Pacific islands seeking to connect to US-funded submarine cables must protect their digital ecosystem to protect themselves from data risks from China, a senior US State Department official said.
Last year, Google agreed to build two undersea cables that would connect the U.S. territory of Guam to hubs in Fiji and French Polynesia and branch across remote Pacific islands.
The proposed Pacific cable project is expected to reach Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu, Fiji, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Wallis and Futuna, and the Federated States of Micronesia.
US State Department Ambassador for Cyberspace and Digital Policy Nathaniel Fick visited Fiji this week as Washington prioritizes which islands are likely to join.
Digital ecosystems in countries connected by cables must be protected “from start to finish”. It rules out “untrustworthy” Chinese-built data centers or phone towers, he told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.
“If we invest a lot of money in these centers, these states should behave in a way that minimizes the risk as much as possible,” he said.
“It will be in their interest to do this if they want to remain a reliable hub in the long term and attract more investment.
China and the US are vying for influence in the Pacific islands with competing bids for infrastructure. The Solomon Islands, which has a defense pact with Beijing, is rolling out a Chinese-funded mobile network built by Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei.
Australian telco Telstra, a partner in the new US-backed project, said in a statement this month that the cables would “expand the diversity of connections between Guam and Australia via Fiji and other Pacific islands, as well as between the US mainland and Australia”.
Guam hosts US military facilities that could be critical in responding to a conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. Microsoft warned last year that it was being targeted by a Chinese hacking group called Volt Typhoon, which would seek to disrupt critical US-Asia communications infrastructure in a future crisis. China has described the hacking claims as misinformation.
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