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International relations

Japan, US and Australia to finance undersea cable for Palau

Project marks first infrastructure aid for free and open Indo-Pacific under Suga

Islands in Palau: Over 90% of cross-border telecom data is carried by underwater cables.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan, the U.S. and Australia will finance the connection of a submarine internet cable to the Pacific island nation of Palau, Nikkei has learned, in a project meant as a counterweight to China's growing economic influence in the region.

Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi is expected to announce the financial support Wednesday in a video message with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne at an international forum held in Vietnam.

Palau's fiber-optic cable project is the first three-way cooperation on infrastructure under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga aimed at promoting a so-called free and open Indo-Pacific.

The cable will branch off from the main trans-Pacific deep sea line being built by a consortium of American companies to connect the U.S. mainland with Singapore. Work on the 170-km offshoot begins next year at a cost of roughly $30 million.

The Japan Bank for International Cooperation and other government lenders will provide joint financing for the project. Japanese technology group NEC is involved in construction of the main undersea cable and may win a contract for the Palau branch as well.

Palau has sought to strengthen its longstanding ties with the U.S., even as other South Pacific countries lean toward China.

In August, President Thomas Remengesau welcomed U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper during the Pentagon chief's first visit to the island nation and offered to host American forces.

"Palau's request to the U.S. military remains simple: to build joint use facilities, then come and use them regularly," the president wrote in a letter to Esper, according to media reports. The proposal was seen as an attempt to create a bulwark against Chinese expansion in the region.

After World War II, the U.S. administered Palau for a time under United Nations auspices as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The U.S. and Palau have a Compact of Free Association -- an agreement with economic and military provisions -- dating back to 1982.

In addition, Palau is one of Taiwan's four remaining diplomatic partners among Pacific nations, according to the Taiwanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Beijing has made inroads in the region by convincing Kiribati and other island nations to switch diplomatic recognition from Taipei.

Over 90% of international communications are conducted through submarine fiber-optic cable. But compared with connections for Japan and the U.S. in the northern Pacific Ocean, cables in the South Pacific are few and far between.

The volume of data in the South Pacific route is expected to multiply with the spread of the Internet of Things and 5G wireless communication, requiring an increase in undersea cable capacity.

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