As the world aspires to go digital, integrating economies and transcending boundaries, world’s second largest economy China cannot remain aloof. But China’s actions in cyberspace show how China intends to take a different route to the very process of digitalization. China’s intentions of setting international norms w.r.t. digitalization and cybersecurity are exemplified in how it perceives and reacts to the changes in the cyberspace. Its notion of “digital sovereignty” in cyberspace is setting parallel standards of Global Digital Governance, that are based on closed and un-interactive cyberspace.
Subsea cables embedded underwater, carrying data on the basis of which the cyberspace operates, generally seem to be unaffected by such actions. But three specific traits descriptive of China’s actions in the cyber domain find continuance in the subsea cables ecosystem as well.
China knows that cost-effectiveness is prioritized over quality especially by the developing and underdeveloped countries. China’s strategy of the Digital Silk Road (DSR) introduced by Xi Jinping in 2015 aspires to help the participant countries in developing and enhancing their digital infrastructures. To build this digital ecosystem, Chinese companies like ZTE, Dahua, Huawei etc. are preferred in the countries of West Asia and North Africa because of their low-cost offers fueling the materialization of DSR. Similarly, the Chinese subsea cables company Huawei Marine Networks Co. (HMN Tech) also offers cables manufacturing, laying, maintaining and repairing services at lower costs. Despite its birth in 2008, HMN Tech already has one-fourth of global cable maintaining and repairing contracts and has become the fastest layer of the subsea cables. Though China lost the tender bidding process of the Sea-Me-We 6 cable due to the US backchannel diplomacy, its final offer for the bid was one-third of its original offer.
Moreover, playing on the basis of its prices, China caters to the needs of the Global South, which has a stronger possibility of becoming a party to China’s way of setting digital standards. Almost all the subsea cables projects of HMN Tech, except the ones in its immediate neighborhood are present in the Global South.
China ensures minimal integration with the global digital network to maintain its digital sovereignty. China’s “Great Firewall” is a product of various technologies and Government policies that prohibits vast amount of data from entering into the Chinese digital space. Though China aspires to retain maximum information flowing from other countries into its territory, it does not want to integrate itself and give away its own information to the global digital network, under the garb of ensuring data security and data privacy. There are very strict regulations on what kind of data flows out of its digital space. It continues same behavior in the subsea cables ecosystem as well. While the largest economy of the world- the US has around 85 subsea cables landing on its shores, the second largest economy- China only has around 19 such subsea cables. Less subsea cables mean lesser exchange and slower dissemination of data. While China’s company HMN Tech is working on approximately 134 subsea cables projects around the world, China in its own territory currently has plans for laying merely 4 subsea cables in the near future, offering lesser integration with the international network of the subsea cables. This is an extension of its emphasis on digital sovereignty.
Chinese private companies, especially the ones which contain information that is crucial for maintaining China’s stability and security, are strongly controlled by the Government in the backend. There have always been speculations of telecom manufacturing company Huawei’s association with the Communist Party leading to anxious pullouts of several countries from Huawei’s 5G trials owing to the fear of surveillance and espionage via its equipment. This strong government control continues in the subsea cables ecosystem as well. When HMN Tech lost the tender bidding process of the SeaMeWe-6 cable, two Chinese telecom giants China Mobile and China Telecom pulled out of the deal as a mark of opposition. Similarly, the Government also offered heavy subsidies to HMN Tech for taking up a $500 mn project that would link Asia, Middle East and Europe and act as a rival to the SeaMeWe-6 project.
The concern that China would conduct espionage by tapping into the subsea cables is over-exaggerated according to some. But, careful scrutiny of these continuities from cyberspace into the subsea cables hint towards a future possibility of the same in the subsea cables ecosystem as well. Huawei’s surveillance equipment allegedly spied on governmental institutions of other countries. There are reports hinting towards the occurrence of similar surveillance incidents worldwide.
Although deliberate cable-cutting incidents tampering with the global digital data flows have not yet become the norm, increasing global digitalization needs and resulting emphasis on the subsea cables architecture has resulted into opening up of a new front in the US-China tech war. Recently, China allegedly sabotaged Matsu island’s subsea cables, putting information blockade over Taiwan’s outer island for about six weeks. If information flowing through these subsea cables can be stopped, it can be extracted as well. The lethal combination of stoppage and extraction of information can create a huge shift in power dynamics as data becomes one of the sharpest dual-edged sword. It becomes important to understand these reflections in order to predict China’s behavior in the subsea cables ecosystem, whose importance will increase manifold in the near future.