than a month. The attack was timed to coincide with a newly elected government.
Australia’s investment, therefore, is also about erecting digital defences. Extending Australia’s $5 billion cybersecurity blanket to interested Pacific countries would not only shield these nations but also contribute to safeguarding Australia’s own digital borders. Sensibly, contributing to regional cybersecurity uplift is a pillar of the new 2023–2030 Australian Cyber Security Strategy, which was unveiled on Wednesday. But there is much work to be done on prevention and resilience, once the crisis response unit is established.
From a national security perspective, the control and influence over digital infrastructure have become as crucial as the control over sea lanes or air space. Digital connectivity initiatives in the Pacific by Australia are not just about preventing China’s encroachment in the region but about maintaining the balance of power. If Australia doesn’t take the lead, it leaves a vacuum that Beijing is all too willing to fill.
For the Australian taxpayer, questions about the efficacy of such investments are valid. Why should Australian dollars fund cables in the Pacific? Because it strengthens Australia’s geopolitical position, opens avenues for Australian and Pacific businesses to increase two-way trade, and contributes to the regional security needs identified by the Pacific Islands Forum in the Boe Declaration and reaffirmed at the 52nd PIF Leaders Meeting in Cook Islands this month.
Australia’s strategic play in enhancing digital connectivity in the Pacific is about wielding influence, yes, but it’s also about sharing prosperity and security. Australia’s absence from the Pacific’s digital transformation creates strategic risk if we are not players in a competitive space where we are seeking to position ourselves as a partner of choice. The question is not “Why are we doing this?” It is, “What more should we be doing in the digital space?”
Main image courtesy of Unsplash user Mick Haupt.