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US and China wage conflict beneath the waves – over web cables

SINGAPORE: It began out as strictly enterprise: an enormous personal contract for one of many world’s most superior undersea fibre-optic cables. It grew to become a trophy in a rising proxy conflict between america and China over applied sciences that might decide who achieves financial and army dominance for many years to come back.

In February, American subsea cable firm SubCom LLC started laying a US$600-million cable to move knowledge from Asia to Europe, by way of Africa and the Center East, at super-fast speeds over greater than 19,300km of fibre working alongside the seafloor.

That cable is named South East Asia–Center East–Western Europe 6, or SeaMeWe-6 for brief. It is going to join a dozen nations because it snakes its method from Singapore to France, crossing three seas and the Indian Ocean on the best way. It’s slated to be completed in 2025.

It was a mission that slipped via China’s fingers.

A Chinese language firm that has shortly emerged as a power within the subsea cable-building trade – HMN Applied sciences Co Ltd – was on the point of snagging that contract three years in the past. The shopper for the cable was a consortium of greater than a dozen world companies. Three of China’s state-owned carriers – China Telecommunications Company (China Telecom), China Cellular Restricted and China United Community Communications Group Co Ltd (China Unicom) – had dedicated funding as members of the consortium, which additionally included US-based Microsoft Corp and French telecom agency Orange SA, in response to six folks concerned within the deal.

HMN Tech, whose predecessor firm was majority-owned by Chinese language telecom big Huawei Applied sciences Co Ltd, was chosen in early 2020 to fabricate and lay the cable, the folks stated, due partly to hefty subsidies from Beijing that lowered the associated fee. HMN Tech’s bid of US$500 million was roughly a 3rd cheaper than the preliminary proposal submitted to the cable consortium by New Jersey-based SubCom, the folks stated.

The Singapore-to-France cable would have been HMN Tech’s greatest such mission thus far, cementing it because the world’s fastest-rising subsea cable builder, and lengthening the worldwide attain of the three Chinese language telecom companies that had meant to put money into it.

However the US authorities, involved in regards to the potential for Chinese language spying on these delicate communications cables, ran a profitable marketing campaign to flip the contract to SubCom via incentives and strain on consortium members.

Reuters has detailed that effort right here for the primary time. It’s certainly one of not less than six personal undersea cable offers within the Asia-Pacific area over the previous 4 years the place the US authorities both intervened to maintain HMN Tech from profitable that enterprise, or pressured the rerouting or abandonment of cables that will have straight linked US and Chinese language territories. The story of these interventions by Washington hasn’t been beforehand reported.

SubCom had no touch upon the SeaMeWe-6 battle, and HMN Tech didn’t reply to requests for remark. In a press release final yr about infrastructure tasks, the White Home briefly famous that the US authorities helped SubCom to win the Singapore-to-France cable contract, with out giving particulars. China’s overseas ministry didn’t reply to requests for remark. China Telecom, China Cellular, China Unicom and Orange didn’t reply to requests for remark. Microsoft declined to remark.

Undersea cables are central to US-China know-how competitors.

Throughout the globe, there are greater than 400 cables working alongside the seafloor, carrying over 95 per cent of all worldwide web visitors, in response to TeleGeography, a Washington-based telecommunications analysis agency. These knowledge conduits, which transmit every part from emails and banking transactions to army secrets and techniques, are weak to sabotage assaults and espionage, a US authorities official and two safety analysts advised Reuters.

The potential for undersea cables to be drawn right into a battle between China and self-ruled Taiwan was thrown into sharp reduction final month. Two communications cables had been reduce that linked Taiwan with its Matsu islands, which sit near the Chinese language coast. The islands’ 14,000 residents had been disconnected from the web.

Taiwanese authorities stated they suspected a Chinese language fishing vessel and a Chinese language freighter induced the disruption. Nonetheless, they stopped in need of calling it a deliberate act and stated there was no direct proof displaying the Chinese language ships had been in charge. China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, has ratcheted up army and political efforts to power the island to just accept its dominion.

Eavesdropping is a fear too. Spy businesses can readily faucet into cables touchdown on their territory. Justin Sherman, a fellow on the Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based suppose tank, advised Reuters that undersea cables had been “a surveillance gold mine” for the world’s intelligence businesses.

“After we discuss US-China tech competitors, after we discuss espionage and the seize of knowledge, submarine cables are concerned in each facet of these rising geopolitical tensions,” Sherman stated.

