01.07.2024 Author: Ksenia Muratshina

Asia-Pacific between Starlink and star wars

Asia-Pacific between Starlink and star wars

In May 2024, the Starlink satellite internet constellation began operating in Indonesia. The ‘country of a thousand islands’ has become the sixth Asian state to allow the operation of a US internet giant on its territory. What does this mean, and what are the risks of such a US expansion in the region?

What is Starlink?

The system was originally developed by Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) in 2019 and is designed to provide users, who have purchased the appropriate equipment, with high-speed internet wherever they are, bet it in the mountains, sparsely populated areas, on the road or at sea. It functions thanks to more than four thousand small low-orbiting satellites. Musk’s project turned out to be extremely controversial; not only because the swarm of his satellites creates enormous light pollution in space, radio interference and interferes with the work of telescopes and astronomical research or because of the disruption (possibly intentional) of other space and telecommunications systems, and not even just because of the destruction of the economic structure of local traditional societies that SpaceX connects to the Internet arbitrarily and against their will, in violation of the normal course of socio-economic development.

The main feature of the constellation is its affiliation with the US armed forces. SpaceX’s contacts with the Pentagon soon began to demonstrate to the world the real tasks of Starlink. In fact, the US military has received a new large-scale tool for planning possible operations in significant territories around the world. Providing the constellation to Ukrainian neo-Nazis finally swept away all doubts about the allegedly altruistic idea of ‘internet for all’ and Musk’s stories about the need for access to the World Wide Web to watch TV series and play computer games at any time.

Elon Musk is in the lead 

If you look at the Starlink distribution map, its activities quickly begin to makes sense. Throughout the years of operation of the constellation, the world has clearly been divided into those who voluntarily or forcibly transferred to the United States their keys to outer space and information space and those for whom their own interests and security remain a priority. Yes, it is difficult to prohibit satellites from physically flying over a certain territory (although in severe cases, any major power has the necessary means for this in modern conditions), but it is an objective necessity to close one’s information space from external space influence, considering conflicts and interference in internal affairs.

Starlink’s coverage in Asia now includes Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. In each of these countries, its introduction was presented in different ways. In Indonesia, it was argued that the constellation was needed ostensibly to increase the interconnectedness of communications in the fields of health and education. In Mongolia, some officials suddenly believed that Starlink would contribute to ‘digital transformation’ and was urgently needed by shepherds, farmers and miners throughout the country. In Malaysia, they seriously talked about ‘some problems with Internet access in 3% of populated areas’ as the reason for connecting to Starlink. In the Philippines, customers were promised ‘exclusive customer-oriented services’, especially for businesses. In Japan, interest in using the US system by the Self-Defence Forces has been openly reported. In Singapore, internet users wondered why Starlink needed to be introduced in a city-state that already has excellent high-speed internet. The only explanation is for foreign transit vessels.

In addition to the states already connected to Starlink, SpaceX is currently conducting negotiations with a number of countries. Among them, for example, are India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka. The approval process with Vietnam was suspended after the US understood the Vietnamese position regarding the obligation to interact with state-owned enterprises and create joint structures operating under the legislation of the Socialist Republic. The fact that Musk’s company does not like state control over his activities in itself speaks volumes. In Indonesia, despite preliminary agreements on cooperation with a local partner, Musk is aiming to sell equipment directly to users without any control from the state and, moreover, not creating any new jobs for citizens of the host country.

In actuality, Starlink uses a high-tech reincarnation of the principle of extraterritoriality from colonial times, only in a completely new guise. Additionally, prospects of providing technologies and broadcasting channels to terrorist and extremist groups, external management of the internet space, a direct threat to the development of national space programmes and the cultivation of a technological monopolist in the telecommunications market are very real. Indonesian companies, for example, have already turned to the state, calling for the need to think about the national industry’s sustainability, which has been threatened. Also, the media started to question whether there is a direct threat to sovereignty due to the lack of control over a new powerful and technologically advanced external player in the country and its non-transparent activities.

Importantly, the US is seizing the initiative in international negotiations, offering its own services and, apparently, not shying away from lobbying through specific political figures or departments, showing great interest in expanding to more and more new territories. Pressure on countries is exerted under plausible pretexts, and the United States has every opportunity to manipulate its partners. For example, a sensitive issue for Vietnam is the South China Sea, something that is easy to exploit (SpaceX has already resorted to this, first providing access to data for drone operators and then removing it). For Indonesia, this sensitive issue is raging separatism in Papua (it is worth noting that the neighbouring Papua New Guinea is also among the priority countries for SpaceX in connecting Starlink).

At the same time, for most ordinary citizens, SpaceX is simply unavailable due to its high cost. In addition, the ubiquity of satellite communications requires an appropriate level of digital literacy, which is also problematic. It is obvious that without special skills, people will become more susceptible to cyber-fraud attacks and the high cost of using the new network shows that all the talk about universal internet access is nothing more than a distraction in the information war.

Focus on Russia and China

If you carefully remove yourself from the imposed narrative about the importance of US satellite Internet for farmers, shepherds, schools and clinics and look at the situation in a broader context, you may see that the brainchild of Musk is gradually zeroing in on the territory of the People’s Republic of China. China has already remarked the direct threat to information security emanating from Starlink, not only in case of potential military conflicts, but also in peacetime in the case of internet interference.

In addition, the US constellation is actively used by cybercriminals. Thus, Thai law enforcement agencies uncovered a large criminal network and seized more than fifty illegally imported sets of Starlink equipment that belonged to telephone scammers and online casinos.

SpaceX’s future plans also extend to include a new direction: areas surrounding Russia. The US is actively probing the countries of Central Asia and Transcaucasia for access. So far, Ukrainian militants are using Starlink and in terms of states, Georgia is officially connected to it. For our country, the actions of a potential enemy near our borders denote a real threat, which must fully be taken into account and a response to this must be formulated.

In general, we can say that today we are witnessing – without exaggeration – a new round of the arms race, both in terms of information and space weapons and in terms of developing tools to combat them. But it arms races today reflect mankind’s new way of life, and as long as the struggle for resources and brain power continues, such races will also progress. Only states and societies themselves can prevent the escalation of rivalry in space and threats to their own independence, keeping in mind their national interests, sovereignty and being aware of the danger of the further expansion of the US military machine in the information space.

 

Ksenia Muratshina, PhD in History, Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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