how the US is pushing China out of the internet’s plumbing

In 2018, Amazon, Meta and China Mobile agreed to work together on a cable connecting California to Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. But a spate of manoeuvres in Washington to block Chinese participation in US cables led to China Mobile pulling out of the consortium.

Meta and Amazon filed a new application for the system in 2021, this time with no Chinese investment, no connection to Hong Kong, and a new name: Cap-1.

Then, last year, the application for Cap-1 was withdrawn altogether, even though most of the 12,000km cable had already been built. China’s original involvement remained a security concern for the US government, according to two people briefed on the discussions.

“There are hundreds of millions of dollars sunk in the Pacific,” said a person involved in the aborted project. Meta and China Mobile did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon declined to comment.

Over the last five years, as tensions between the two countries have mounted and fears have grown in Washington about the risks of espionage, the US government has sought to pull apart an interwoven network of internet cables that had developed through international collaboration over decades.

The US has succeeded in preventing Beijing from becoming a major player in the global submarine cable market. Chinese supplier HMN Tech has provided or is set to provide the equipment to only 10 per cent of all existing and planned global cables, where the supplier is known, FT analysis of data supplied by the consultancy TeleGeography shows. Meanwhile, French cable maker ASN has supplied 41 per cent and American company SubCom has supplied 21 per cent. Neither ASN nor SubCom responded to requests for comment.

And interviews with more than 20 industry executives suggest Washington’s campaign has resulted in a de facto ban on using a Chinese supplier across swathes of the industry, even in projects where there is no US involvement. Some are worried this could fracture the global internet as Chinese companies start building their own cable networks elsewhere.

“One of the big risks right now is heading in the direction of bifurcated networks. Does this create a system where you don’t have connectivity, with a quasi-cold war, eastern bloc versus the west?” says April Herlevi, an expert in China’s foreign economic policy at the Center for Naval Analyses. “I don’t think we’re there yet . . . but I do worry that’s the direction we’re headed in.”

Several countries, including China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia, have been overt about their ambitions to create a more centralised internet infrastructure over which their governments would have greater control. They have also shown themselves willing and able to turn off access to certain sites, or even the whole internet, during times of political turbulence.

But US efforts to exclude Chinese companies from the world’s internet backbone are mired in difficulties. Even as the US administration wages its fibreoptic war against Beijing, vessels owned and manned by China are still undertaking complex repair work on US-owned fibre lines, people with direct knowledge of such operations have told the Financial Times.

Meanwhile, new analysis shows more data is flowing between the US and China than at any other point in history, even if the route between the two is often less direct than before. Several people in the industry point out that data can still be intercepted even if the infrastructure carrying it is not built by Chinese companies.