In August last year the US government announced a new “Clean Network” initiative which was aimed at blocking off a large portion of China’s internet from the US.
Former US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo had stated that this initiative was taken to safeguard their citizens privacy from intrusion by malicious parties, an example being the Chinese Communist Party.
While outlining the structure of the initiative implementation, Pompeo clearly stated under one of the clauses that it would be ensured that undersea cables connecting the US to the global internet are not subverted for intelligence gathering by the PRC at hyper scale.
Well, the recent developments in the Pacific indicate that the US is strictly standing by this stance and the policy remains unchanged after the presidential elections. On June 18, 2021 the Reuters reported that a World Bank-led project declined to award a contract to lay sensitive undersea communications cables. This happened after Pacific island governments heeded U.S. warnings that participation of a Chinese company posed a security threat.
The project addressed the East Micronesia Cable system and was designed to improve communications in the island nations of Nauru, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), by providing underwater infrastructure with a far greater data capacity than satellites.
The project inculcated a connection to a sensitive cable leading to Guam, a U.S. territory with substantial military assets. The project was designed to connect to the HANTRU-1 undersea cable, a line primarily used by the U.S. government that connects to Guam. It is suggested that the project reached a stalemate due to security concerns raised within the island nations over HMN Tech’s bid. HMN Technologies, majority owned by Shanghai-listed Hengtong Optic-Electric Co Ltd, submitted a bid for the $72.6 million. One source of the Routers quoted that “Given there was no tangible way to remove Huawei as one of the bidders, all three bids were deemed non-compliant.”
Now Guam has played an important role in US military strategy. Guam serves as a focal point for Washington’s engagement in the Indo Pacific. The US has leveraged Guam’s strategic geography to its advantage and has asserted military control there. Guam’s geographical importance is highlighted from the fact that it sits at the eastern edge of the Philippine Sea and is near the contentious South China Sea, where the US and China are engaged in competition for influence, sovereignty and the rule of law. America focuses on the Indo Pacific through its architecture in the Western Pacific where Guam is the key tool.
The issue brief of Institute for Security and Development policy, 2020 discusses that PLA’s strengthened military capabilities caused US to take a major infrastructure plan wherein accommodation facilities for large personnel influx and tactical infrastructure upgrades have been made. All these changes definitely suggest a trust deficit on both sides which is a cause of concern.
As per an opinion in the Arab news, Guam and its West Pacific island neighbors form the first island chain between Japan and Southeast Asia and are seen as a buffer and projection pad against China. This is another reason why Guam is an important part of the larger US strategic picture.
This is not the first time the US government has walled off Chinese internet through an undersea cable project. Similar development happened under the Trump administration last year when it succeeded in killing off a project from Facebook and Google to connect Hong Kong to Los Angeles with an 8000 mile long broadband cable. The reason cited was based on the fact that Beijing had significantly reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy which made the cable vulnerable to being tapped.
This time as well the US government has raised its concerns, considering the strategic importance of Guam. So during the bidding process last year, Washington detailed its concerns in a diplomatic note sent to FSM, which has military defence arrangements with the United States under a decades-old agreement.The note said Chinese firms posed a security threat because they are required to co-operate with Beijing’s intelligence and security services, an assertion rejected by China.
Infact, the US government has been very vocal in their effort to persuade the governments around the world to squeeze Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei Technologies out of supplying critical infrastructure. They allege that the company would hand over data to the Chinese government for spying, a charge consistently denied by the company. The U.S. Commerce Department publicly lists Huawei Marine on its so-called “Entity List” – known as a blacklist – which restricts the sale of U.S. goods and technology to the company.