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Trans-Pacific cable plans mired in geopolitics

Rivalry between the US and China for dominance in the Pacific will determine the structure of any new trans-Pacific cable linking Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands and the United States.
Written by Rob O'Neill, Contributor on

After several years of frustrated effort, a new trans-Pacific telecommunications cable now seems increasingly likely.

While its exact route remains unclear, it is expected to link the US with Australia and New Zealand and probably include some Pacific Islands along the way, with American Samoa a likely beneficiary.

But if comments and rumours in New Zealand are anything to go by, the new cable has become a further nexus for the growing rivalry between the US and China in the Pacific.

Last month it was reported the US military could even help pay for any planned new cable to link its bases in American Samoa with a much increased military presence, widely seen as a counter to China's growing regional ambitions, in Australia's Northern Territory.

The most visible current cable plan since a private effort by New Zealand-based Pacific Fibre failed last year, is that of another New Zealand-based company called Hawaiki Cable. It describes its cable as a repeatered submarine cable system with a design capacity of 20 Tbps linking Whangarei, in Northern New Zealand, with Sydney, Hawaii and the US West coast.

Hawaiki has already announced support from Australian internet service provider TPG, New Zealand ISP Orcon and regional development agency Northland Inc

It is in that context that the New Zealand government last week announced a $15 million commitment to anchor a new cable project by way of an open tender for Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand Ltd, a company set up to operate New Zealand's universities research network.

Pacific Fibre received a similar commitment, but comments by one of that company's founders after its plans failed last year indicate there could be much more in play than is apparent.

Pacific fibre co-founder and technology entrepreneur Rod Drury told business news website interest.co.nz the project was scuppered by concerns about Chinese investment and the potential for espionage.

Drury said US authorities made it "very clear" they would not allow significant Chinese investment in Pacific Fibre's cable. It followed that they would not tolerate the use of Chinese gear in its construction.

Drury said the project collapsed because Pacific Fibre had been trapped by "real political issues" between the US and China.

“It was made very clear. These are cables connecting whole countries. These are very political things," Drury told interest.co.nz.

Chinese networking giant Huawei has successfully created a beachhead for the use of its equipment in New Zealand's broadband networks, something it is struggling to achieve in the US and Australia. Its local sales have grown seven fold in the last three years.

Last week it announced it would sponsor an A-League football team based in New Zealand's capital, Wellington Phoenix. Such gestures have meaning in China.

But New Zealand is also one of the Five Eyes grouping of English speaking countries at the centre of the Edward Snowden spying revelations. At least two US spy bases are located in New Zealand.

While the US and Australian authories' concerns about the security of Huawei's gear has been well reported, if what Drury said and rumours about Defense Department investment are correct, the US is creating a technology ring-fence to ensure Chinese money and Chinese gear does not proliferate into the core networks spanning the Pacific.

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