China reportedly impeding subsea internet cable projects near its borders

China is imposing strict permit requirements for access to underwater data infrastructure, citing concerns over spying by firms laying subsea internet cables, according to a report.

Industry sources told the FT that China is imposing longer delays and ‘stricter Chinese requirements’, meaning internet cable companies are increasingly looking to design routes that avoid the South China Sea.

Sources also said that this heightened level of ‘policing’ is a ‘response to Beijing being excluded from international projects and fears that companies could use cables as a front for espionage.’

For example, a cable under construction called SJC2, owned by a consortium which includes Meta, has been delayed by more than a year because of Chinese objections and lengthy permit issues, apparently. Anonymous sources said Chinese authorities were concerned the contractor might be spying and installing ‘extraneous equipment’.

The article quotes an anonymous subsea cable executive as saying: “The edict from the [Chinese Communist party], passed down by local government representatives, is that you need a permit in their EEZ. The last thing you want is to approach Chinese waters and a gun boat comes out and stops you. It’s just really murky out there [and] the cost of not doing it means that people fold and apply [for permits].”

It goes on to quote Bryan Clark, a former US submarine officer and senior Navy official as saying: “China is attempting to exert more control over undersea activities in its region, in part to prevent US surveillance systems from being installed as part of undersea cable deployment… the Chinese government also wants to know exactly where civilian undersea infrastructure is installed for its own mapping purposes.”

Growing tensions between China and the US have been disrupting rollouts of undersea cables – which underpin a huge amount of the internet –  for a while now, threatening a balkanisation of the global infrastructure and leading many western firms in the game to avoid Chinese waters when planning routes.

Sadly it seems escalation is inevitable while more wider relations remain frosty, which is mirrored in other tech areas which are becoming trade battlefields such as mobile telecoms tower equipment and semiconductors.

Last week there were reports that Germany is considering following suit on banning Chinese firms Huawei and ZTE from it’s 5G network having previously looking like it was going be more neutral on the matter. This promoted a candid response from the Chinese embassy in Germany.

It’s not just tech hardware getting caught up in this rivalry either – US lawmakers are reportedly looking to outright ban social media app TiKTok, owned by Chinese firm ByteDance – which one politician colourfully described as ‘digital fentanyl.’ The US also recently announced a raft of new export restrictions to China in relation to semiconductor manufacturing equipment.

Whatever you think about the validity of the ‘rip and replace’ scheme or the legitimacy of fears over Chinese espionage, all this was hardly going to go unanswered. It seems we are in for a continued period of tit-for-tat state interventions and a ratcheting up of the rhetoric on both sides.


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