The silent battle beneath the waves
US-China competition in the Pacific extends to the floors of Pacific Ocean
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
Undersea fiber optic cables started out as a purely business undertaking, touted to provide better internet service, bridge the digital divide and connect the underserved isolated islands to the rest of the world. But the ocean floors have since become an extension of the arena for a raging competition between the U.S. and China. They jostle for ocean space to lay down subsea cables—the trophy in a token war over technologies that would shape economic and military supremacy.
Last year, Washington managed to expel China from a fiber optic project that would connect three Pacific islands by convincing the Federated States of Micronesia to cancel its award of the East Micronesia Cable to the former Huawei Technologies Co. Marine Networks, a Chinese company now called HMN Technologies.
The $95 million EMC project, which has since been contracted to NEC Corp., will provide an undersea cable to the FSM, connecting Kosrae, Tarawa in Kiribati, and Nauru to the existing HANTRU-1 cable landing point located in Pohnpei, which currently connects Guam and the Marshall Islands.
U.S. officials noted the crucial nature of the project given that Guam and the Marshall Islands are both homes to U.S. military bases.
“Approximately 98 percent of the world’s data and voice traffic are carried by international submarine cables and as much as 95 percent of international data traffic in the Indo-Pacific is carried by undersea cable networks, making them vital to connectivity as well as a source of strategic vulnerability,” read a statement from the White House.
The U.S., Australia and Japan have pledged $20 million for the project. During the Second U.S.-Pacific Island Summit in Washington last month, President Biden announced plans to pitch in an additional $2.5 million for the EMC project.
Biden also plans to request from the U.S. Congress up to $12 million to support spurs in the region to meet the demand for additional investments to support the deployment of undersea cables and complementary satellite technologies.
The U.S. is seeking to expand its fiber optic map in the Pacific region to hold China in check and prevent it from laying more undersea cables.
The White House also announced to invest $3 million in a feasibility study for the new Central Pacific Cable between Guam and American Samoa. The subsea cable between the two U.S. territories would complete the triangle with Hawaii and would extend to 12 Pacific island countries.
The U.S. Trade and Development Agency last month awarded a grant to Tuvalu Telecom Corp. for a feasibility study for Central Pacific Cable that would stretch thousands of miles.
Tuvalu Telecom Corp. selected Florida-based APTelecom LLC to conduct the study. The cable would be the first subsea cable connection to Tuvalu, which currently relies on satellite connectivity.
“Increasing access to secure, high-speed connectivity in the Pacific islands is a priority for USTDA, the U.S. government, and our Pacific island partners,” said Enoh T. Ebong, USTDA’s director.
“This project will provide critical internet capacity to create economic opportunities and improve lives. This grant is just one example of USTDA’s commitment to promoting resilient, quality digital infrastructure in the region using U.S.-based solutions," he added.
According to USTDA, the study "will create a high-level design for the Central Pacific Cable and assess its technical and commercial feasibility for TTC."
Once completed, the cable would connect American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Guam, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and Wallis and Futuna.
“For far too long, Tuvalu has grappled with limited access to information, restricted economic opportunities, and challenges in accessing essential services,” said Tenanoia Simona, general manager of TTC.
Simona said the lack of a submarine cable infrastructure has marginalized Pacific communities, impeding their ability to thrive in the digital landscape.
“As we embark on this journey, let us remember that the power of connectivity extends beyond the technical aspects of the project,” Simona said. “It embodies the principles of unity, equality, and empowerment.”
She added that the benefits "will ripple through education, healthcare, commerce, governance and cultural preservation" and will "foster innovation, sustainability, and inclusivity."
“The United States, alongside our Quad allies, supports the building of trusted, high-quality subsea cables that transform digital access in the Pacific islands,” said Marie Damour, U.S. ambassador to Fiji, Kiribati, Tonga, Nauru and Tuvalu.
“This grant is a demonstration of the U.S. government’s commitment to forming partnerships and expanding critical infrastructure in this important sector,” she added.
Australia, a major U.S. ally in the Pacific, is equally wary of Chinese prevalence in the field of subsea cables, hence its resolve to get involved. It raised objection to the proposed Coral Sea Cable System connecting the Solomon Islands with Australia on a PPC-1 cable, which the Asian Development Bank originally offered to finance.
The slow progress, however, prompted the newly created Solomon Islands Submarine Cable Company to team up with Huawei Marine.
"This decision provided enough incentive for Canberra to get involved. Australia announced that it was unwilling to have Chinese equipment connected to its infrastructure and stated that it would fund the Coral Sea Cable System. This project connects Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Sydney, Australia," according to The Diplomat.