A secret war is being fought in the Asia-Pacific. But rather than bullets and bombs, the weapons are digital, and the goal is to control the world’s flows of Big Data.
Over 486 undersea cables carry over 99% of all international internet traffic globally, according to the Washington-based research firm TeleGeography. The bulk of them are controlled by just a handful American technology giants, namely Alphabet, Google’s parent company; Meta – the owner of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp; Amazon; and Microsoft.
Transmitting everything from emails and banking transactions to military secrets, these data flows are even more valuable than oil. With information at the centre of technological innovation, controlling data is recognized as the key to driving economic productivity. As such, the world’s subsea cabling infrastructure is increasingly vulnerable not only to sabotage, but also to espionage – spy agencies can easily tap into cables on their own territory.
That’s why over the last decade, geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China has increasingly focused on control of the world’s subsea cabling networks.
The New Great Game
Despite the U.S.’ first mover advantage, China has made serious headway in dominating subsea internet cables in Africa and is now rapidly attempting to challenge U.S. dominance over internet infrastructure in Asia.
Earlier in April, it emerged that China was planning a $500 million undersea internet cable network linking up Asia with the Middle East and Europe, creating a superfast connection between Hong Kong, China and much of the rest of the world. Washington sees the plan as a major move to underpin China’s future military and economic supremacy. China has also begun to impede projects to lay and maintain subsea internet cables through the South China Sea which could be linked to U.S. interests, by delaying licensing approvals and creating stricter operating restrictions.
In March, Reuters revealed that the U.S. government had thwarted several previous Chinese subsea cabling projects over concerns about Beijing’s surveillance capabilities. A number of projects led by Google, Meta and Amazon that would have connected the U.S. with Hong Kong were also blocked by Washington. At least six private undersea cable deals were blocked by the U.S. government in an effort to keep HMN Tech, a subsidiary of the sanctioned Chinese firm Huawei, out of the undersea cable business in the Asia-Pacific region or to avoid directly linking U.S. and Chinese territories.
U.S. fears that the Chinese cabling advance is a trojan horse for military and economic expansion are not without basis. HMN Tech has won praise from the Chinese government for being a model of “civil-military integration,” and a press release available only on the Chinese-language version of its website notes the company will “offer powerful support for the modernization of our country’s national defense” and “advance into the international market.”
Geopolitical competition to control subsea cabling networks is increasingly impacting conventional security issues. After subsea cables between Taiwan and the Matsu Islands (controlled by Taiwan but located just off the coast of China) were severed in March, several experts speculated that rather than accidental, they may have been the result of targeted harassment of Taiwan by China. In the event of any military confrontation between China and Taiwan, China could move rapidly to cut internet cabling to degrade Taiwanese communications infrastructure.
The Great Divide
The U.S. strategy has therefore attempted to develop subsea cabling routes that bypass Chinese control.
In 2021, American tech giants Facebook and Google announced Apricot, the first intra-Asian subsea cable that avoids Hong Kong and does not traverse the crowded part of the South China Sea. Slated for launch in 2024, Apricot is part of a new infrastructure of U.S.-backed subsea cabling in the Asia-Pacific designed to bypass Chinese influence.
The 12,000km long submarine cable connects Japan, Taiwan, Guam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore – conspicuously missing from this list is Malaysia, which was originally supposed to be included in the Apricot project. However, a 2020 ban on foreign vessels operating in the eastern Borneo region of Malaysia encompassing the autonomous state of Sabah where the subsea cabling infrastructure was to be installed effectively scuppered Malaysia’s inclusion in the U.S.-backed plan.
That year, the Malaysian federal government decided to revoke exemptions on decades-old ‘cabotage’ restrictions introduced to protect local shipping industry from foreign competition.
In response, U.S. tech giants Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon wrote to the Malaysian government complaining that the ban on foreign vessels in Sabah would increase delays to subsea cabling repairs, which in turn would undermine internet stability, quality and speed. The tech firms also attempted to meet urgently with the incumbent Prime Minister to convince him to change course on the policy.
However, the government refused to do so. The result is that the tech companies decided to bypass Malaysia. The Sabah ‘cabotage’ issue had meant not only that Malaysia would be excluded from the Apricot cable route, but also from the other U.S.-backed projects – Echo and Bifrost – under the purview of Facebook and Google.
The Sabah question
As one Malaysian defence expert observed, the self-defeating nature of the government’s ‘cabotage’ policy in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak has revived demands for greater autonomy from the federal government.
There can be little doubt then that as long as Malaysia refuses to budge on exemptions for foreign vessels operating in Sabah and continues to move in a pro-China direction on digital infrastructure, major American tech firms may well have an underlying interest in undermining federal control over Sabah.
