Telecoms cable project could give China an Arctic entry point

Chinese officials in talks with Finland for new undersea link between Asia and Europe

China's President Xi Jinping looks on during a signing meeting with Maldives President Abdulla Yameen at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool
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Talks with Finland to build a telecommunications cable on the polar seabed could give China a new entry point to shaping the development of the warming Arctic.

China’s ministry of industry and information technology and state-owned China Telecom Corp are among those participating in discussions about building a 10,500-kilometre fibre-optic link across the Arctic Circle. The proposal, which also involves Finland, Japan, Russia and Norway, aims to create the fastest data connection between Europe and China as soon as 2020.

Besides speeding up China’s communication with European financial centres and data hubs, the project would be among Beijing’s most ambitious forays into the hotly contested region. In June, China included the Arctic in president Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road trade-and-infrastructure initiative and is drafting a broad strategy for the area.

The cable also highlights China’s growing ties with Finland, after Mr Xi in April became the first Chinese president to visit the country since 1995. A freight railway between the Finnish city of Kouvola and Chna's Xian opened last month and Finnair Oyj is seeking to develop Finland as a regional hub for flights between Europe and Asia.

“The tide has changed in Finland-China economic ties in these two years or so,” said Jari Sinkari, the Finnish consul general to Hong Kong and Macau. “It used to be Finland investing more in the Chinese market, but now China’s become the more active one in the partnership.”

Cinia Group Oy, a Finnish government-owned information and communications technology (ICT) company, has “a prominent role” in the so-called North-east Passage cable project and is looking for partners, said Marjukka Vihavainen-Pitkanen, a senior adviser with the Finnish ministry of transport and communications. China Telecom officials expressed interest in participation at a September 27 meeting in Helsinki, she said.

China Telecom said in a statement that it was “open in collaboration for win-win cooperation” and that “no concrete plan has been confirmed at this moment”. China's ICT ministry, which according to Ms Vihavainen-Pitkanen sent officials to the project’s first senior-level meeting in March, did not reply to requests for comment.

“It has been widely expressed that this cable route would provide a game changer in the industry,” said Jukka-Pekka Joensuu, an executive adviser to Cinia. Estimates suggest the new cable could cut the time delay from Asia to Europe in half."

Cinia projects principle construction costs at around 700 million euros (Dh). Digital traffic between Europe and Asia was expected to triple over the next five years, said Sari Arho Havren, Finland’s innovation consul in Hong Kong.

Existing Europe-Asian underwater cables tend to take either a southern route through well-known pressure points, such as the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca, or through the US and across the Pacific, said Nicole Starosielski, author of the 2015 book The Undersea Network and an associate professor of media, culture and communication at New York University.

The “technically challenging” Arctic route is becoming more feasible as polar ice recedes amid climate change, Ms Starosielski said. “It is more viable for telecommunication companies to propose these new and innovative routes than ever before."

The Arctic has entered a “new normal” of shrinking sea ice, according to the latest annual report by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The agency said that surface water was warming and ice was melting at the fastest pace in 1,500 years.

Despite the cable push, Mr Sinkari, the consul general in Hong Kong, said Finland wanted to ensure no country’s efforts to develop the Arctic damaged the fragile environment. So the publication of China’s broader strategy was being watched closely.

“We’ve seen China become very active in the Arctic region in recent years,” Mr Sinkari said. “It’ll be more transparent to know what China really wants with its Arctic strategy when they publish it.”