China has begun talking to ten nations in the South Pacific with an offer to help them improve their network infrastructure, cyber security, digital forensics and other capabilities – all with the help of Chinese tech vendors.
Newswire Reuters broke the news of China’s ambitions after seeing a draft agreement that China’s foreign minister Wang Yi is reportedly tabling on a tour of Pacific nations this week and next.
The draft agreement proposes assistance with data governance, training local police, and mapping the marine environment. Supply of customs management applications, possible funding of data links to island nations, and cyber-security assistance are also reportedly on the table.
Australian foreign minister Penny Wong has acknowledged the reports and made a counteroffer of financial and development assistance with what she says is fewer strings attached.
That’s a nod to accusations that China practices what’s been labelled “debt trap diplomacy” whereby development assistance comes with repayment plans small nations may not be able to afford. Defaults lead to Chinese entities taking ownership of assets.
Pacific nations have pushed back on the plan, citing worries that it could effectively see them cede sovereignty or lose control of key assets.
While the nations of the South Pacific do not have large populations, or economies, any student of World War II will know that their location makes the strategically significant as their airstrips and harbors offer the chance to project force against trans-Pacific shipping.
But as the recent volcanic eruption in Tonga demonstrated, by severing submarine cables, Pacific nations are as dependent on internet connectivity and therefore a secure online environment, as any other. Yet the region’s nations are far from wealthy.
China is clearly aware of the region’s challenges. And other nations are aware of the challenges posed by China’s regional ambitions: Australia funded the purchase of regional mobile carrier Digicel to prevent it being acquired by a Chinese company.
And the USA operates a “clean networks” policy that tries to prevent any form of network that uses Chinese equipment, or companies, from having the ability to influence stateside networks.
Which gives Pacific nations the choice of accepting Chinese assistance in the knowledge that doing so will alienate allies. ®