Whilst many of us think that data is carried across the world by satellite communication, in reality 99% of the world’s data is carried by subsea cables. After pushing Huawei and ZTE out of the market for networking equipment, China’s geopolitical rivals are now determined to push China out of the market for the subsea cables on which the global internet runs. That’s the thrust of this detailed FT story (with stunning graphics) on yet another facet of Cold War II. France, USA and Japan dominate this market for installing and maintaining these subsea cables.

According to the FT: “The Chinese government started successfully penetrating the global market, but consecutive US administrations have since managed to freeze China out of large swaths of it. This was ostensibly because of concerns of espionage and worries about what Beijing might do to disrupt strategic assets operated by Chinese companies in the event of a conflict.”

The FT gives an example of how the US State Department is thwarting Chinese companies’ efforts in this are: “In 2018, Amazon, Meta and China Mobile agreed to work together on a cable connecting California to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. But a spate of manoeuvres in Washington to block Chinese participation in US cables led to China Mobile pulling out of the consortium.

Meta and Amazon filed a new application for the system in 2021, this time with no Chinese investment, no connection to Hong Kong, and a new name: Cap-1.

Then, last year, the application for Cap-1 was withdrawn altogether, even though most of the 12,000km cable had already been built. China’s original involvement remained a security concern for the US government, according to two people briefed on the discussions….

The US has succeeded in preventing Beijing from becoming a major player in the global submarine cable market. Chinese supplier HMN Tech has provided or is set to provide the equipment to only 10 per cent of all existing and planned global cables, where the supplier is known, FT analysis of data supplied by the consultancy TeleGeography shows.

Meanwhile, French cable maker ASN has supplied 41 per cent and American company SubCom has supplied 21 per cent. Neither ASN nor SubCom responded to requests for comment.
And interviews with more than 20 industry executives suggest Washington’s campaign has resulted in a de facto ban on using a Chinese supplier across swathes of the industry, even in projects where there is no US involvement.”

However, the Chinese are not backing down and that’s where the problem potentially arises for the internet: “Despite being routinely blocked from international subsea cable projects involving US investment, Chinese companies have adapted by building international cables for China and many of its allied nations.

This has raised fears of a dangerous division in who owns and manages the infrastructure underpinning the global web.”
So why should you and I be worried about the potential bifurcation of the internet? ““One of the big risks right now is heading in the direction of bifurcated networks. Does this create a system where you don’t have connectivity, with a quasi-cold war, eastern bloc versus the west?” says April Herlevi, an expert in China’s foreign economic policy at the Center for Naval Analyses. “I don’t think we’re there yet . . . but I do worry that’s the direction we’re headed in.”

Several countries, including China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia, have been overt about their ambitions to create a more centralised internet infrastructure over which their governments would have greater control.”

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