11 Aug 2022
Australia has a tech challenge in the Pacific
Australia’s focus on its Pacific neighbourhood has wavered over the years. But the latest round of attention, brought on by a far more aggressive approach by the Chinese Communist Party, is likely going to require far greater and more sustained attention than more recent pivots.
As our Foreign Minister noted with her US and Japanese counterparts last week, we now face a Communist Party that is prepared to take actions (in Taiwan and Japan’s territories) “that gravely affect international peace and stability”.
Australia rightly needs to focus on the big picture security challenge in the Pacific, but it also needs to keep track of online harms that feed into the overall security picture.
At a big-picture security level, Australia and the region need their own security pact to exclude non-resident powers from militarising the Pacific and turning it into a dangerous place to live.
The region has come together before to exclude security threats, when in 1985 it created the Treaty of Rarotonga that set up a nuclear weapons free zone. A new regional pact that bars non-resident powers from setting up military bases will help turn the tables in the unwinnable game of Whack-a-Mole Australia is currently locked into, whereby the Chinese state can hint at getting involved in any number of Pacific infrastructure projects with potential military uses and Australia’s only line of reaction is to provide a more attractive counter bid.
Importantly, it would allow current Pacific powers like Australia and the US to maintain their security support to the region. A pact would also be of equal benefit to Pacific countries, who could avoid being embroiled in great power competition and preserve their sovereignty.
While Australia and the region work towards this more lasting solution, attention is also required on several online harms that are having an impact on the Pacific and its security or will soon.
Australia is very familiar with these challenges in the Pacific. Competition in this area has already forced it into the uncomfortable position of entering the multi-million-dollar undersea cabling business and compelled it to induce Telstra into acquiring Pacific telco Digicel with the aid of large subsidies.
An immediate concern for individual Pacific nations and countries like Australia are the efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to degrade the local information environments.
A forthcoming ASPI report, examining Chinese Communist Party information operations in Solomon Islands during the recent riots and period surrounding the China-Solomon Islands security pact, details how these campaigns are operating and how the Solomon Islands information ecosystem is being systematically corroded.
The Chinese embassy and state-controlled media are openly spreading disinformation, fake accounts are attempting to amplify Chinese Communist Party messages and local journalists are providing soft coverage. Most concerningly, the report shows the emerging success of some methods.
Attacks on the information environment in any democracy matter, but they matter especially in places like Solomon Islands, where the Chinese Communist Party is attempting to use elite capture to try and secure arrangements that are against that country’s national interest and those of the wider population.
Across the region, media institutions are being corrupted, coerced and threatened to ensure local media aligns with the Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda. In this type of competition, it is essential that the population is able to access reliable, trusted, independent media, and that local journalists are supported to provide this.
To address these challenges, Australia and its partners need to support strong, resilient, local journalism, revive the old Australia Network in a 21st century format, and work constructively with major platforms to continuously hamper state disinformation efforts targeting the Pacific.
It should also involve examining how platforms like Digicel – the Pacific telecom the Australian government stumped up over a billion dollars to buy via Telstra – could be harnessed to deliver independent, quality news across the Pacific.
Countering disinformation is also not the end of the story. There are other tech challenges looming over the horizon.
In May, China upped the ante on its security pact with Solomon Islands by launching a proposed 10-Pacific nation security agreement.
The draft communique pledged co-operation on data networks, cybersecurity and smart customs systems. Some of this promised activity — which could still be delivered through bilateral agreements — could be used for legitimate ends, but it could also be used for purposes that would harm Pacific countries and their people.
The Chinese Communist Party’s uses of data and surveillance tools to commit mass human rights abuses against its own people have been forensically documented. Pacific islands countries should not expect better treatment from this Party than the Chinese people get themselves.
The new government has rightly made the Pacific a top priority, given the serious challenge Australia faces there. Priority one should be finding a sustainable pathway for the whole region to manage great power competition via a regionally agreed security pact. In parallel, it needs to address looming tech-induced security challenges. Australia can walk and chew gum at the same time.