This raises legitimate questions about the interests behind a major international court case which purports precisely to do this. Last February, nine individuals claiming to be heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, a remote island region of the Philippines, won a $15 billion award against the Malaysian government. Their claim is based on an 1878 treaty between the colonial-era Sultanate and the British North Borneo Company, which the heirs say means they retain a claim over the territories of Sabah.
The award has already resulted in the seizure of Malaysian oil and gas assets in Luxembourg, and French bailiffs attempting to enforce a seizure order to confiscate Malaysian government-owned properties.
The Sulu legal case is being financed by Western investors organized through the London-based litigation financing firm Therium. While these investors cannot be identified, the two lawyers at 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square Chambers representing the alleged Sulu heirs have deep ties to Silicon Valley. Paul Cohen, who was previously a speechwriter on the Clinton/Gore Presidential Campaign, currently serves as President of the Silicon Valley Arbitration and Mediation Center based in Palo Alto, California. He is also head of SVAMC’s Task Force on Tech Disputes, Tech Companies & International Arbitration which works in “dialogue” with major U.S. tech giants to explore how they can benefit from arbitration.
Co-counsel in the case for Sulu heirs, Elisabeth Mason, also has close ties to U.S. tech firms. In 2016, she launched the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab at Stanford University with financial and moral support from the Obama White House, as well as from Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and Meta. The launch event was hosted at the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. Funding for the Stanford Poverty and Technology Lab came specifically from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the main philanthropic initiative run by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife. Elisabeth Mason also has other direct ties to Silicon Valley executives through her board position on a major U.S. charity called All Star Code, whose board includes three senior Google executives.
The close proximity of Cohen and Mason to U.S. tech giants raises the question of whether the lawsuit representing the Sulu heirs is linked to interests with a much larger stake in the geopolitical rivalry unfolding in the Asia-Pacific over control of the region’s data networks. Whether or not this is the case, the Sulu lawsuit is already at risk of inflaming regional separatist tensions in the southern Philippines, where a mix of insurgents and militants believe that Sabah belongs to the Philippines rather than Malaysia. As such, by challenging Malaysia’s sovereignty in Sabah, the Sulu case happens to align with interests in Silicon Valley which want to consolidate the region into U.S.-backed subsea cable routes.
Malaysia and the future of the global internet
Unfortunately, Malaysia’s exclusion from the U.S.-backed subsea cabling projects has accelerated the country’s alliance with China. Malaysia has been involved in previous China-based subsea cabling projects in the Asia-Pacific, such as one announced in 2015 connecting Malaysia with Cambodia and Thailand. By 2022, Malaysia was part of a newly announced Chinese project, the South East Asia Hainan Hong Kong Express Cable System (SEA-H2X), a 5,000 km internet cable system linking Hong Kong, China, the Philippines, and Thailand to eastern Malaysia (Sarawak) and Singapore. The system would be potentially expandable to West Malaysia as well as Indonesia, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
A business-as-usual approach by America’s tech giants is likely, therefore, to backfire considerably – indirectly incentivizing Malaysia to move closer into the orbit of China. And the Sulu case will only exacerbate Malaysian perceptions of a Western system that is hostile to its national interests. With a new government in place under the premiership of longtime progressive dissident and democracy activist Anwar Ibrahim, the U.S. has a new opportunity for rapprochement with Malaysia. This would also be an opportune time for Meta, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon to reach out to Malaysia’s new political establishment where it may well find a more receptive response than in previous years.
Time is of the essence, though. Prime Minister Ibrahim’s first global trip was to China in March where he met with his counterpart President Xi Jinping. The meeting resulted in a modest but not insignificant $38 billion in Chinese investment pledges.
If the U.S. and Europe do not adopt a more conciliatory approach, they may find that one of the most influential powers in the 12-strong ASEAN economic bloc falls under China’s dominance. That in turn would have major repercussions across ASEAN, potentially inspiring other regional players to follow suit in a domino effect resulting in greater Chinese control over the world’s digital infrastructure. To avoid this outcome, the allies should act early – but that means a much more active role in the region to ensure that partners like Malaysia stay the course.
Maurizio Geri. Ph.D., is a former senior NATO analyst who has worked at the NATO Allied Command Transformation in the U.S., NATO Southern Hub in Italy, and NATO HQ in Belgium, who previously served as an analyst in the Italian Defence General Staff. He is a recipient of 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 fellow at South Asia Democratic Forum, at the Center for Media and Peace Initiatives and at the International Team for the Study of Security. He is the author of Ethnic Minorities in Democratizing Muslim Countries: Turkey and Indonesia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).
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