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Suga Steps Up Pacific Islands Diplomacy, Pledges 3 Million Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine

This happens as Chinese companies aggressively seek inroads in Pacific Island nations in the areas of cable and cell phone operations and port facilities.

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaking to regional leaders at the 9th Pacific Islands Leadership summit.

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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told regional leaders at the 9th Pacific Islands Leaders Meeting (PALM9) that Japan was prepared to provide Pacific Island nations with three million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, starting from the middle of July. 

Suga’s pledge came during his address to the group, which was held virtually on July 2 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The summit has been hosted by the Japanese government every three years since 1997, affording regional leaders the opportunity to discuss issues of mutual concern. 

This year, Suga served as co-chair of the meeting, along with Prime Minister Kausea Natano of Tuvalu, the chair of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). Development assistance was a main theme of the meeting. 

The leaders of 19 nations in the Pacific region — including Japan, Australia, and New Zealand — participated in the summit meeting. 

In a veiled reference to China, which is actively working to expand its influence in the Pacific, Suga said, “Now, more than ever, as the Pacific region directly faces new challenges, including competition with authoritarianism, we need to further pursue unity.” 

Prime Minister Suga announced Japan’s intention to help with development assistance and cooperate with the Pacific Island nations in five sectors, including COVID-19 policy assistance and maritime security. The aid will be coordinated under Japan’s Pacific Bond (KIZUNA) Policy, which is based on its vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Suga emphasized that Japanese assistance for infrastructure development would “focus on fiscal sustainability.” He thereby intentionally drew a stark contrast with Beijing’s strategy for luring developing nations into “debt traps,” whereby China can gain control of rights and interests in those countries after they find themselves struggling to repay their infrastructure debts to China.

China’s President Xi Jinping and Kiribati’s President Taneti Maamau (L) January 6, 2020. REUTERS/Jason Lee/File Photo

Shadow War to Block China

Prime Minister Suga used PALM9 to emphasize that Japan was eager to provide support for infrastructure projects in Pacific Island nations. 

Although the Japanese government denies that this willingness stems from a desire to actively oppose Chinese involvement in the region, it is obviously becoming increasingly worried about inroads being made by Chinese companies in the Pacific. Japan is especially eager to work with the United States and other countries to limit China’s influence in the infrastructure sector because of its direct connection with national security. 

When seen in that light, it was important that PALM9 took up this issue.

Japanese officials were quick to claim, “We did not have any specific country in mind.” 

In a post-summit press conference, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Manabu Sakai sought to clarify what Prime Minister Suga meant by the phrase “competing with authoritarianism.” He obviously was sensitive to the concerns of Pacific Island nations which wished to avoid appearing antagonistic to China, a country on which they had become highly dependent because of their lack of natural resources.  

Nevertheless, the fact is that the Japanese government has become more cautious about Chinese influence in the region. The stalemate in a project for laying underwater communications cable to link three countries in eastern Micronesia reflects that fact.


‘Information Warfare’ the Key

The project in question, which took shape in 2020 with backing from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, is designed to link the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, and the Republic of Kiribati through an underwater communications infrastructure with far greater data capacity than the current satellite system. 

Japanese, French, and Chinese companies tendered bids for project contracts, but since the Chinese company submitted a bid which was by far the lowest, it seemed likely that it would be the core player in the project. 

The Chinese company in question, Shanghai-based HMN Technologies (formerly Huawei Marine Networks), is an affiliate of Huawei Technologies, which is on the U.S. investment blacklist. Strong concerns were raised that the Chinese might use their cable to compromise sensitive information and the data security of on-land facilities, including military installations.

Alarmed by the security threat that a Chinese company as lead contractor for the project would pose, Japan sought behind-the-scenes cooperation from the United States. 

Especially worrisome was the fact that the east Micronesia underwater cable network was designed to connect to an underwater cable link to the system operated by a U.S. telecom company in the U.S. territory of Guam. The U.S. government’s strong indication that it would not allow such a linkup put a stop to the project as originally envisaged.

Chinese companies are also making aggressive inroads in Pacific Island nations in the areas of cell phone operations and port facilities. The governments of Japan, the United States and other allies have resorted to “information warfare” to forestall these Chinese moves. 

A senior Japanese government official says that the key is bolstering local ties and building up trust in various areas on a continuous basis. 

The Japanese government now appears eager to use the ties of trust and networking built through the PALM summits to implement its “information warfare” strategy in the Pacific Island countries. 

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Author:  Toyohiro Ichioka, Staff Writer, The Sankei Shimbun