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The case of the Coral Sea Cable, or….

Written by: (Contributed) on 17 May 2020


How US-led military planners misused $136m of Australian tax-payers money and PNG and Solomon Islands government revenue.

In 2018, the then Turnbull coalition government in Canberra provided a telephone cable linking Sydney with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands for internet provision.
Other, more important factors, were hidden amongst the wording of the plan which reveal the dual-agenda of US-led regional military planning operating through Australia.
To date, furthermore, the cable had not met expectations or promises from Canberra to the countries and peoples it was expected to serve.
One of the many US-led military plans for the South Pacific in recent years has included the laying of the 4,700 kms Coral Sea Cable system to provide PNG and the Solomon Islands with internet provision linked to Australia. The project was hastily planned to prevent the Chinese Huawei telephone company from undertaking the work, in a small region where major US-led Cold War diplomatic positions have been played out. The required $136 million for the project was taken largely from Australia's overseas aid budget, controlled by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) together with contributions from PNG and the Solomon Islands. All the governments in Port Moresby and Honiara wanted was cheap, affordable internet connections for their own people.
The Coral Sea Cable project, however, took place against a rising tide of US-led diplomatic tensions and hostilities directed toward China. The three Melanesian countries of the South Pacific, PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu have been regarded as buffer-states and the first line to repel possible threats to Australian sovereignty from northern approaches. The project formed part of standard dual-agenda type aid provision where 'assistance programs in the South Pacific, designed to build capacity and strengthen resilience … (were also intended) … to keep Beijing out of security activities in the region'. (1)
The 2018 annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations were dominated with an agenda which included intelligence assessments of the South Pacific and diplomatic statements about China establishing greater influence within the 'small but strategically important South Pacific'. (2) Using the pretext that China was considering establishing a military base in Vanuatu, US-led military planning to upgrade the Lombrum base on Manus Island together with the neighbouring Momete airfield, 'as a forward operating base', noted for being situated in a 'strategically vital position overlooking key trade routes', took place. (3)
There was little ambiguity who was pulling the strings with the planned upgrading of military facilities. It was announced Australian vessels would be 'based permanently at Lombrum under the deal', and that 'the US would also join the project'. (4)
The developments followed a common pattern of US-led diplomacy toward the South Pacific, invariably marked by an 'attitude of benign neglect' and neo-colonial relations. (5) The countries have, for example, produced enormous wealth in dividends for shareholders of mining companies elsewhere, while the mass of South Pacific Islanders live subsistence life-styles in poverty.
The hurried laying of the Coral Sea Cable was a further example of the type of diplomacy countries in the South Pacific are expected to accept, and took place primarily to serve US military considerations; military planners have become obsessed with 'real-time' telecommunications systems in recent times. The obsession is evidence of the linkage of intelligence facilities in the Indo-Pacific region to the Pentagon, for both regional surveillance and military planning. Satellite telecommunications facilities have the problem of 'milli-second delays in data transmission', creating problems for military use. (6)
While the US military planning for the Coral Sea Cable clearly served US interests, other problems have arisen with far-reaching implications.
The cable has been noted for operating well under capacity and has failed to provide lower internet prices for the South Pacific. In fact, it has continued to provide rates of $350 a month for users while other facilities using satellites costs $250 for similar packages. (7) And, as if to add insult to the injury, Digicel, one of the main providers of mobile telephone services for the wider region which have specialised in using satellites, has recently announced a $10.3 billion debt following financial problems elsewhere. (8) Fears have, therefore, arisen that Digicel will be eventually sold to China Mobile, which has been considering making a bid for the debt-ridden telephone company, effectively throwing US military and security considerations into disarray. (9) To date, those responsible for the Coral Sea Cable have remained tight-lipped, hiding behind a wall of diplomatic silence.
The present Morrison coalition government in Canberra, together with others are, however, formulating an estimated $3.3 billion bail-out for PNG in the name of foreign policy. They will, inevitably, seek to extend their influence still further into a country which nominally won its independence from the Australian colonial administration in 1975.
Australia has tarnished its reputation by being so closely allied to US regional military planning.  We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     Top threat now lies in South Pacific, The Weekend Australian, 22-23 September 2018.
2.     US to lift its Pacific clout to counter China, Australian, 26 July 2018.
3.     Benefits for all in Manus being a base for US and Australian forces, Australian, 29 August 2018; and, Cold War in the Pacific, The New Daily, 17 November 2018.
4.     US to partner with Australia, PNG on Manus Island naval base, ABC News, 17 November 2018.
5.     US strategic objectives in the South Pacific challenged by Sino-American competition, Strategic Analysis Paper, Future Directions International, 10 October 2019.
6.     Taxpayers' PNG cable to dear to use, Australian, 15 May 2020.
7.     Ibid.
8.     Fears over a Chinese digital footprint on our doorstep, Australian Financial Review, 14 May 2020.
9.     Australian, op.cit., 15 May 2018.


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