State Department wants reliable news, internet connectivity in the Pacific

by Braxton Taylor

To counter China, the U.S. State Department wants to make sure Indo-Pacific partners have reliable internet and access to “accurate” journalism.”

“In every place where we have a presence and we are on the ground, we are active in the local media space and through our own public diplomacy to make sure that there is alternative messaging to the PRC there. So again, our countries, our partners in the region, have choice and have accurate information,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the State Department’s assistant secretary, bureau of East Asian and Pacific affairs, said Thursday during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. 

The State Department has programs to increase partners’ “access to credible newswires and the like, the [Associated Press] and others” to reduce island countries’ dependence on China-based news organizations like Xinhua, he said. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, is going one step further by sponsoring journalism programs in the region as part of its effort to expand its presence in the Indo-Pacific, said Michael Schiffer, assistant administrator of the bureau for Asia.

“We’ve also been extraordinarily active working with our Department of State colleagues, supporting free and independent press in the region, including through a number of journalism fellowships, particularly targeting journalists who are interested in working on natural resource management, as that addresses a number of the corruption and governance concerns that we have,” Schiffer said. 

The U.S. government has been expanding its presence in the Indo-Pacific region in recent years as part of a larger strategy to compete with China, including economic, military and defense support to foster tech innovation. 

To bolster its media efforts, the State Department is also working to make sure Pacific nations have reliable internet connectivity.  

“We also recently launched with the University of the South Pacific Digital Cyber Connectivity Partnership that allows us to step into the digital space in a more forward-leaning way, responsive to the requests that we’re getting from our partners to provide them the digital services that they need to be able to control their own information destinies,” Schiffer said.

Moreover, in Palau, USAID is working with Australia and Japan to develop an “undersea cable spur” to “increase reliable, safe, and secure internet bandwidth to spark economic growth.”

Last year, the U.S. and Australia pledged $65 million to help build future submarine cable connectivity for Pacific Island countries.

“We fully recognize that our partners in the Pacific are sovereign and that they—can make their, and should make their own choices. And that our role is to support them in that process,” Schiffer said. “In the Pacific, we see that the PRC is violating many of the rules and norms that have been established by the international community for its own benefit, and that negatively impacts the work that we do.”

That includes an uptick in China’s investment in the telecommunications industry, which has spurred a competition with the U.S. But the State Department worries a reliance on China telecoms could “leave nations vulnerable to cybersecurity risks, and other national security concerns,” Schiffer said.

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