According to a study by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), 19 of its members had 2% or lower fixed-broadband penetration in 2016—eight of these countries were Pacific Island states. While broadband services via digital subscriber lines, fiber optic cable, and satellite can significantly enhance connectivity across the Pacific Ocean and have become an increasingly important issue for regional security in recent years, broadband access in these island countries has been unequally distributed. To address the issue of underdeveloped digital connectivity, the United States, Australia, and Japan have collaborated with the government of Palau on the construction of an undersea fiber optic cable to the maritime country. Currently valued at $30 million, the project will help ensure reliable and secure digital connectivity in the island state.
Palau, which is in free association with the United States, has made significant progress in reconstructing and modernizing its telecommunications infrastructure with US aid. Using a loan from the Asian Development Bank, Palau in 2017 successfully connected to the Southeast Asia-United States (SEA-US) fiber optic submarine cable, which also links Guam to Indonesia and the Philippines. Although the project has provided greater internet access for more than half of Palau’s population, the country has no backup connection for service disruptions. The initiative financed by the governments of the United States, Australia, and Japan will build a second submarine cable to equip Palau with the essential infrastructure it needs to reap the economic and developmental benefits of strengthened digital connectivity. On January 13, 2021, the Palauan government and the Belau Submarine Cable Corp. signed a series of agreements with financial institutions for the Palau Submarine Cable Project.
This is the first project conducted under the Trilateral Partnership for Infrastructure Investment in the Indo-Pacific signed in 2018 by Tokyo, Canberra, and Washington. The partnership aims to further the shared commitment to promote a free, open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific region through investments in infrastructure initiatives that adhere to international standards and principles. The Palau project is thus a symbolic and practical example of the cooperation among the three countries aimed at meeting the critical infrastructure needs in the region.
In addition to the trilateral effort, Japan and Australia have also actively worked together on a bilateral basis to expand digital connectivity in the Pacific Ocean region. In July 2020, RT Connectivity Pte. Ltd. (RTI) and NEC Corp jointly announced the completion of the Japan-Guam-Australia North Cable System (JGA North)—a 1,700-mile undersea cable that connects Guam to Minamiboso in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture. The JGA North and SEA-US Cable System, which links Hawaii, Guam, and the continental United States, will eventually connect Guam with Southeast Asia, providing an alternate route for partner countries and advancing the Pacific Islands’ digital connectivity with other states in the region.
Lam Tran is a Research Intern and participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington.