China’s two largest mobile operators, China Mobile and China Telecom, have withdrawn their participation in the South East Asia-Middle East-West Europe 6 (Sea-Me-We 6) submarine cable project. The project was initially announced last year, with the cable expected to have the length of 19,200km, supposedly linking Singapore to Marseille, France.
Planned to reach 12 initial countries, with branches to further locations expected to be added later in the cable’s lifespan, the system was expected to be available in 2025.
The project is backed by a consortium including major companies from all over the world, including Microsoft, Orange, Telecom Egypt, Telekom Malaysia, Telin, as well as all three of China’s major mobile operators: China Unicom, China Mobile, and China Telecom. Commensurate with its scale, the project is estimated to cost around half a billion dollars.
China Mobile and China Telecom appear to have withdrawn quietly last year. The move was reportedly triggered by the fact that American firm SubCom was chosen to construct the cable over Hengtong Marine over China’s major fiber cable manufacturer. China Unicom, the smallest of China’s three mobile operators, seemingly remains involved in the project.
While China Mobile and China Telecom’s combined investment accounted for around 20% of the total funding, an anonymous consortium member commented that the loss of the Chinese firms was “important but not critical”.
The withdrawal is deemed as yet another evidence of the ongoing geopolitical conflict between the US and China, with the submarine cable industry having been increasingly pulled into the fray over the past three years.
Since 2020, the US has viewed subsea cable systems connecting the US to China and Hong Kong as potential threats to national security, having refused to permit their activation on numerous occasions.