Tokelau gets high-speed internet access, as security concerns edge China edged out of laying undersea cables throughout Asia Pacific

Tokelau undersea cable landing. Photo: Administrator of Tokelau

Tokelau, whose nearest neighbour is 500 kilometres away, has become that much closer to the rest of the world, after a new submarine cable landed on its shores, bringing high-speed reliable internet access.

The development comes Australian, New Zealand and American concerns about security edges out Chinese companies from involvement in undersea cables throughout the Asia Pacific region.

Tokelau has been one of the most poorly connected countries in the Pacific; dependent on slow, unreliable, and expensive satellite links for international and inter-atoll connectivity.

Due for completion in 2022, the NZ-funded Southern Cross NEXT cable will provide an additional connection between New Zealand, Australia and the United States, and several other Pacific Islands. In the coming months, a new domestic cable will build connection between Tokelau’s three atolls.

“We hope it will support access to government resources, education and healthcare services, improve social connection with families who are off-shore, and further opportunities for economic development,” said New Zealand Administrator of Tokelau, Ross Ardern.

Submarine cabling throughout the Pacific has become a geopolitical issue in the last five years, as Chinese companies – owned by the Chinese government – became involved in bidding for laying undersea cables.

Three years ago, Australia stepped in to fund the Coral Sea cable, linking PNG, Solomon Islands to Australia, preventing Chinese company Huawei from building the link.

The contract was for Huawei Marine to lay a cable between Honiara and Sydney, which would have seen Chinese hardware connecting to the backbone of Australia’s domestic internet infrastructure.

“That was seen as a red line that Australia would not cross and so we jumped in with a better deal providing the cable as a grant that would be implemented with a procurement partner of Australia’s choosing — that wouldn’t be Chinese,” director of the Lowy Institute’s Pacific Island Program Jonathan Pryke said.  

Security concerns are behind the cancellations of  planned cable links for an East Micronesia cable between the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Kiribati, according to Amanda Watson, at the Australian National University.

Reuters has reported that with the East Micronesia cable project on hold, Nauru is in discussion with the Australian government over a proposal to connect the small island nation to the Coral Sea Cable. 

Dr Amanda Watson from Australian National University told the ABC there were two types of cybersecurity risks in undersea cable projects. 

“The first one is if you have internet bandwidth availability that’s increased, then there’s just a general cybersecurity risk increase because you might have citizens, businesses or utilities that could potentially be victims of cyber attacks,” she said.

“The second type of cybersecurity issue would be perceived questions about whether technologies from certain countries might be at risk of data exfiltration, which is where a company or a country might try to extract data from a modem or a cable.” 

In June this year a proposed Hong Kong-Americas cable was withdrawn after the US Justice Department declared it would ‘pose an unacceptable risk to the national security and law enforcement interests of the United States’.