Berlin, Dusseldorf The battle for Europe’s digital future is also taking place off the French coast of the Mediterranean. At least more and more European experts and politicians are convinced of this. Because here, in front of the port city of Marseille, a Chinese consortium is laying an internet cable of nearly 12,000 km from China through Pakistan via the Horn of Africa to Europe.
Peace is what the Chinese developers call their cable, which is supposed to transmit enough data every second for 90,000 hours Netflix Transfer to. However, whether the project really brings peace is controversial. Marine data lines have great economic and political importance; Without it, nothing would work in the digital world. It is a power tool in geopolitics.
Peace Sun CEO Xiaohua does not hide the fact that the Chinese consortium is mainly focused on Chinese interests through the cable: “The cross-border optical fiber cable from China through Pakistan is able to attract Chinese companies along the Silk Road Initiative as well as major Chinese investments in Africa supporting For example, in Djibouti.
Experts urge caution, especially since the network supplier Huawei is also involved in the peace project. Western secret services consider their technology a gateway to Chinese security services. “More efficient connections to Africa and Southeast Asia are in Europe’s interest,” says Daniel Voelsen of the Science and Policy Foundation. “But here too we have to be careful to avoid unilateral dependence on individual companies or countries.”
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China and the United States have long recognized the strategic value of submarine cables. And Europe? The continent is slowly realizing that it must not give up control of its digital infrastructure.
A few weeks ago, the European Union agreed with Iceland and Norway to enhance “Internet connectivity between Europe and its partners in Africa, Asia, the European Neighborhood, the Western Balkans and Latin America” and to develop communications with underwater cables. Around the same time, a new European data cable was completed: the “Ella Link”, which connects Europe and South America via the Cape Verde Islands.
But the Europeans ’initiatives have so far lagged the Chinese’s ambitions. The construction of a new silk road is the biggest foreign policy initiative of the state and party leader Xi Jinping. To this end, Beijing is supporting investment projects in Asia, Africa and Europe in amounts estimated to be billions. Initially, the project focused on classic infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, and pipelines. Meanwhile, the focus is increasingly on digital infrastructure, the “digital silk road”. This works mainly under water.
95 percent of international traffic passes through the seas
Data lines are the neural pathways of the modern economy. Regardless of whether we’re watching the Netflix series on the couch in the evening, browsing for recipes on YouTube or dreaming of a distant vacation on Instagram – the data needed for this is translated into light signals and chased across the sea floor via fiber optic cables. 95 percent of international connections are transported this way.
Not radio or satellite masts, but submarine cables full of algae and embedded in the silt form the basis of the seemingly shapeless Internet. There are now about 500, which is so long that it can circle the equator 30 times. And there is more every year.
For a long time, private companies have taken interest in unprofitable business. Today it is at the center of geopolitics, because the enormous importance of ocean cables for global data flows makes them desirable espionage targets.
Edward Snowden, a former CIA employee, reported how US services have systematically reduced and evaluated global data transmission. But America’s technological supremacy is now facing an outright challenge – from China. The head of state wants Xi to develop the country into a “cyber power”.
Jonathan Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the United States, an American think tank, estimates that China will participate in 11 percent of submarine cable business in 2019, either as a landing point, owner, or supplier. In projects planned globally since then, China’s share is already 24 percent.
The United States is against it. Last year, the US government launched a “clean communications networks” campaign, one of its most important points: “clean cables.” “We will ensure that submarine cables connecting our country to the global Internet are not used for information gathering by the People’s Republic of China on a large scale,” said then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and pledged to work closely with America’s allies willing to work together.
Such promises seemed empty to Europeans during President Donald Trump’s “America first” term. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, now wants to do better. He is striving for an “alliance of democracies,” which China also opposes in technology. But in Europe, reservations remain large – mainly due to Snowden’s discoveries.
Europe wants more technological independence
So the European Union relies on a greater degree of independence. Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) considers strengthening Europe’s digital sovereignty one of the most important political tasks of all. Without naming China, Merkel warned in 2019: “Non-democratic countries and their leaders interfere with the freedoms that the internet creates. You are trying to impose your own or national interests.”
More technological independence should now be the way out for Europe. But when laying submarine cables, it becomes clear that there is a wide gap between desire and reality. Europe threatens to fall behind. American companies like GoogleAnd The social networking site FacebookAnd Microsoft And AmazonPreviously only users of existing transmission capabilities were increasingly taking up cable laying with their own hands. You want to win new clients all over the world.
Only American companies are moving away from China. Google and Facebook don’t want to use the Peace cable, either. Last year, US companies dropped a plan to extend a telegram between the US and Hong Kong – because the Washington Department of Justice warned that data from US citizens could be exploited by the Chinese.
Instead, Silicon Valley relies on its own projects. For example, the Bifrost cable was announced this week, named after the Rainbow Bridge of Norse mythology, which connects America to Singapore and is said to be still out of reach of Chinese intelligence services.
The submarine cable example illustrates how the Internet is likely to evolve in the future: not as a global data room, but in the form of two competing tech fields, one dominated by the United States, the other dominated by China. In Europe, the two powers’ spheres of influence so far overlap. This explains why the United States wants to put the European Union on its side. It explains the great efforts the Chinese are making to prevent this. The question is whether Europe has the strength to remain a resolute player in this dominant struggle.
Nokia She still has proficiency in submarine cables in Europe
Europeans were once the world’s network pioneers. The first submarine cable was laid between Great Britain and France in 1850. The first optical fiber cable, built in 1988, was a transatlantic project driven by AT&T, France Telecom und British Communications.
Today, there are only a few European service providers who are laying the ocean cables themselves. One of them is Nokia. But the Finnish company is trying to sell the deal. Therefore, there is a growing concern that Europe will permanently lose its powers – and lose its sovereignty. “The European Union must be careful not to rely on this central infrastructure,” says Reinhard Boutecover, a politician from the Green Party.
In the European Union Parliament, Boutiqueover has pushed forward the development of a European “communication strategy” to be used as an answer to the Chinese Silk Road. Europe should make countries like Asia, Africa and Latin America their own offers to expand trade and data communications – that’s the idea. But it is so far a theory.
After all: Europe did not remain completely passive. The Ella Link cable, which runs from Portugal to Brazil, was completed a few weeks ago and is scheduled to start work now. Built with technology from a Nokia subsidiary. “It’s really about digital sovereignty, that is, not being totally dependent on others for a central component of the digital infrastructure and being able to independently form Europe’s digital links with the rest of the world,” says security researcher Foulsen.
The South Pacific country of Tonga saw the importance of submarine cables in economic and social life in 2019. The country, which is spread over several islands, is connected to the global Internet via an undersea cable. In January 2019, the connection was lost for twelve days. Public life has largely ceased.
“It was on purpose,” said Paula Bukala, chief of state cable operator Tonga Cable. “It was an obvious case of sabotage.” Damage analysis showed that a ship with anchor had destroyed the cable in four places. So it can be assumed that this was a targeted attack on the country’s infrastructure.
Piukala did not provide any specific information about the potential culprit. But the case also shows one thing: how fragile global data connections are – and how much power it gives to those who control them.
More: Pig breeding and mines: How Huawei wants to save itself after US sanctions.
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