Digital Sovereignty · Submarine cables, as important an issue as 5G

Cyrille Dalmont, Research Fellow at the Thomas More Institute

October 2, 2020 • Opinion •

The debate on digital sovereignty in relation to 5G has been raging for some time in France, particularly because of the risks to our sovereignty and internal security posed by the possible participation of the company Huawei in the deployment of base stations. This debate, with varying modalities and intensity, is or has been taking place in most Western countries. 5G and its implications (like the health crisis, by the way) inevitably brings us back to the fundamentals of politics: who is in charge? Who says « we want »?

But another war of the worlds is raging at the same time at low noise: the war of the internet cables. The reality is simple: for international communications, more than 99% of Internet traffic passes through submarine cables. In 2020, there will be nearly 380 of them around the world, for a total of 1.3 million kilometers laid. This is a vital challenge for governments. The world’s industrial champions in cable-laying are therefore on the global chessboard, battling it out for the hegemony of the world’s major powers. With the United States and China in the lead, but also Russia and, alas, very modestly, Europe: all are engaged in repeated assaults on each other to dominate the sector.

Why is this so important for the States? Quite simply because whoever owns the cable can control the flow of data, control it, possibly spy on it (like ports, bridges and roads in the past) and, in the event of conflict, cut off communications for certain regions, or even entire nations. The Internet user does not choose which cable to use and the more cables a country owns or controls, the more data traffic it can capture.

Chinese acceleration

On the ground, China is particularly offensive and until recently its spearhead was the company Huawei Marine Networks, created in 2008. As part of the digital « Silk Roads », it has worked alone on nearly a hundred projects to build or modernize fiber optic links on the seabed. This expansionism came to a recent halt with the recent embargo (May 15, 2019) by the Trump administration against the Chinese firm Huawei. Accused of large-scale espionage on behalf of the Chinese government, American companies are now prohibited from working with the Chinese manufacturer. Donald Trump raised the tone again last May and this embargo now applies to suppliers based outside the United States, as long as their products or services use American technology, whether it be intellectual property, software or production equipment.

But this embargo will be quickly circumvented, because China has quickly found a way around it: last June, Huawei announced the sale of 51% of Huawei Marine Networks to Hengtong Optic-Electric, another Chinese company. Of course, China is not only not slowing down, but intends to expand its cable-laying program, as confirmed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi le on his return from his European tour when he signed an agreement with Kazakhstan.

For their part, the United States, the inventor of the Internet, still dominates the global data transfer market today, thanks in particular to the overwhelming activity of the GAFAMs, especially Facebook and Google, whose appetite for cable laying is equal to their resources: that is to say, without limits. Google now owns or controls no less than fourteen cables (three of which it owns itself). Facebook has ten, Microsoft four and Amazon three.

While Russia is less dependent on submarine cables than the West, due to the continuum of its territory, and less active in cable-laying, it does not hesitate to play the spoilsport with its nuclear-powered deep-sea spy mini-submarines, known by the Russian term AGS. Or to put pressure on countries in its environment to impose its will on the choice of a cable-laying company.

Wooden sword

This is what happened in Georgia, for the Azeri group Neqsol with the acquisition of Caucasus Online, the only Georgian company holding the management of the fiber network coming from Europe across the Black Sea, in the framework of a fiber optic route project between Europe, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Asia that was to provide an alternative to the current land routes through Russia. This operation, finalized in 2019, has been blocked since July, as the Georgian National Communications Commission seems to be looking for every means to cancel the sale. All blows are thus allowed in this war where the right of the strongest becomes the right at all costs.

And what about Europe in all this? In this domain as in so many others, with its undeniable industrial experience (notably with the Alcatel Submarine Networks group, now a subsidiary of Nokia) but deprived of management as well as political will, it has no strategy, no long-term vision. European companies are therefore most often content to participate in international consortium projects such as the 2Africa project, a 37,000-kilometer submarine cable project linking 23 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Europe and extending to Asia.

If we are indeed witnessing a war of power and sovereignty between states, through their industrial champions, Europe is playing dumb and going to the front with a wooden sword when the United States, China and Russia know how to use the real springs of power. By refusing to become a truly major player in the digital world – which would require the establishment of an independent European « ecosystem » combining investment, research, industry, distribution channels, customs measures and above all a geostrategic vision of the economy – Europe is leaving its economic future and sovereignty in the hands of other world powers.