US tries to angle China out of subsea internet infrastructure market

High-speed internet has been made possible around the world by the nearly 1.4mn kilometers of metal-encased fiber threaded beneath the ocean, with the US, France, and Japan leading the way in the installation of these cables. However, consecutive US administrations have largely barred China from penetrating this market, fearing that the Eastern power may exploit the infrastructure to commit espionage, per Financial Times

China has managed to adapt after being left out of the international subsea cable development, involving US investments. The Eastern power has started building its own international cables that will benefit China and its global allies. The report noted that this could create a worldwide split in subsea cable infrastructure, bringing about a Western and Eastern bloc. The report characterized these tensions as "a Cold War under the sea."

Anxiety over potential acts of espionage and sabotage has inevitably led more governments to be more protective of their waters, which has caused delays in the development of new cable routes. Countries such as Canada and Indonesia have already made clear that only certain ships and personnel can install and maintain cables within their economic zones.

Due to ongoing maintenance agreements, one country's sensitive and critical infrastructure is being repaired by adversarial personnel. The Financial Times reported that when there was a problem with a major intercontinental fiber cable by AT&T and Verizon last year, it was Chinese engineers who went out to repair it. As a result, industry insiders have noted that these instances are when hacking and other damage can be done to the cable infrastructure.

Mike Constable, who was chief strategy officer of China’s largest cable supplier until March this year and chief executive at the time it was co-owned by Huawei, explained: “When governments think about subsea cables’ exposure to faults and malicious disruption, I don’t think they understand how the maintenance market works." He went on to say that the US “has been trying to bifurcate this global network of subsea cables but didn’t look at whose cable ships were repairing those cables.”

It is generally understood that repairing subsea cables is a difficult process, but it is still possible to insert data extraction tools into repeaters – the components of the cable system that keeps signals moving over long distances, per the report.

Despite the difficulty in China penetrating the subsea cable market, Beijing is still finding a way to make up ground. The report suggested that China has its sights set on targeting areas where it still has political and commercial influence, including Africa, Latin America, and other areas of Asia. 

One individual working for the Chinese government said that the country “is able to lead projects in some Asian, African, and Latin American countries, mainly because state-owned telecom companies can fight price wars well.” China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile are apparently leading the way in many cable projects, including two that are set to connect China to Japan and Singapore. 

While China’s effort to erect an infrastructural empire around Europe and Africa worked for many years, it does not appear that the country will be able to continue building cable through Western countries in the way it used to. However, PEACE Cable company installed a cable that connected Pakistan to France via Kenya, per the report. The project was completely financed by Chinese companies, thus getting around the need to get the approval of Western nations.

One European telecom executive characterized PEACE as a “part of the new Silk Road, from China to Europe.” The development of PEACE is an example of China taking matters into their own hands, without having to get the approval of international companies. The report added that China has a number of levers that it can pull to push back against being shut out of global cable projects. One such lever is the aggressive protection of its offshore territories, potentially barring adversarial companies from using their territory to thread subsea cables.

This comes amid reports that China has actively been engaging Cuba in building immense eavesdropping centers in the small island country off the coast of Florida, making it possible for the Eastern power to gather sensitive data on the US military. China has also been using open-source intel-gathering technology to gather information on the US, should tensions rise to the point of military conflict.

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