Japan conducted its first-ever cybersecurity exercise with five Pacific island countries in February, apparently aiming in conjunction with the United States to create secure and robust digital connectivity in the strategically important region where China is expanding its influence.

Security experts hailed the recent event in Guam as significant — with some seeing it as Japan’s first foray into cyber diplomacy with Pacific island nations — saying it deserves attention when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida hosts Pacific island leaders for a summit in July in Tokyo.

The 18-26 February session came as the United States and Australia have also taken steps to improve cyber defense capabilities in the Western and South Pacific that are connected to them, Japan and other countries via submarine communications cables, especially in the midst of heightened tensions over Taiwan.

“When it comes to cybersecurity, Pacific island countries have been what I call a ‘soft belly,’ very vulnerable to cyberattacks,” said Hideyuki Shiozawa, senior program officer for Pacific island nations at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank.

“Hackers could attack government networks and crucial infrastructure of Japan and Taiwan, for example, via these countries,” he said in an interview. “Giving these countries technical training and providing them with antivirus software and other cybersecurity tools will also reduce security risks in other parts of the Indo-Pacific.”

Led by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the exercise involved government officials and communications providers from Palau, Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati. Fiji and Tonga also joined as observers.

The U.S Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, or CISA, sent two officials, including an instructor, and offered training materials, according to a ministry official.

Participants carried out a cyber defense excise against possible malware attacks targeting key infrastructure and underwent cyber incident response training, the official said, adding the participants expressed hope that Japan will continue the initiative.

“The exercise is effectively the launch of Japan’s cyber diplomacy with Pacific island countries,” Shiozawa said. “Japan should expand and possibly institutionalise this initiative in partnership with the United States and Australia.”

As part of efforts to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific based on the rule of law, Japan is running a similar program with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, having launched the ASEAN-Japan Cybersecurity Capacity Building Centre in Thailand in 2018.

Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-making Strategies at Tama University in Tokyo, also hailed the latest exercise as “important and valuable,” at a time when Tokyo, Washington and Canberra are funding a 2,250-kilometrer undersea cable project linking Micronesia, Nauru and Kiribati, with expected delivery in late 2025.

“It is impossible to overestimate the significance of cybersecurity for any nation’s security, economic vitality and resilience,” Glosserman said in an interview. “Infrastructure must be strong for a country to develop and grow on its own terms. Helping countries and not forcing them into China’s arms is important, too.”

In a series of developments that have alarmed the United States and its allies in the region, Nauru in January severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of China and recent news reports said Chinese police are working in Kiribati, which also switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2019.

Chinese survey ships have operated unauthorized in Palau’s exclusive economic zone, apparently sailing over submarine cables connecting Southeast Asia with the United States.

Glosserman also underscored the significance of the exercise with Pacific island countries and the existing framework with ASEAN, particularly in terms of being better prepared for possible cyberattacks against Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island China regards as its own.

As Kishida has said, “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sharply raised the level of concerns about Beijing’s territorial ambitions with regard to Taiwan and the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

In September last year, Japan’s National Police Agency and the National Center of Incident Readiness and Strategy for Cybersecurity joined U.S counterparts in warning of malware attacks by China-linked cyber actors known as BlackTech on a wide range of U.S. and East Asia public organisations and private entities.

“BlackTech actors have targeted government, industrial, technology, media, electronics, and telecommunication sectors, including entities that support the militaries of the U.S and Japan,” they said in a joint statement with the U.S National Security Agency, CISA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Microsoft Corp. warned in May 2023 the Chinese hacking group Volt Typhoon has targeted infrastructure in Guam and elsewhere in the United States, and that the state-sponsored hackers are pursuing capabilities to “disrupt critical communications infrastructure between the United States and the Asia region during future crises.”

Despite concerns about cybersecurity and geopolitical issues, analysts say it was shrewd for Japan’s communications ministry to announce the exercise as a capacity-building measure while making little reference to the strategic implications amid a power struggle between major powers.

Any regional initiative by Japan would be better received if it is designed not to force participating countries — be they Pacific island states or ASEAN members — to choose sides between the Japan-U.S. alliance and China, they argue.

“Perhaps it was a desire to downplay the regional competition with China,” Glosserman said. “That is in line with Japan’s traditional approach to regional support, this time focusing on an area Pacific island nations are interested in, and denies opponents a chance to call it part of the China competition.”