U.S.-Japan Dueling China for Influence in Indo-Pacific Region
By The Asahi Shimbun
June 1, 2020
On a weekday afternoon, the square in front of the Kenya National Archives in the capital of Nairobi is teeming with people waiting for buses, young couples out on dates and others getting off work.
Looming a few meters overhead, mushroom-like surveillance cameras are visible with the Huawei logo prominently inscribed on the equipment.
The effects of China’s digital dominance are now clearly visible close in Nairobi. Since 2015, Huawei has been commissioned by the Kenyan government to install a surveillance system known as “Safe City.”
The cameras are installed near busy intersections and a total of 1,800 cameras now keep a watchful eye on residents of Nairobi and Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city.
Japan hasn't been invisible either in attempting to make inroads into Kenya and Africa. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his nation's initiative about four years ago at the Kenyatta International Convention Center, located about 500 meters from the square in front of the national archives.
Abe outlined the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy at the Sixth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD), intended as a counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
The United States is a partner in the strategy, which seeks to counter Beijing's increasing influence.
However, according to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, while the balance of direct investment in Africa by the United States in 2017 was at $50 billion (5.381 trillion yen) China was closing in with a total of $43 billion. Japan was not even in the top 10 nations for direct investment.
A clash of strategies is unfolding with the main arenas being Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. But the outcome has become even more uncertain because of the various effects from the novel coronavirus pandemic
Last year at an international forum on the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, “We must build a digital Silk Road.”
A key to bringing about a new belt and road element by spreading a Chinese-style system using digital technology is the laying of a submarine cable system.
A cornerstone of that new element is the African nation of Djibouti, a key port connecting the Indian Ocean with Europe. One room of a state-run communications company building that faces the Arabian Sea holds coils of black cables covering the walls. Those cables are connected to undersea ones and stretch into the next room.
An executive of the company said, “Submarine cables are coming from thousands of kilometers away, landing here and connecting to countries in Africa.”
Next year, a separate submarine cable will enter the picture in a project called PEACE, for Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe.
The project was initially led by a Huawei subsidiary. Cables extending from Africa and Europe are connected in Djibouti and will be extended further to China via Pakistan.
An executive with an African communications company said, “PEACE is a political project, because it goes through Pakistan. Land routes are riskier than sub-sea routes. Most of the sea routes between Europe and Asia go through the Malacca Strait, which is under the influence of the United States. They want alternatives.”
China is creating new Silk Roads on land, at sea and now even digitally.
U.S. STRIVING TO HOLD OFF CHINESE ADVANCES
It is said that about 95 percent of the data in the world is transmitted through submarine cables.
Until now, such cables have been dominated by Western nations and Japan. However, U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about China’s entry into the submarine cable sector.
A high-ranking White House official cautioned that if U.S. allies and friends began using the cable system involving China, there would not only be a risk of data leakage, but also a possible shutting off of that data should a war break out.
Eric Sayers, former special assistant to the commander of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), pointed out that “the accumulation of economic power and digital influence is the greatest concern in the next decade because it gives Beijing new tools as a revisionist power to try to coerce their neighbors and rewrite the order. It could impact the balance of national security.“
Due to such concerns, the Indo-Pacific region is on the front lines of the clash of strategies between a China that is spreading out its influence and the United States, which is trying to stop that spread.