East Micronesia Cable Stalls After U.S. Security Concerns

A World Bank-led project declined to award a submarine cable contract to a Chinese company after U.S. warnings.By Jonathan Barrett and Yew Lun Tian
June 18, 2021

SYDNEY/BEIJING, June 18 (Reuters) – A World Bank-led project declined to award a contract to lay sensitive undersea communications cables after Pacific island governments heeded U.S. warnings that participation of a Chinese company posed a security threat, two sources told Reuters.

The former Huawei Marine Networks, now called HMN Technologies and majority owned by Shanghai-listed Hengtong Optic-Electric Co Ltd, submitted a bid for the $72.6 million project priced at more than 20% below rivals Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN), part of Finland’s Nokia, and Japan’s NEC, the sources said.

The East Micronesia Cable system was designed to improve communications in the island nations of Nauru, Kiribati and Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), by providing underwater infrastructure with a far greater data capacity than satellites.

Two sources with direct knowledge of the tender told Reuters that the project reached a stalemate due to security concerns raised within the island nations over HMN Tech’s bid. The project’s planned connection to a sensitive cable leading to Guam, a U.S. territory with substantial military assets, heightened those security concerns.

“Given there was no tangible way to remove Huawei as one of the bidders, all three bids were deemed non-compliant,” one of those sources said.

The source said that HMN Tech was in a strong position to win the bid due to the terms overseen by the development agencies, prompting those wary of Chinese involvement to find an expedient solution to end the tender.

The World Bank said in a statement to Reuters that it was working with the respective governments to map out the next steps.

“The process has concluded without an award due to non-responsiveness to the requirements of the bidding documents,” the Washington-based multilateral lender said.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said in a statement to Reuters that all parties should provide a non-discriminatory business environment that companies from all countries, including China, can participate in.

“As a matter of principle, I want to emphasise that Chinese companies have always maintained an excellent record in cyber security,” the spokesperson said.

“The Chinese government has always encouraged Chinese companies to engage in foreign investment and cooperation according to market principles, international regulations and local laws.”

The three island nations involved in the project were represented on the bid assessment committee. Development agencies typically review the committee’s recommendations to ensure the selected bidder complies with the agencies’ policies and procedures.

A second development bank involved in the project, the Asian Development Bank, referred questions from Reuters to the World Bank as the lead agency.

HMN Tech and Hengtong Group, the parent company, did not respond to emailed questions. A representative who answered the phone at HMN Tech declined to comment.

A spokesman for Nokia-owned ASN told Reuters the company was not authorised to comment on confidential information. NEC did not respond to questions.

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