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International relations

Chinese bids on Pacific cable raise alarm in US and Australia

Washington fears infrastructure will be used for spying by Beijing

SYDNEY -- Moves by Chinese corporations to buy into undersea cable projects and telecommunications companies in the Pacific islands have become a point of major concern for Australia and the U.S. over the possibility of spying.

This region has long been the backyard of Canberra and Washington. But they increasingly find themselves fighting over influence with Beijing, which has strengthened its presence there by building infrastructure.

The U.S. has warned Pacific island nations about security threats posed by a bid by China's Huawei Marine to build a $72.6 million undersea cable linking the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati and Nauru, Reuters reported.

Washington sent a diplomatic note 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. It 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 leverage its way into the project to wage "campaigns of espionage and geopolitical coercion."

Huawei Marine used to be under the umbrella of Huawei Technologies, the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker that has been targeted by U.S. sanctions, before it was acquired by China's Hengtong Group.

The East Micronesia Cable project is backed by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The bidding process ended in May and the World Bank and ADB are currently reviewing the bid evaluation report, according to sources.

An undersea cable is needed to improve the weak telecommunications infrastructure in the Pacific islands. Such equipment is important from a security standpoint due to the massive volume of data that flows through it. Because Washington is responsible for Micronesia's defense under a decades-old agreement, it apparently has concerns that Beijing will be able to get its hands on military and other classified information.

"Companies that are required to cooperate with their home government's intelligence agencies and to conceal such cooperation, as is the case with Chinese companies, pose risks to the integrity and security of data travelling through undersea cable systems," said Michael Shoebridge at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Australia has removed Huawei Marine from an undersea cable project in the past. In 2018, it decided to finance construction of an undersea cable between Sydney, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and excluded Huawei Marine, which had already received an order from the Solomon Islands. And in October, it decided to finance the connection of a submarine internet cable to the Pacific island nation of Palau along with the U.S. and Japan.

There has also been talk of Chinese companies entering the mobile-phone business in the Pacific islands. Australian media reported that China Mobile is interested in acquiring the Pacific operations of Jamaica's Digicel.

A spokesperson for Digicel confirmed to Nikkei that the telecom has received unsolicited approaches from a number of parties with respect to its Pacific operations. The spokesperson declined to comment further as discussions with the parties are confidential.

Digicel is believed to control 90% of the mobile market in Papua New Guinea and more than half in Vanuatu and Tonga. The Australian government is considering offering financial support to local bidders circling the Pacific operations of Digicel to block Chinese companies from acquiring the politically sensitive assets, according to the Australian Financial Review.

South Pacific island nations have come to the forefront in the battle for dominance between the U.S. and China, and hold geopolitical significance for Washington and its ally Canberra.

Beijing held a videoconference with 10 of the region's 14 island countries in late November. Even though the topic of the meeting was the coronavirus pandemic, the joint press release issued afterward included a line stating that "Pacific Island Countries reaffirmed to uphold the One China principle," which asserts that Taiwan is an inalienable part of a single China.

The Solomon Islands and Kiribati both severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 and switched to Beijing. China had reportedly been offering infrastructure support to both countries for some time, and agreed that October to fund a stadium for the Solomon Islands.

The U.S. and Australia worry that if Beijing builds structures in the region that can be put to military use, it could monitor their military activities.

A Chinese company and the fisheries minister of Papua New Guinea have signed a memorandum of understanding to build a $147 million "comprehensive multi-functional fishery industrial park," according to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper.

The proposed site of the facility is only about 200 km from Australian shores. The possibility has been floated of the Chinese side building a port for this business, which could further stoke tensions in the area.

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