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US Supports New Pacific Undersea Internet Cable Amidst Competition with China

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By Milcah Tanimu

The United States is endorsing a new undersea internet cable project that will connect various Pacific islands, according to a plan seen by Reuters. This initiative aims to advance American interests in a region where it is engaged in a rivalry with China for influence.

The Central Pacific Cable is intended to link American Samoa with Guam, both of which are U.S. territories, and extend connectivity to up to 12 more Pacific islands, as indicated by the cable route document. Guam houses a significant U.S. military base.

The developers of the cable project, Paul McCann and John Hibbard, both experienced subsea cable consultants, presented details at an industry conference in Singapore. The feasibility study for the project is being conducted by APTelecom, a U.S.-based telecoms consultancy. APTelecom, along with Hibbard and McCann, declined to provide comments.

The proposed cable could potentially connect the U.S. territories with nations such as Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tuvalu, Fiji, Nauru, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Cook Islands, Wallis and Futuna, and the Federated States of Micronesia, as outlined in the plan.

Additional funding for the project is likely to come from multilateral donors like the World Bank and aid agencies in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, according to the project plan.

Typically, undersea internet cables take at least 3-5 years for development and installation, and the proposed cable would span thousands of kilometers.

A White House fact sheet released after a meeting between President Joe Biden and Pacific Island leaders in Washington confirmed that the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) would fund a $3 million feasibility study for the cable. The statement did not specify the countries involved.

This cable project would mark the first undersea cable connecting Tuvalu, a small nation with a population of around 11,000, as noted by the USTDA on its Facebook page.

Undersea fiber-optic cables, which traverse the ocean floor and facilitate 99% of transcontinental internet traffic, have become a significant arena of competition between the United States and China, as highlighted in a Reuters investigation earlier this year.

The Pacific islands, forming an extensive arc north of U.S. ally Australia, hold strategic importance for U.S. naval operations and possess valuable mineral and fisheries resources.

The internet infrastructure of Pacific island nations is often vulnerable. For instance, Tonga was cut off from global telecommunication networks for a month last year after a volcanic eruption and tsunami damaged its sole undersea cable.

Last year, the Biden administration pledged to assist Pacific island nations in countering China’s attempts at “economic coercion.” China’s signing of a security agreement with the Solomon Islands in 2020 raised concerns about the region’s militarization.

Two years ago, the United States intervened to block a Chinese company from constructing another subsea internet cable in the Pacific islands, as reported by Reuters at the time. This year, the United States, Australia, and Japan agreed to finance and revive that project, known as the East Micronesia Cable, which will connect the island nations of Nauru, Kiribati, and Micronesia.

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