WSJ: US fears espionage by Chinese repair ships

U.S. officials say Washington fears its undersea cables could be vulnerable to spying by Chinese repair ships, The Wall Street Journal reports. The cables of major US companies in the Pacific are often maintained by China, which in turn periodically hides the location of its vessels from satellite tracking services, raising many questions for the US.

U.S. officials are privately relaying an unusual warning to telecoms companies: the undersea cables that carry Internet traffic across the Pacific could be vulnerable to manipulation by Chinese repair ships, The Wall Street Journal reports.

As the Journal explains, major U.S. companies like Google and Meta* own most of the fibre-optic cables in the Pacific, but they rely on construction and repair companies, some of which are foreign-owned. This “underestimated risk” jeopardises the security of US commercial and military data, officials said.

For example, State Department officials said Chinese company S. B. Submarine Systems (SBSS), which repairs international cables, periodically hides the location of its ships from radio and satellite tracking services. Over the past five years, its ships have often disappeared from ship-tracking services’ charts, sometimes for days at a time, when operating off the coasts of Taiwan, Indonesia and other coastal areas of Asia.

Such data gaps are unusual for commercial cable ships and “have no reasonable explanation,” officials said. At the same time, some experts insist that such problems may be due to uneven satellite coverage rather than espionage and China’s attempt to hide the ships’ locations, WSJ notes.

According to U.S. officials, Chinese repair ships pose a security threat because they can engage in covert eavesdropping on data streams from deep-sea cables, mapping the ocean floor to conduct reconnaissance of U.S. military communication lines, stealing valuable intellectual property used in cable equipment, and laying their cables for the Chinese military.

* The organisation is recognised as extremist and banned in Russia by decision of the Tverskoy Court of Moscow dated 21.03.2022.