Two of the tasks upended by the US authorities concerned cables that had already been manufactured and laid 1000’s of miles throughout the Pacific Ocean. US tech behemoths Google LLC, Meta Platforms Inc and Inc had been main traders in not less than one, or in Meta’s case each, of these cables, in response to public bulletins made in regards to the tasks. The delays and rerouting of the cables price every of these corporations tens of tens of millions of {dollars} in misplaced income and extra prices, 4 sources who labored on the tasks stated.

Amazon, Meta and Google declined to remark about these tasks or the cable wars.

SubCom’s cable coup is a part of a wider effort in Washington aimed toward reining in China as Beijing strives to turn out to be the world’s dominant producer of superior applied sciences, be it submarines, semiconductor chips, synthetic intelligence or drones. China is bulking up its army arsenal with subtle armaments. And Beijing has turn out to be more and more assertive about countering US affect worldwide via commerce, weapons and infrastructure offers which are drawing vast swaths of the globe into its orbit.

The US cable effort has been anchored by a three-year-old interagency process power informally generally known as Crew Telecom.

To oust the Chinese language builder from the Singapore-to-France cable, america proffered sweeteners – and warnings – to the mission’s traders.

On the sweetener facet, the US Commerce and Improvement Company (USTDA) advised Reuters it provided coaching grants valued at a complete of US$3.eight million to 5 telecom corporations in nations on the cable’s route in return for them selecting SubCom because the provider. Telecom Egypt and Community i2i Restricted, an organization owned by India’s Bharti Airtel Restricted, obtained US$1 million apiece, USTDA stated. Djibouti Telecom, Sri Lanka Telecom and Dhivehi Raajjeyge Gulhun of the Maldives every acquired US$600,000. Not one of the 5 responded to questions from Reuters.

In the meantime, American diplomats cautioned taking part overseas telecom carriers that Washington deliberate to impose crippling sanctions on HMN Tech, a improvement that might put their funding within the cable mission in danger. The US Commerce Division made good on that menace in December 2021, citing HMN Tech’s intention to amass American know-how to assist modernise China’s Individuals’s Liberation Military.

A senior US State Division official confirmed that the division had advocated via its embassies to assist SubCom win the contract, together with warning different nations in regards to the safety dangers posed by HMN Tech. Although the cable gained’t come ashore in Chinese language territory, the US authorities believed HMN Tech might insert distant surveillance gear contained in the cable, the official stated with out offering proof. The Commerce Division declined to remark.

Two months later, in February 2022, SubCom introduced that the cable consortium had awarded it the contract to construct the SeaMeWe-6 cable. China Telecom and China Cellular, which had been attributable to personal a mixed 20 per cent of the cable, pulled out as a result of the Chinese language authorities wouldn’t approve their involvement within the mission with SubCom because the cable contractor, three folks with data of the matter advised Reuters. China Unicom remained.

China’s overseas ministry and its protection ministry, which handles questions for the Individuals’s Liberation Military, didn’t reply to Reuters’ questions.

On Jun 26, 2022, the White Home revealed a reality sheet citing numerous upcoming infrastructure tasks, together with the SubCom undersea cable deal. The doc stated the US authorities had “collectively helped safe” the award of that contract for SubCom.

The White Home didn’t reply to a request for additional remark.


US-China relations are on the lowest they’ve been in many years. The 2 nations have clashed on a bunch of points, together with China’s tacit assist for Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine, its crackdown on Hong Kong, and the way forward for Taiwan, which Chinese language President Xi Jinping has pledged to deliver underneath Beijing’s management. In February, america shot down a Chinese language spy balloon that floated into American airspace. China has claimed it was a climate balloon that obtained blown off beam and accused the Individuals of overreacting.

President Joe Biden’s insurance policies are more and more isolating China’s high-tech sector with the intention of bringing some know-how manufacturing again to America whereas preserving cutting-edge US innovation out of Chinese language arms.

Over the past yr, the Biden administration has pushed via a landmark invoice to offer US$52.7 billion in subsidies for US semiconductor manufacturing and analysis. The Commerce Division in December added dozens of Chinese language companies producing know-how similar to drones and synthetic intelligence chips to its so-called Entity Listing, which severely restricts their entry to US know-how.

