Mon, Apr 15, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Beijing’s next naval target is the Internet’s undersea cables

By James Stavridis  /  Bloomberg Opinion

As the West considers the threat posed by China’s naval ambitions, there is a natural tendency to place overarching attention on the South China Sea. This is understandable: Consolidating it would provide Beijing with a huge windfall of oil and natural gas, and a potential chokehold over up to 40 percent of the world’s shipping.

However, this is only the most obvious manifestation of Chinese maritime strategy.

Another key element, one that is far harder to discern, is Beijing’s increasing influence in constructing and repairing the undersea cables that move virtually all the information on the Internet.

To understand the totality of China’s “Great Game” at sea, you have to look down to the ocean floor.

While people tend think of satellites and cell towers as the heart of the Internet, the most vital component is the 380 submerged cables that carry more than 95 percent of all data and voice traffic between the continents.

They were built largely by the US and its allies, ensuring that (from a Western perspective, at least) they were “cleanly” installed without built-in espionage capability available to our opponents.

US Internet giants, including Google, Facebook and Amazon, are leasing or buying vast stretches of cables from the mostly private consortia of telecom operators that constructed them.

However, now the Chinese conglomerate Huawei Technologies, the leading firm working to deliver 5G telephony networks globally, has gone to sea.

Under its Huawei Marine Networks component, it is constructing or improving nearly 100 submarine cables around the world.

Last year it completed a cable stretching nearly 6,437.4km from Brazil to Cameroon. (The cable is partly owned by China Unicom, a state-controlled telecom operator.)

Rivals claim that Chinese firms are able to lowball the bidding because they receive subsidies from Beijing.

Just as the experts are justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage “back doors” in Huawei’s 5G technology, Western intelligence professionals oppose the company’s engagement in the undersea version, which provides a much bigger bang for the buck because so much data rides on so few cables.

Naturally, Huawei denies any manipulation of the cable sets it is constructing, even though the US and other nations say it is obligated by Chinese law to hand over network data to the government.

The US last year restricted federal agencies using from using its 5G equipment; Huawei responded with a lawsuit in federal court.

Washington is pressuring its allies to follow its lead — the US ambassador to Germany warned that allowing Chinese companies into its 5G project would mean reduced security cooperation from the US — but this is an uphill battle. Most nations and companies feel that better cellphone service is worth the security risks.

A similar dynamic is playing out underwater. How can the US address the security of undersea cables?

There is no way to stop Huawei from building them, or to keep private owners from contracting with Chinese firms on modernizing them, based purely on suspicions.

Rather, the US must use its cyber and intelligence-gathering capability to gather hard evidence of back doors and other security risks. This will be challenging — the Chinese firms are technologically sophisticated and entwined with a virtual police state.

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