PESHAWAR – China is poised to lay the last stretch of a cross-border fiber optic cable in Pakistan, a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project designed in part to cut Pakistan’s current reliance on rival India for internet connectivity.
The project, led by Chinese telecom giant Huawei and part of Beijing’s so-called “Digital Silk Road”, will complete the Pakistan East Africa Connecting Europe (PEACE) submarine cable in the Arabian Sea, a line that will service BRI-participating countries and Europe.
Reports indicate the cable is now being laid between Rawalpindi and the port cities of Karachi and Gwadar while the underwater portion will start construction in March if and when the government approves to construct an Arabian Sea landing station in Karachi.
The project’s upsides are obvious for both sides. Chinese government Digital Silk Road strategy papers prioritize the building of undersea cables to achieve its stated goal of “global connectivity.” For Pakistan, the modern fiber optic cable will represent a massive upgrade to its largely outdated communication infrastructure.
But while the BRI project will alleviate certain of Pakistan’s cybersecurity concerns related to rival India, some suspect China may have its own ulterior motives. The rising noise around the Digital Silk Road-related cable, analysts say, could yet complicate its ultimate rollout.
Media reports in Pakistan have claimed that the Huawei-built cable, apart from providing faster and more reliable and internet speeds, could also allow Beijing to surveil local communications and even eventually lead to “politically motivated censorship.”
Huawei has consistently denied it allows Beijing to snoop on the telecom infrastructure it builds overseas, a claim the US has pushed to deter its allies from allowing the company to participate in their 5G rollouts.
Pakistan reputedly already has a surveillance issue – with India. Back in 2017, when the proposal for China’s cross-border fiber optic cable project was first presented to Pakistan’s parliament, an army general disclosed that “some internet data had landed in India before it could reach to its destination in Pakistan.”
Major General Amir Azeem Bajwa told the National Assembly Standing Committee on Information Technology that the consortium bringing internet traffic into Pakistan via submarine cables has Indian companies on its board of directors.
Bajwa pushed for parliamentary approval of the Chinese cable on the grounds that the leakage of sensitive internet traffic in India posed a national security threat and that the country would be safer digitally linked to the outside world through China.
Bajwa was then director general of the Special Communications Organization (SCO), a public sector entity that later converted into a joint China-Pakistan telecom governing body that will operate and maintain the cable project.
Parliament’s failure to scrutinize the military’s confidence in China’s intent in left many analysts and IT experts slackjawed. They believe parliamentarians should have sought legal guarantees that China would not resort to cyber-surveillance similar to India’s.
Lawmakers, they say, also failed to assess and weigh China’s model of internet regulation and how it stifles freedom of speech and access to information at home and how that could impact Pakistan including during times of crisis and instability.
Nearly 85% of the project’s cost will be covered by a concessional loan provided by the Exim Bank of China, while the remaining 15% of the project’s cost will be borne by the Pakistani government.
The cable covers a terrestrial distance of 2,950 kilometers, including an 820 kilometer-long portion in Pakistan. It will run through the Khunjerab Pass at an altitude of 4,500 meters near the China-Pakistan border north of China’s Xinjiang Region, to Gilgit-Baltistan, Rawalpindi (Punjab), Gwadar port (Balochistan) and finally to the port city Karachi (Sindh).
The project also provides for a backup link from Karimabad, the capital of Hunza district in Gilgit-Baltistan province to Khunjerab Pass. The backup link will have 26 microwave transmission nodes from Rawalpindi to Karimabad and 172 kilometers of aerial links from Karimabad to Khunjerab.
Phase one of the project, linking Khunjerab Pass to Rawalpindi, has already been completed and was inaugurated in 2018. Media reports suggest that the cable has been commercially up and running since early 2019.
In the second leg of the project, the cable will reach Gwadar port where authorities plan to make another submarine cable landing station to hedge against possible internet disruptions, including by any accident at Pakistan’s only submarine station at Karachi.
The Gwadar station will cover an area of about 10,000 square meters and will officially be built to enhance the “security of the international communications network in Pakistan.”
Huawei is in charge of the engineering, procurement and construction of the fiber optic cable, an early harvest project of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
Huawei currently holds over 45% share of the communications equipment market in Pakistan. It cooperates with five major domestic operators and manages three training centers in the country.
Islamabad has so far largely ignored Washington’s spying and espionage claims against Huawei, including in relation to the reputed risk of allowing the Chinese company to participate in the rollout of next-generation 5G mobile networks.
The Chinese communication giant China Mobile is operating under the brand name of Zong, the third-largest mobile operator in Pakistan. It provides 3G and 4G data services to approximately 22 million subscribers with 5G services on the horizon.
ZTE Corporation, another Chinese IT company listed on both the Hong Kong and Shenzhen stock exchanges, has nine branch offices in Pakistan with more than 220 Chinese staff and over 620 local employees. It has business relations with 85 local subcontractors.
Curiously, the US has been less critical of Huawei’s rising presence in undersea cable networks, which carry the bulk of the world’s data and internet traffic.
The Chinese company is said to be working on some 90 projects to build or upgrade submarine cables worldwide, of which if all goes to plan Pakistan will be a key link in connecting Europe, Asia and Africa and helping China realize its Digital Silk Road ambitions.