Chinese language Overseas Minister Qin Gang, talking in Beijing this month, stated the 2 superpowers are destined for “battle and confrontation” except Washington abandons its coverage of “containment and suppression” in the direction of China.

Three corporations have dominated the development and laying of fibre-optic subsea cables for many years: America’s SubCom, Japan’s NEC Company and France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks, Inc.

However a seismic shift occurred in 2008 when Huawei Marine Networks Co Ltd entered the fray. Owned by Chinese language telecom Huawei Applied sciences, the Tianjin-based firm initially constructed small cable programs in underserved markets similar to Papua New Guinea and the Caribbean.

Quick-forward 15 years and the agency, now generally known as HMN Tech, has turn out to be the world’s fastest-growing producer and layer of subsea cables, in response to TeleGeography knowledge.

However the firm’s brief historical past has been formed by deteriorating US-China relations.

In 2019, Huawei Applied sciences got here underneath hearth from the administration of then-US President Donald Trump. The Commerce Division banned Huawei and 70 associates from shopping for elements and parts from US corporations with out authorities approval.

That transfer was a part of a world marketing campaign by Washington and its allies to cease Huawei Applied sciences from constructing fifth-generation, or 5G, communications networks all over the world attributable to issues that host nations can be weak to Chinese language eavesdropping or cyberattacks, the small print of which had been revealed in a earlier Reuters investigation.

Huawei Applied sciences stated on the time that it was a non-public firm that isn’t managed by the Chinese language authorities. Contacted for this story, Huawei Applied sciences stated it absolutely divested its stake in Huawei Marine in 2020 and is not linked with the cable-laying firm, which rebranded as HMN Tech underneath new Chinese language possession.

HMN Tech expanded its ambitions with the PEACE cable, which got here on-line final yr and connects Asia, Africa and Europe. The agency was poised to make one other nice leap with the Singapore-to-France mission earlier than SubCom snatched it away.

The next account of how that deal fell aside for the Chinese language gamers is predicated on interviews with six folks straight concerned within the SeaMeWe-6 contract. All of them requested to not be named as they weren’t authorised to debate potential commerce secrets and techniques or issues of nationwide safety.


Massive undersea cables price a number of tons of of tens of millions of {dollars}. They’re normally paid for by a consortium of tech or telecom corporations that may unfold the associated fee and dangers, in addition to take duty for any cable touchdown that results in their nations.

Within the case of SeaMeWe-6, there have been greater than a dozen corporations funding the cable, and there was instantly a cut up within the group, which would want to succeed in a consensus to pick a contractor for the mission, the folks stated.

China Telecom, China Cellular and China Unicom had been resolutely behind HMN Tech, which had are available in with a bid of round US$500 million. Microsoft, Orange and India’s Bharti Airtel expressed issues in regards to the threat of potential US pushback on HMN Tech’s involvement. Nonetheless, it was laborious to argue with the worth. SubCom’s bid was nearer to US$750 million.

On a sequence of video calls in mid-2020, the consortium members verbally agreed that HMN Tech would construct the cable. SubCom can be the reserve in case the Chinese language agency pulled out or didn’t ship on the phrases of its proposal.

However behind the scenes, SubCom and the US authorities had been sowing seeds of doubt about whether or not HMN Tech was the most effective firm for the job.

SubCom had already efficiently utilized for loans from the federal Export-Import Financial institution of america to assist its bid. It additionally secured advocacy help from the Division of Commerce, which shortly mobilised US embassies all over the world to lean on consortium members of their host nations.

US ambassadors in not less than six of these nations, together with Singapore, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, wrote letters to native telecom carriers taking part within the deal, in response to folks concerned. One in every of these letters, seen by Reuters, stated selecting SubCom is “an essential alternative to reinforce industrial and safety cooperation with america”.

Individually, ambassadors and senior diplomats met with executives at overseas telecom corporations in not less than 5 nations. The message: HMN Tech may very well be topic to US sanctions within the close to future. That in flip would make it troublesome for the telecoms to promote bandwidth as a result of their greatest doubtless prospects – US tech companies – wouldn’t be allowed to make use of the cable.

One senior Asian telecom govt recalled a gathering in mid-2020 with a high US diplomat and an American digital commerce attaché. The US officers defined how sanctions on HMN Tech would render the cable nearly nugatory, offering him a printed spreadsheet with an financial evaluation displaying simply that.

