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Niccolò Rinaldi, European Parliament, illustrated the potentialities and challenges of the Pacific Region at the 23rd Infopoverty World Conference

The Pacific Region is perfectly suited as a context where digital connections and artificial intelligence can make a difference. Neglected by the international community for a long time, the region is now becoming an important center of stronger geostrategic interests.

China, the US, and more recently the European Union have rediscovered the strategic importance of the small islands in this region, especially regarding digital connectivity and infrastructure, turning these states increasingly into open laboratories for testing innovations.

In this regard, this area demonstrates how much artificial intelligence represents an important part of geostrategic competition, as perfectly illustrated by NICCOLÓ RINALDI, Head of Unit Asia, Australia and New Zealand at the European Parliament during the First Session of the 23rd Infopoverty World Conference


“We all know the geography of these regions. We're talking about the BIC, the Pacific Island Countries, dozens of small countries, in some cases one island, like Nauru, with a very limited population, one of the second smallest countries in the world after the Vatican City, 12,000 people. In other cases, more population, such as the Solomon Islands, around 700,000 people, but capture more than 500 inhabited islands. Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Fiji, Marshall, Micronesia, etc., each of them present a very peculiar geographic and anthropological situation. Very far from each other, so a completely different scenario from what we can see, for instance, on Africa's mainland. And very far from each other. In a way, the perfect situation to intervene and make a difference with digital connections and artificial intelligence.
The dynamic in this region is also very interesting, because to a large extent, with the exception, of course, of the main countries of Oceania, Australia, New Zealand, to some extent Papua New Guinea, this has been a region somehow neglected by the international community for a long time, perceived as remote, far away, not really the center of a stronger geostrategic interest. I think actually changed remarkably since, let's say, not very long time ago, maybe less than two decades, 15 years ago or 10 years ago, with China notably and Taiwan having a strong diplomatic rivalry there with countries recognizing Taipei, countries recognizing Beijing, so a lot of investment from the two sides in order to obtain the switching, and notably in recent years, the last one has been actually this year in January, Nauru shifting from Taipei to Beijing, but in the past two years we had the Solomon's, we had Kiribati, Vanuatu, and that kind of rally actually also had an impact in terms of actual investment in technology and of services provided to those communities.
That has been a factor also to give somehow more initiative by other countries such as the U.S., Australia, and more recently also the European Union. All those countries, basically, are eligible for the Belt and Road Initiative by China, and there is an ITC component, a very important Chinese component in the Belt and Road Initiative, in terms of digital connectivity, which made a huge difference, basically starting from 2016, 2017, so we're talking about relatively recent development. We can currently more or less assess an investment which is now at around 7 billion U.S. dollars by China in digital connectivities to those countries.
Digital connectivities are crucial because without the digital infrastructure, of course, not entirely, but to a large extent, artificial intelligence provisions cannot be implemented. Those countries first needed to have digital connectivity in order to later on have artificial intelligence. We had a lot of Chinese-owned companies active in the region, such as China Mobile, and Huawei. We have an agreement that was signed in 2022 by the Solomon Islands with China in order to have Huawei build mobile communications towers in the country, more than 160 mobile communication towers. Then, after that move by Huawei and Solomon, the U.S., and the Australians also stepped in with an alternative proposal, and the Solomon Islands had also the possibility to make a choice from October 2023 to a different kind of digital offer by the U.S. and Australia.
There is also a security and military component in that. I will come back to that later, because artificial intelligence investments are also sometimes part of a bigger game, of a bigger interest, which is actually taking place in the regions and, of course, also, as well, the Solomon Islands and China also signed. And that was part of this kind of investment of the security and military cooperation agreement, which has been, of course, a matter of controversy or a matter of discussions in the international community.
Anyway, following the Belt and Road Initiative digital components, we can see in the regions also far more active actions by the United States, very often in combination with Australia. We can see, for instance, that USAID has launched the DCCD, the Digital Connectivity and Cyber Security Partnership. This is something which just happened, I mean, August last year. So it is, again, a very recent development. In October last year, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency also launched a feasibility study to support the development of a Central Pacific cable, which is going to be a 16,000 kilometers undersea cable project connected from Guam to Samoa, and through that, of course, a number of PCI Pacific country highlands. Google also has launched the South Pacific Connect Initiative, which connects Fiji to French Polynesia. And French Polynesia, for us, is very important, of course, from my perspective, because we should never forget that the European Union is also a Pacific presence because of Wall Street Tuna, French Caledonia, and French Polynesia.
And the European Union, a bit more than two years ago, in September 2021, launched the Indo-Pacific Strategy, actually the EU strategy for the Indo-Pacific, so it's a very propositive strategy, which is a number of different policies in order to support our actions and the development in the Pacific. One of the seven pillars of this Indo-Pacific strategy for the Indo-Pacific is actually digital connectivity, which again is the basic infrastructure to step in later on with artificial intelligence programs in these regions. Last year, again, the European Investment Bank, which is a sort of financial branch of the European Union, let's say so, opened its first office in the Fiji Islands in order to have financial instruments to operate in the regions. And just one month ago, in February, the Samoa Agreement was signed by the European Union and the Pacific countries, and that will sort of legally support further action.
