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Decoupling Is Already Happening—Under the Sea

Jun 03, 2024

Subsea cables carrying internet traffic connect the world by traveling through risky waters. That, as the world now knows, makes them vulnerable to geopolitically motivated harm. But the cables are a remnant of more peaceful times, when operators didn’t have to worry about geopolitics. Now it’s no longer safe to build new cables connecting, say, the United States and China. We’re entering the era of the undersea Iron Curtain.

Subsea cables carrying internet traffic connect the world by traveling through risky waters. That, as the world now knows, makes them vulnerable to geopolitically motivated harm. But the cables are a remnant of more peaceful times, when operators didn’t have to worry about geopolitics. Now it’s no longer safe to build new cables connecting, say, the United States and China. We’re entering the era of the undersea Iron Curtain.

These days, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, the South China Sea, and most of the world’s other bodies of water are home to subsea cables that connect countries to the internet and one another. Indeed, today not being connected to a subsea cable means not being part of the world, as the residents of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands—a popular tourist destination—discovered when Chinese vessels cut the islands’ two cables in early February this year.

“Many local companies took a serious hit,” Wen Lii, a Matsu resident and local politician for Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party, told me. “I think people hadn’t realized how heavily the modern economy and basic logistics rely on internet connections. Everything is built around the internet now. Despite the backup microwave transmission system, connections were extremely slow. Sending a text message took around 20 minutes. Most websites were inaccessible, so hotel owners couldn’t access online reservation records, which seriously affected the tourism industry. Without access to e-commerce platforms, basic logistics were hampered for small businesses such as restaurants or gift shops. Ticket vending platforms for planes and ships went down, which affected local traffic.”

But the Matsu islanders were lucky: By March 31, the Taiwanese authorities had managed to get a repair vessel to start fixing the cables. Ordinarily, the wait is much longer because demand for the word’s 60 cable ships far outstrips supply, especially since some of the ships also lay new cables. Yes, the cable owners can hope that the number of ships will grow now that politicians, industry, and the global public have discovered that the cables are vulnerable to hostile action. The owners could buy a few repair ships themselves; that would allow them to start patrolling the waters above their cables. (An alliance of several dozen owners already maintains a repair fleet—but it consists of only three vessels.)

Subsea internet cables were not designed to have to be constantly patrolled and repaired. They are a peace project. By a fortuitous coincidence, the internet took off just as the world emerged from the Cold War, and the cable owners are a merry mix of international corporations. FLAG North Asia Loop, for example, connects China, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and is owned by India-based Global Cloud Xchange, Hong Kong-based PCCW, and the Australian company Telstra.

SeaMeWe-5, which lands in countries including France, Indonesia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, is owned by more than a dozen companies, among them China Mobile and Telecom Italia Sparkle. Taiwan Strait Express-1, which connects Taiwan and China, is owned by China Mobile, China Unicom, the Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s Far EasTone, Taiwan International Gateway Corporation, and Taiwan Mobile.

As the world continues to digitize, many more cables will be needed: Over the next few years, their number is expected to grow by some 30 percent annually.

But the new pipelines are stalling. For the past couple of years, the Chinese authorities have been dragging their feet in approving subsea cables that would travel through the South China Sea. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has grown so concerned about China’s ability to spy via subsea cables that it has denied permission for four planned cables owned by Google, Meta, and Amazon that were to have connected the United States and Hong Kong.

As a result, the owners of two of the planned cables changed the cable termination points to Taiwan and the Philippines. “It was a big deal when these cables that had been planned, constructed, and partly laid were nixed by the U.S. government,” Alan Mauldin, research director at TeleGeography, a consultancy and research firm, told me. “It was financial disaster for the companies involved.”

China’s cable permissions, or lack thereof, may partly be retaliation against U.S. moves: In at least one case, Beijing justified its delay with the fact that one consortium member—NEC Corporation of Japan—could insert spying equipment. The spanner in the works doesn’t affect existing cables, but new direct ones between the United States and China may now be a thing of the past.

The companies facing approval delays from Beijing may, of course, never know the true reason, but because any delay means a financial loss companies will think twice about installing cables in waters that could present any kind of geopolitical uncertainty. (Beijing has found “harmful creatures” in Taiwanese pineapples and banned Norwegian fish during disputes with the two countries.)

The U.S.-Chinese shadow cable confrontation also raises the prospect of other countries using cable approvals to score geopolitical points. India’s Global Cloud Xchange, for example, also owns the massive FALCON cable that connects India, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Yemen. If Iran and Saudi Arabia’s new, China-brokered friendship were to fray, one of the partners might, say, delay approval of a new cable. That matters because subsea cables use well-trodden paths: It’s easier to lay a new one next to existing ones than to forge new paths on the seabed.

As things stand, many of the newer cables underway may be rerouted to connect only friendly countries. For the new cables that would ordinarily traverse Chinese or other geopolitically risky waters between their landing points, owners may opt for more circuitous routes or give up routes altogether. It’s also unlikely any cable owners will launch plans for new cables connecting Russia and its Baltic Sea neighbors. And while rerouting to waters not claimed by hostile countries reduces risk, the countries whose territorial waters and exclusive economic zones will be in demand instead may insist on perks such as a certain number of landing points.

Nikkei Asia reports that an increasing number of cables now being planned will be diverted from the South China Sea and instead travel through the waters of countries such as the Philippines. Meta and Google, for example, are building a cable connecting California and Singapore via Guam and Indonesia. “Having a U.S. company involved in future new cables in the South China Sea is very unlikely at the moment,” Mauldin said. The internet traffic will travel just fine through these more circuitous routes, albeit perhaps a bit slower. “We already have direct China-U.S. cables; we just won’t get any new ones any time soon,” Mauldin said. Geopolitics is triggering the costly refashioning of a commercial project linking two countries: The rerouted subsea cables are a literal illustration of decoupling.

Subsea cables, in fact, stand to become a new Iron Curtain. Countries will be directly connected with friendly countries by cables traveling through friendly waters. That means countries in more challenging parts of the world that can best be reached through the waters or exclusive economic zones of an unfriendly country may not see a lot of new cable investment. With economies moving toward more and more digitalization, being left out of the new and better pipelines would be a great pity for the countries that have the misfortune of belligerent neighbors.

But because the subsea cables don’t form a physical border, the new cable strategy presents an opportunity for Western governments to support countries that want to be part of the Western ball club. Countries that would face second-cable status as new and better cables bypass them could, for example, be offered inclusion in a Western public-private cable alliance based on shared risk and responsibility for the cables’ well-being.

The countries behind the Iron Curtain were in an unfortunate position because their curtain demarcated a geographical boundary, and they were stuck behind it. Fortunately, the cable curtain is more permeable.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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