“They stated we’d go bankrupt. It was a persuasive argument,” the manager advised Reuters.

Two different Asian telecom executives within the consortium advised Reuters they met with each Chinese language and US diplomats, who urged them to again HMN Tech and SubCom, respectively.

By the top of 2020, a number of consortium members, together with Bangladesh Submarine Cable Firm Restricted, India’s Bharti Airtel, Sri Lanka Telecom, France’s Orange and Telecom Egypt, advised their companions they had been having second ideas about selecting HMN Tech as a provider, principally over the concern of sanctions.

None of those corporations responded to requests for remark.

In February 2021, with the consortium companions at loggerheads, SubCom and HMN Tech got an opportunity by the group to submit a “finest and last supply.” SubCom lowered its bid to shut to US$600 million. However HMN Tech was now providing to construct the cable for US$475 million.

A number of consortium members, together with Microsoft, Singapore Telecommunications Restricted (SingTel) and Orange, argued to the opposite members that when the chance of sanctions was factored into the bids, SubCom was providing a greater deal. The three state-owned Chinese language corporations strongly disagreed. The businesses all declined remark.

On a tense last video name in late 2021, an govt from SingTel, the chair on the cable committee, urged the businesses to vote on a last determination earlier than the entire deal collapsed, two individuals who had been on that decision advised Reuters.

China Telecom and China Cellular threatened to stroll off the mission, taking tens of tens of millions of {dollars} of funding with them. However the majority of the consortium picked SubCom, and the 2 Chinese language state-owned companies departed. Two new traders – Telekom Malaysia Berhad and PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia Worldwide (Telin) – joined the deal, and a number of the authentic members raised their stakes to make up the shortfall, the folks stated.

Telekom Malaysia and Telin didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Along with the profitable marketing campaign to freeze out HMT Tech from the Singapore-to-France cable, groups throughout the US state and commerce departments and the Workplace of the US Commerce Consultant as soon as once more coordinated with the White Home to make use of diplomatic strain as well the Chinese language agency from a mission. This time it was a cable connecting the three Pacific island nations of Nauru, the Federated States of Micronesia and Kiribati, in response to two sources concerned in that deal.

The USA, Australia and Japan introduced in December 2021 that they might collectively fund a cable on the identical route, generally known as the East Micronesia Cable. In a joint assertion this month, the three stated that they had met on Mar eight to assist “push ahead” on this cable, with out giving a time-frame.

The US-China backroom brawling over undersea cables is threatening to overwhelm the subsea cable trade, which has at all times relied on cautious diplomatic collaboration to outlive, stated Paul McCann, a Sydney-based subsea cable advisor.

“I’ve by no means seen such geopolitical affect over subsea cables within the 40-odd years I’ve been concerned within the enterprise,” McCann advised Reuters. “It is unprecedented.”


On the coronary heart of Washington’s newly aggressive technique is Crew Telecom. That’s the casual identify for an interagency committee arrange via an Government Order signed by Trump in April 2020. The mission: safeguarding US telecommunication networks from spies and cyberattacks.

Crew Telecom is run by the Nationwide Safety Division of the Division of Justice (DOJ). That division is headed by Assistant Legal professional Basic Matthew Olsen. Nominated to that place by Biden in Could 2021, Olsen has labored in a string of intel posts. He served as director of the Nationwide Counterterrorism Heart underneath former President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014, and earlier than that as normal counsel for the Nationwide Safety Company, the US spy nerve middle.

The DOJ declined to make Olsen obtainable for an interview.

Whereas the State Division and its companions have helped to stop China from acquiring new subsea contracts in overseas locations of US strategic curiosity, Crew Telecom has centered on a purely home concern: stopping any cable from straight connecting US territory with mainland China or Hong Kong attributable to worries about Chinese language espionage.

To that finish, the workforce makes cable licensing suggestions to the US telecom regulator, the Federal Communications Fee (FCC). Since 2020, the workforce has been instrumental within the cancellation of 4 cables whose backers had needed to hyperlink america with Hong Kong, Devin DeBacker, a DOJ official and senior member of Crew Telecom, advised Reuters in an interview.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that transitioned to self-rule and is dubbed a “particular administrative area” by China, has lengthy been the funding gateway to the communist mainland due to its well-developed monetary sector, open economic system and highly-educated workforce.