If we see the ITU, which is the International Telecommunication Union, which is an agency of the United Nations, we can see how the ITU managed to make a sort of transition from digital connectivity to artificial intelligence programs in the Pacific Islands. Launched some time ago, two years ago, the Smart Villages and Smart Islands initiative in order to basically implement the first project in telemedicine, telemedication, and telehealth services to enhance non-speak access, and upgraded learning programs for all age groups. And that goes from Kiribati to Nauru to Vanuatu to Valu, all the Pacific Islands. Of course, artificial intelligence, when we are talking about small countries, provides far more tailor-made support.
When we talk about telestroke, diabetes, oncological disease, vascular or neurological disease, and artificial intelligence programs, they can take into consideration not just the health basic data of the patient, but the kind of food that is available on the island, the kind of social community support that the patient may receive, the kind of time medicine requires to be processed and to be dispatched there, and so on. So a far more actually detailed and comprehensive approach, which is, again, custom, so to say, tailored. And this is not much time to develop that. It's very much true also for education programs, but it's also very much true for other issues such as for instance, prevention of natural disasters, awareness of natural disasters, climate change, of course, a huge impact in these regions, et cetera. And I would refer, for instance, to a Maastricht University study or, for instance, a Western German company that we are working very much, which combines the technology of drones and the technology of aircraft. Drones are very much used already in the Malayas, Bhutan, in Nepal, to dispatch doctors and medicines, doctors and medicines, and, of course, to process and collect patient data. But drones have limited use in such a huge distance, such as the Pacific. So this German company is actually developing this mixed system. I will finish with a number of mixed-systems aircraft and drones.
I will finish with five very short points on the challenges that these regions are facing. One, it is, of course, the issue that the Pacific countries very fast have been now becoming the target of, I would say, sort of open laboratories for testing innovations. This is good because it provides, of course, the platform for a lot of opportunities. On the other side, there is also a negative impact because nobody, no communities, would like to be really sort of lab test with a solution that has not really been experimented with, assessed purely with an entire scientific methodology and process.
Secondly, this area proves how much artificial intelligence is, as I was saying before, part of a geostrategic competition. And those are small countries where we can have different technological systems and different standards. That's also an opportunity. But on the other side, it can create in the same communities a sort of cacophonic, technological cacophony with different ways, different technologies, not necessarily always compatible with each other, American, Chinese, European, and so on.
Third, we can have, we are talking about, again, not the mainland territories, but islands. And we can have islands with more connectivity, islands where we are testing artificial intelligence, and other islands next door that are totally neglected. And the risk very much in artificial intelligence is also to create inequalities in territories, in countries that so far have somehow a very harmonious and homogeneous social environment, and artificial intelligence messed in in a sort of violent way and created a difference that for centuries has never been there, certainly not in the Pacific.
The fourth point, we are talking here about regions where we had very fragile physical infrastructures, health, or education, just words. Then very quickly we moved to digital connections, and now we are trying to move to artificial intelligence. This is also very risky. Artificial intelligence, perhaps, is something that needs to be assessed and can have a better impact on communities that has already some kind of sedimentation of physical, educational, or health and other services, of course, infrastructures, and then developing digital and artificial intelligence.
The final point is, of course, a matter of the relationship of powers. As I said, here we have different models and huge countries and huge powers and huge industrial interests on one side and very small states. Under Secretary Barchini reminded us, of course, of regulations, the issues of human rights, the issues of data protection, et cetera. What we see in the Pacific is basically a contest between three different approaches. Roughly speaking, the American approach, is very much an industrial, enterprise, technological approach. The Chinese approach, again, roughly speaking, is a state-driven approach with a partnership with the countries, a partnership with different, very different powers between Beijing and small countries on the other side. And the European approach, which is more a safeguard, rights-driven approach.
And the EU, last December, has been the first entity, of course, to have, as was reminded, a very comprehensive set of regulations to try to implement artificial intelligence, according to us, in a proper way. But this is something that is not really in the hands of far smaller countries with very limited regional coordination and, again, with the risk of becoming dependent on conflicting technologies. I would say that those five parameters are actually measures and benchmarks that can be very interesting for assessing the impact of artificial intelligence everywhere in the world, in different regions, and here we are probably at their extremes. Thank you for your attention.”


The FINAL DECLARATION of the 23rd Infopoverty World Conference is now available! The Plan of Action including a list of projects and proposals that emerged from the discussion will be available soon. STAY TUNED!

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