Illustration: Dionne.

World - The future of the internet depends on who controls the South China Sea

With the US and the Philippines holding the largest ever military drills in the South China Sea, followed by China and Singapore holding their own, tensions are heating up.

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

More than 486 undersea cables carry more than 99 per cent of all international internet traffic globally, according to the Washington-based research firm TeleGeography. The bulk of them are controlled by a handful of American technology giants, namely Google-owner Alphabet, Facebook-owner Meta, Amazon and Microsoft.

South-East Asia’s internet economy is expected to reach $1 trillion in value by 2030. Whoever controls the Asia-Pacific’s subsea cabling infrastructure will not only dominate this booming economy, but control the global internet.

Internet data flows, carrying everything from emails and banking transactions to military secrets, are more valuable than oil. 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 geopolitical rivalry between the US and China has increasingly focused on controlling the world’s subsea cabling networks.

China is now planning a $500 million undersea internet cable network to create a superfast connection linking up Asia with the Middle East and Europe. It is also impeding US-backed projects for subsea internet cables through the South China Sea by delaying licensing approvals and creating stricter operating restrictions.

Meanwhile, the US government has thwarted several Chinese subsea cabling projects in the Asia-Pacific over concerns about Beijing’s surveillance capabilities.

At least six private undersea cable deals led by Google, Meta and Amazon that would have connected the US with Hong Kong were blocked by Washington, to keep at bay HMN Tech. A subsidiary of the sanctioned Chinese firm Huawei, HMN Tech has won praise from Beijing as a model of “civil-military integration”, and acknowledges that its activities “offer powerful support for the modernisation of our country’s national defence”.

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