Exercises in the South China Sea conceal a secret war to control the Internet

With the United States and the Philippines holding the largest military exercises ever in the South China Sea, followed by China and Singapore planning their own exercises, tensions are heating up as the Philippines has reported a “clash” between two of the its ships and the Chinese navy.

As one of the world’s most important shipping lanes for oil, minerals and food, whoever dominates the South China Sea will control over a fifth of global trade. But the biggest economic asset at stake in the region is Big Data and the future of the entire Internet depends on who will win the battle to dominate this strategic waterway.

More than 486 undersea cables carry more than 99 percent of all international Internet traffic globally, according to Washington-based research firm TeleGeography. Most of them are controlled by a handful of American tech giants, namely Alphabet, owner of Google, Meta, owner of Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft.

Southeast Asia’s internet economy is projected to reach a value of $1 trillion by 2030. Whoever controls Asia-Pacific’s undersea cabling infrastructure will not only dominate this booming economy, they will control the ‘Global Internet. Internet data streams, carrying everything from email and banking transactions to military secrets, are more valuable than oil. Thus, the world’s undersea cable infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable not only to sabotage, but also to espionage: spy agencies can easily tap cables on their own territory.

That’s why the geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China has increasingly focused on control of the world’s undersea cable networks.

The New Great Game

China, which claims nearly the entire South China Sea, is planning a $500 million undersea Internet cable network to create a super-fast connection linking Asia with the Middle East and Europe. It is also hampering US-backed Internet cable projects across the South China Sea, delaying license approvals and creating tougher operating restrictions.

Meanwhile, the US government has stymied several Chinese submarine cable projects over concerns about Beijing’s surveillance capabilities. At least six private undersea cable deals led by Google, Facebook and Amazon linking the US with Hong Kong have been blocked by Washington to hold off HMN Tech, a subsidiary of Chinese-sanctioned company Huawei. HMN Tech has been praised by the Chinese government as a model of “civil-military integration” and acknowledges that its activities “provide powerful support for our country’s national defense modernization.”

To circumvent Chinese control, American tech giants Facebook and Google are building Apricot, the first intra-Asia undersea cable that bypasses Hong Kong. The 12,000-kilometer cable will connect Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Singapore, but excludes Malaysia, which has quickly become the hub of US and Chinese competition to dominate the global internet.

Malaysia’s involvement in Apricot was scuppered due to a 2020 cabotage ban on foreign vessels in East Malaysia’s Sabah Autonomous Region to protect the local shipping industry from foreign competition.

In response, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon wrote to the Malaysian government complaining that the ban would hamper the new cable venture and requesting an urgent meeting with the prime minister. The request has been ignored. As a result, Malaysia has been barred not only from the Apricot route but also from the Echo and Bifrost cable routes across the South China Sea, which are also backed by Facebook and Google.

Local frustration with Malaysia’s cabotage ban has revived calls in Sabah for greater autonomy from the federal government. This coincides with an international legal case on behalf of the heirs of a colonial-era sultanate in the remote Philippines’ Sulu archipelago. The sultanate allegedly leased the Sabah region to British settlers in 1878 in exchange for an annual payment, which the signatories used to justify the undermining of Malay sovereignty in Sabah by claiming a percentage of the oil and gas profits.

The lawyers representing the Sulu heirs have what might be seen by some as close ties to the same US tech giants that vie to dominate undersea Internet cables in the South China Sea. Paul Cohen, a former speechwriter on the Clinton/Gore presidential campaign, is currently chairman of the Silicon Valley Center for Arbitration and Mediation, where he works in “dialogue” with these US tech companies. Cohen’s colleague Elisabeth Mason is a board member of the US charity All Star Code along with three senior Google executives and founded the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab with support from both the Obama White House and the founder by Facebook Mark Zuckerberg.

The future of the global internet

Even the appearance of close ties between Sulu heir lawyers and US tech giants who have bypassed Malaysia to ply US-backed undersea Internet cable routes will exacerbate Malaysian perceptions of Western hostility towards its national interests. .

Indeed, Malaysia’s exclusion from US-backed submarine cable projects has already accelerated the country’s alliance with China. In 2022, Malaysia joined the China-backed 5,000-kilometer Southeast Asia Hainan Hong Kong Express (SEA-H2X) express cable system connecting Hong Kong, China, the Philippines and Thailand to East Malaysia and Singapore.

The future of the global internet is at stake. If Malaysia were to fall under Chinese rule, this would have serious repercussions for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), potentially triggering a domino effect.

However, the US has a new opportunity for rapprochement under the new Malaysian government led by longtime pro-democracy activist Anwar Ibrahim. As the latter’s first global trip to China secured $38 billion in investment, the United States should act swiftly to ensure Malaysia recognizes the benefits of digital cooperation with the West.

Maurizio Geri, Ph.D. (Twitter: @MauriGeri) is a former NATO senior analyst who worked at NATO Allied Command Transformation in the US, NATO Southern Hub in Italy and NATO Headquarters in Belgium, which in previously worked as an analyst in the Italian Defense Staff. He was awarded the Marie Curie Global Fellowship for research on EU-NATO cooperation against Russian hybrid warfare in the context of the energy-resources-climate security nexus. He is also an associate member of the South Asia Democratic Forum, the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives and the International Team for the Study of Security. He is the author of “Ethnic Minorities in the Democratization of Muslim Countries: Turkey and Indonesia” Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

Copyright 2023 Nextstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, transmitted, rewritten or redistributed.

#Exercises #South #China #Sea #conceal #secret #war #control #Internet

Leave a Comment