Oceania | Economy | Oceania

Connecting the Dots: Australia and Digital Infrastructure Development in the Pacific Islands

COVID-19 has highlighted the reactive nature of Australia’s approach to digital infrastructure development in the region.

By Tom Corben and Euan Moyle for
Connecting the Dots: Australia and Digital Infrastructure Development in the Pacific Islands
Credit: Flickr/Sam Churchill

Even before the onset of COVID-19, the need for more robust digital infrastructure and internet connectivity across the Pacific Islands had become increasingly apparent. Though many countries and international organizations — Australia among them — had taken some steps to provide for these needs, demand was only amplified further by the onset of the pandemic.

Some have already argued that in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19, Australia should partner with the United States to “co-sponsor digital connectivity projects” across the Indo-Pacific in partnership with the private sector. However, it’s worth reflecting on exactly what Australia’s efforts here currently look like in the Pacific Islands specifically, given the region’s priority status within Canberra’s broader Indo-Pacific construct. Doing so reveals that there is clearly room for Australia to step up its efforts to enhance digital connectivity across the Pacific Islands commensurate with heightened demand. However, this approach will require doing more than simply responding to real or imagined Chinese designs on regional infrastructure, and instead getting ahead of growing demand and known strategic challenges.

Efforts to improve the region’s digital connectivity should form a central component of a wider agenda to support the region in a time of economic distress. While the region has largely been spared from the immediate health consequences of the pandemic, the economic fallout has been devastating – almost all Pacific Island nations registered a sizeable shrinkage in their economies in 2020, and the pandemic continues to deter efforts to restart lucrative tourism operations. In that sense, accelerating efforts to enhance the region’s overall digital coverage rate and quality of digital communications could assist regional countries not only in efforts to develop more robust health and governance capabilities, but to diversify their economies and generally raise living standards.

By improving digital connectivity and internet access in the region, the World Bank suggests that more than $5 billion may be contributed to the region’s GDP, with an additional $1 billion in government revenue and the establishment of close to 300,000 new jobs in the information and communications technology sector. Enhanced digital connectivity would also enable Pacific Islands states to more easily maintain regular diplomatic engagements with their counterparts abroad. Indeed, the travel challenges posed by the pandemic and notable drop-off in face-to-face engagements have only heightened the value of and need for more robust and reliable digital communications capabilities at a time when the Pacific Islands have received renewed geopolitical attention. In any case, digital commerce, diplomacy, governance, or health services can only be as effective or extensive as the underlying infrastructure, placing a particular premium on the development of reliable and secure mobile and wired internet connections.

Though Australia has made some visible contributions to improving regional digital connectivity in recent years, digital infrastructure has not featured prominently in government discourse on the region, particularly since the pandemic struck. Indeed, according to the Griffith University COVID-19 Aid to the Pacific Tracker, international organizations and private companies have been the primary providers of the $437,000 pledged or donated to countries across the Pacific in both communications and computer equipment.

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The centerpiece of Australia’s COVID-oriented international development efforts has been the Partnerships for Recovery document, which outlines how Canberra will support Indo-Pacific nations – especially those in the Pacific Islands region – through the economic, social, political, and humanitarian fallout of the pandemic. In the Pacific Islands, the strategy aims to “establish a pathway to economic recovery and enhanced resilience” through short-term health and humanitarian responses as well as longer-term investment in infrastructure and critical services. However, the plan makes little to no mention of the role of digital connectivity or communications infrastructure in the region.

Nor does digital connectivity feature prominently in the government’s Pacific Regional COVID-19 Development Response Plan beyond vague references to “enhancing digital and remote learning” and a statement of intent to “leverage opportunities to link with our infrastructure investments” under the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP), which could presumably include digital connectivity initiatives.

This is not to say that Australia has not pursued digital connectivity projects in the region at all, only that these contributions to date have appeared driven more by strategic anxiety than as part of a more proactive development agenda. Take submarine cables as an illustrative example. Submarine cable connectivity in the Pacific Islands has increased dramatically over the last decade. According to the International Telecommunications Union, submarine cables are set to connect virtually all Pacific Island nations and territories within the next several years — a remarkable achievement considering that just four Pacific Island nations and territories were connected to an international submarine cable in 2007.

Australia has played a leading role in the development and expansion of several major regional cable networks, including the Coral Sea Cable System connecting Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands with Australia, and the JGA Cable connecting Japan and Australia via Guam. Despite this growth in connectivity, there remain significant issues in terms of access and utilization by Pacific Island states. Internet speeds still lag behind much of the rest of the world – the 2020 Worldwide Broadband Speed League found that most of Oceania placed in the second half of the world for internet speed, and the underdeveloped nature of local telecommunications infrastructure, including submarine cables, has meant that it has been particularly vulnerable to disruption. For example, in 2019 Tonga’s submarine cable connection with Fiji was severed, effectively cutting the country off from the internet for nearly two weeks. This example points to the elimination of redundancy vulnerabilities as a rationale for the laying of wider networks of submarine cables, and in that respect, several Pacific Island nations have sought assistance from Australia, most notably Vanuatu.

Unlike other high-priority telecommunications fields like 5G, submarine cables appear to have been an area in which Australia and its partners have found a means of keeping pace with — if not outmaneuvering — China on regional infrastructure development. Even so, efforts here have appeared largely reactive. Australian funding for the Coral Sea Cable, for instance, was seemingly extended primarily to prevent Chinese firms from laying a cable directly onto Australian shores, despite public framing around enhancing regional connectivity, and in that light Canberra’s sponsorship of several other high-profile submarine cable projects in the region in recent years is also unsurprising.

Nevertheless, Chinese firms continue to pursue not only regional submarine cable contracts, but other digital infrastructure opportunities. In December, for example, Huawei Marine’s bid for the $72.6 million East Micronesia Cable project intended to improve connectivity between Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Kiribati (one notably backed by the World and Asian Development Banks) was met with now familiar warnings from Australian and U.S. officials to Pacific Island states about the cybersecurity risks involved with utilizing communications developed by China. Chinese firms have also expressed interest in acquiring Digicel, the region’s largest mobile carrier, sparking serious concerns amongst Australian officials and putting pressure on the government to extend financing to other firms competing for the company. These developments continue to unfold just as Beijing has scored developmental and political wins with several regional players of particular importance to Australian interests, including Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

These examples illustrate the strategic concerns behind Australia’s approach to digital infrastructure development in the Pacific Islands, but they — and COVID-19 — also arguably demonstrate the reactive nature of this approach. They also suggest that laying submarine cables, however important, is but one part of the puzzle. As such, for Australia to meet the pandemic-heightened demands for more robust and reliable internet connectivity across the Pacific Islands, while simultaneously securing its strategic interests, is likely to require a proactive and well-resourced policy approach going forward.

Tom Corben was until recently a Lloyd & Lilian Vasey Fellow with Pacific Forum. Euan Moyle is a Young Leader with Pacific Forum, and an editor and risk analyst for Foreign Brief.