DIPLOMATIC ECONOMY

US Takes China Rivalry Over African Influence Underwater, With High-Speed Internet Cable Spanning Continents

Washington is funding the laying of a major undersea fibre optic cable system that will connect Africa to the rest of the world, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has revealed.

Blinken’s announcement in South Africa, during a three-nation tour of the continent last week, comes as US-China rivalry heats up over control of critical communication infrastructure, with America warning the world against Chinese digital dominance and alleged espionage aims.

Stretching across 17,000km (10,560 miles), from Southeast Asia through the Middle East and onwards to the Horn of Africa and Europe, the US-funded submarine cable line will deliver high-speed connectivity to more than a dozen countries across continents.

In South Africa, I laid out our Strategy for Sub-Saharan Africa. African countries are geostrategic players and critical partners on the most pressing issues. We value these partnerships as we address shared challenges. Thank you to our South African friends for your hospitality. pic.twitter.com/dcVHVU76TK — Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) August 9, 2022

US telecoms company SubCom has won the US$600 million contract under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure (PGII) Initiative, launched by President Joe Biden with Group of Seven leaders in June as a counterpoint to China’s transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative.

The Southeast Asia–Middle East–Western Europe 6 (SEA-ME-WE 6) submarine telecoms cable is one of the flagship projects of the US$600 billion PGII, for which Washington aims to mobilise another US$200 billion over the next five years.

“The way this infrastructure is built will reverberate for decades,” Blinken said in Pretoria, South Africa, on August 8.

“After all, we’ve seen the consequences when international infrastructure deals are corrupt and coercive, when they’re poorly built or environmentally destructive, when they import or abuse workers, or burden countries with crushing debts,” he said, in an apparent swipe at China’s belt and road plan.

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“That’s why it’s so important for countries to have choices, to be able to weigh them transparently, with the input of local communities without pressure or coercion,” Blinken added.

China, which has built huge infrastructure projects across Africa under its multinational initiative, rejects claims of trapping belt and road nations with loans they cannot repay.

The US-backed SEA-ME-WE 6 cable project is seen as a response to the 15,000km Chinese-sponsored Pakistan & East Africa Connecting Europe (Peace) cable spanning the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, part of Beijing’s Digital Silk Road initiative under the belt and road.

Through Huawei Technologies Co and other domestic companies, China has funded and set up massive information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure across Africa, which has left the US worried.

The US has long expressed security concerns about the increasingly dominant position of Chinese firms, including Huawei and ZTE, in providing radio access network technology across Africa. Under the PGII umbrella, G7 governments are expected to incentivise their telecoms companies to expand in the booming African markets.

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