Nonetheless, in 2019, Beijing launched a safety crackdown and elevated surveillance in Hong Kong, prompting mass demonstrations. As China tightened its grip, Washington grew to become involved that Chinese language spy businesses would intercept knowledge on the deliberate undersea cables if that gear finally got here ashore in Hong Kong, stated DeBacker, the chief of the Overseas Funding Overview Part of the DOJ’s Nationwide Safety Division.

“That gives a bodily entry level in what’s successfully Chinese language territory,” DeBacker stated. “Due to the best way that China has eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy, that enabled the Chinese language authorities to have a direct, all-access path, successfully a group platform on US individuals’ knowledge and communications.”

Washington’s determination to nix any Hong Kong terminus for the 4 deliberate subsea cable offers upended the plans of Google, Meta and Amazon. These tech titans have been among the many greatest traders in new cables over the past decade as they search to hyperlink up a community of knowledge facilities in america and Asia that underpin their fast-growing Cloud computing companies, in response to TeleGeography.

The primary, a mission owned by Google and Meta generally known as the Pacific Gentle Cable Community, will now solely transmit knowledge from america to Taiwan and the Philippines, after Crew Telecom advisable that the FCC reject the Hong Kong leg. The part of the cable going to Hong Kong, spanning tons of of miles, is presently mendacity deserted on the ocean flooring, two folks concerned within the deal stated.

In an unsuccessful attraction to the FCC, Google and Meta stated Crew Telecom’s argument that China may intercept knowledge on the cable was “unsupported and speculative,” and that its determination was “a referendum on China, moderately than the assertion of any actual particular concern,” in response to an Aug 20, 2020, submission by the businesses that’s obtainable on the FCC web site.

Equally, the Bay to Bay Categorical Cable System, developed by Amazon, Meta and China Cellular, won’t run as deliberate from Singapore to Hong Kong to California. As a part of a deal struck between Amazon, Meta and Crew Telecom, China Cellular left the consortium and the cable was rebranded as CAP-1, with a brand new route from Grover Seashore, California, to the Philippines, three folks concerned stated. The cable had already been nearly completely laid alongside the unique route, and the part to Hong Kong now sits unused within the depths, the folks stated.

Google, Meta and Amazon declined to remark. China Cellular didn’t reply to requests for remark.

There may be proof the US marketing campaign has slowed China’s subsea cable juggernaut.

HMN Tech provided 18 per cent of the subsea cables to have come on-line within the final 4 years, however the Chinese language agency is simply attributable to construct 7 per cent of cables presently underneath improvement worldwide, in response to TeleGeography. These figures are primarily based on the entire size of cable laid, not the variety of tasks.

In a tit-for-tat maneuver, China has thrown up a roadblock on a cable wherein Meta is an investor, in response to two cable consultants with direct data of the mission.

That cable, generally known as the Southeast Asia-Japan 2 cable, was deliberate to run from Singapore via Southeast Asia and contact down in Hong Kong and mainland China earlier than happening to South Korea and Japan. China has delayed giving a license for the cable to go via the South China Sea, citing issues in regards to the potential for the cable producer – Japan’s NEC – to insert spy gear on the road, the consultants stated.

In response to Reuters’ questions, an NEC spokesperson stated it doesn’t touch upon particular person tasks, however stated that it doesn’t insert surveillance gear into its cables.

Meta and China’s overseas ministry didn’t reply to requests for remark.

Lately, the US authorities has blocked American companies from utilizing telecom gear from Chinese language companies that Washington has deemed to be nationwide safety threats, and it has banned a number of Chinese language state-owned telecom corporations from working in US territory.

Amongst them is China Telecom, which had beforehand gained authorisation to offer companies in america. The FCC revoked that authorisation in 2021, saying China Telecom’s America’s unit “is topic to exploitation, affect and management by the Chinese language authorities.” The company cited examples of the corporate utilizing its entry to US networks to misroute worldwide visitors again to Chinese language servers.

China Telecom didn’t persuade a US courtroom to reverse that call.

The Chinese language Embassy in Washington final yr stated the FCC has “abused state energy and maliciously attacked Chinese language telecom operators” with none factual foundation.

Crew Telecom’s DeBacker stated China makes use of related techniques on undersea cables, declining to offer particular examples.

“The danger is actual,” DeBacker stated. “It has materialised previously, and what we’re making an attempt to do is stop it from materialising sooner or later.”

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