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South China sea cable project blocked

The progress of internet in Asian countries is being seriously delayed due
to Beijing’s policy of holding approvals to Japanese, Singaporean and US
telecommunication and tech companies to implement sea cable projects
which are owned and being implemented by them. As part of its aggressive
South China Sea (SCS), posturing China is delaying approval to permits to
even work outside its recognized territorial waters.

A recent report of Nikkei Asia has pointed out companies like Japan’s
Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, Singapore Telecommunications, and the
US tech giants Meta and Google are not able to implement their subsea
cable project due to China’s deliberate delay in approvals. The report said
the delay and pushed back deadlines are increasing the project costs.
The South China Sea is a popular subsea cable route as it is the shortest
path connecting East Asia with the south and west of the continent as well
as onwards to Africa. These cables could be used for various purposes
from emails and banking transactions to military secrets. The lengthy
permits issues and inordinate delay by the Chinese authorities citing
“national security” is causing cable project owners to find alternative routes.
According to Nikkei Asia, one such cable under construction, Southeast
Asia-Japan 2 (SJC2) by SingTel, has been delayed by more than a year
because of Chinese objections. The cable would connect Japan to
Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

The delay has prompted the companies to explore newer routes. Apricot
will be the first Intra-Asia submarine cable that would not pass through the
crowded part of SCS. It will link Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Guam,
Indonesia and the Philippines. However, such a shift in the route would be
costlier. A consortium of investors including Meta would, nevertheless, go
for this route due to China’s obstruction by delaying approvals. The laying
of cable along the new route is more expensive because of the shallower
waters near Borneo, the largest island in Asia divided politically among
three countries – Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

China’s policy of delaying permits to subsea cable projects is a major
impediment in developing internet in Asia which is now being considered as
the engine of global growth for this century. Roughly 60 percent of the
international sub-marine cable systems in Asia-Pacific land in Japan,
Singapore or Hong Kong. This has created two bottlenecks in the links to
Southeast Asia and North America, viz., the Luzon Straight between the
Philippines and Taiwan, and SCS. The SCS is among the busiest
waterways in the world, and almost all the Intra-Asia Pacific submarine
cables pass through it.

China is aiming to control the information channels of Asia. The delay in
approvals for permits to the companies implementing subsea cable is part
of the Chinese strategy. China has undercut Hong Kong’s legal autonomy
through its national security law and also trying to asset its one country two
systems in Taiwan so as to have a greater control over the region and also
to keep international internet traffic under the watch of Chinese state
security and intelligence services. Beijing has the capability to hold these
information waterways hostage in case of conflagration. Nikkei report has
highlighted the need to adapt to the geo-political challenges of the SCS.
Keeping in view these challenges, the two cable builders Echo and Bifrost
have decided to make the first transpacific cables avoiding SCS and
instead pass through the Java Sea.

China while aspiring to be a global power is causing a harm to Asian
countries’ rise, especially the Southeast Asia, where digital economy is
growing rapidly and is likely to reach USD 1 trillion by 2030. Southeast Asia
has an estimated 440 million internet users and e-commerce and food
delivery sectors are powering the growth of the region. Keeping this in
view, twelve new cable systems are slated to begin service in Southeast
Asia, Australia and East Asia in the next few years despite China’s delay

According to industry sources, says Nikkei report, Chinese authorities have
made obtaining permits within 12 nautical miles cumbersome. It has
apprehensions that the companies involved in laying undersea cables

could use cables as a front for espionage in the region. There is no real
substance in such allegations. About 95 percent of all intercontinental
internet traffic – data, video calls, instant messages and emails – is
transmitted via more than 400 active submarine cables in the world that
extend for 1.4 million km, according to TeleGeography, a Washington-
based telecommunications research firm. Also, if there are chances of
leakage of data, a mechanism could be developed by consensus, a word in
which China has no belief.

Requiring permits for cable work gives China lot of influence over the
information pathways carrying data in Asia. However, China needs to
understand that global powers are not made by zero-sum games, but
positive engagements with all the stakeholders for win-win solutions. The
US Company Meta is collaborating to invest in eight new cables, stipulated
to be ready by 2025, two of which namely Echo and Bifrost connecting
Jakarta with the US directly and one of them, APAC-NA 3 cables to avoid
the Luzon Strait. China should learn from US that only collaboration could
make a global power in the new world order and not obstruction.