China exercises control over Internet cable projects in the South China Sea

China has begun blocking plans to lay and maintain undersea Internet cables across the South China Sea, as Beijing seeks to exert greater control over the infrastructure that transmits the world’s data.

Lengthy approval delays and stricter Chinese requirements, including permits for work performed outside its internationally recognized territorial waters, have prompted companies to design routes that avoid the South China Sea, according to several industry sources.

An under-construction cable called SJC2, which will connect Japan to Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, has been delayed for more than a year due to Chinese objections and lengthy licensing issues, according to two industry executives.

China has suspended its seabed exploration approval for cable owned by a consortium including China Mobile, Chunghwa Telecom and Meta in its territorial waters around Hong Kong for several months. Authorities have expressed fears that the contractor may be conducting espionage or installing foreign equipment, according to a person directly involved in the project who requested anonymity.

China is attempting to exert greater control over submarine activity in its region, in part to prevent the installation of US surveillance systems as part of the deployment of submarine cables, said Bryan Clark, a former US submarine officer and senior Navy official. .

The Chinese government also wants to know exactly where civilian submarine infrastructure is installed for its own mapping purposes, added Clark, who is now at the Hudson Institute think tank.

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Tensions over who owns, builds and operates the fiber cables that send internet traffic around the world have risen sharply since 2020, when the US government began blocking Chinese involvement in international consortia projects. Washington has also denied permission for undersea cables linking the United States to mainland China and Hong Kong.

Several industry sources said China’s control of its waters, including sea areas marked on maps by a controversial nine-dash line, is a response to Beijing’s exclusion from international projects and fears that companies could use the wires as a cover for espionage.

Under international law, states or companies that lay and maintain Internet cables require government permits for access to the seabed within 12 nautical miles of a country’s territory. But permission is generally not required in waters between 12 nautical miles and 200 nautical miles from the mainland, known as the state’s exclusive economic zone.

Chinese authorities have made the process of obtaining permits within the 12-mile stretch lengthy and onerous, according to three industry executives with direct knowledge of the situation.

China is also among a few Asian countries that have begun applying for permits to lay cables in claimed territorial waters beyond 12 miles, in apparent violation of international maritime law, according to executives of two major submarine cable companies in Europe. and two lawyers who work with companies in the region.

Workers in Japan pull an underwater fiber optic cable off a ship in Minamib
Workers in Japan pull an undersea cable used for intercontinental internet traffic from a ship in Minamibs Kyodo News Stills/Getty Images

Beijing claims the South China Sea in its entirety and often cuts off rival claimants’ use for oil exploration and fishing.

The edict of [Chinese Communist party]handed down by local government representatives is that you need a permit in their EEZ, a submarine cable executive said. The last thing you want is to get close to China waters and a gunboat comes out and stops you. It’s really dark out there [and] the cost of not doing it means people fold and apply [for permits].

Applying for cable work permits gives China oversight and influence over the entities that control the metal-clad fiber lines that carry data across Asia. It also gives Beijing the leverage to demand a seat at the table on infrastructure projects by demanding that its companies, ships or personnel get involved.

The South China Sea is a popular undersea cable route, offering the most efficient route to connect East Asia with the south and west of the continent as well as Africa.

Approximately 95% of all transcontinental Internet traffic data, video calls, instant messages and emails are transmitted via more than 400 active submarine cables that stretch 1.4 million km.

Clark said China’s requirements were inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, noting that its permitting requirements extended far beyond its EEZ to encompass nearly all of the South China Sea. Much of this area is actually the EEZ of China’s neighbors, he added.

China’s natural resources ministry and defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

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Several sources said that to avoid a permit standoff, undersea cable consortia were now looking to create new routes that bypassed waters claimed by China.

Two cables under construction, dubbed Apricot and Echo, will carry data from Singapore to Japan and the United States respectively, bypassing the South China Sea and looping around Indonesia.

No one dares to operate without explicit authorization… which never comes, said a European submarine cable executive. Other contract projects would avoid the area because of these problems, he added.

The cost of contracting boats for cable laying and maintenance can be around $100,000 a day, making companies reluctant to risk any action that could be blocked or sabotaged.

Avoiding China-claimed waters was a double penalty, the executive said, because it is more expensive to lay the cable along the new route as the shallower waters near Borneo require additional layers of armor around the fiber.

It means construction takes longer and costs more, said a Singapore-based executive for a global technology company. It is the decoupling of the digital infrastructure.

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