1.4 million km submarine cables drew a US-China tech war

Submarine Optical Fibre Cable is the artery of the internet, carrying over 98% of the internet’s activities, ranging from instant messages and e-commerce to classified military information. The United States is the global hub for submarine optical cables. Most of the Pacific and Atlantic cables either start or end in the U.S., or pass through U.S. territories.

submarine cables

With the increasing demands of video streaming, cloud computing, and 5G on network bandwidth capacity, the number of submarine cables is growing at an annual rate of about 30%.  According to TeleGeography, there are 559 of these cables that are either active or in construction, with a total length of approximately 1.4 million kilometers. It’s enough to circle the Earth 30 times. 

However, these underseas cables pose great risks in terms of geopolitical contention. The first is that the physical cable is subject to damage or even sabotage, and the disruption can be long.  This vulnerability was seen in February 2023 when submarine cables connecting Taiwan and Matsu Island were cut twice. Matsu’s 14,000 residents were isolated from the internet and had to rely on a temporary microwave radio transmission system for limited internet access. And it lasted 50 days before one cable was repaired. 

submarine cables, undersea cables

The Taiwan Strait is at the center of U.S-China contention and Matsu Island is the focal point. Taiwan authorities suspect that a Chinese fishing boat and a Chinese cargo ship caused the interruption. Data from Taiwan’s Chunghwa Telecom shows that the submarine cables in Matsu have been damaged over 20 times in the past five years.

In just the past two to three years, hundreds of Chinese sand dredgers have continuously extracted sand from Matsu’s waters, exposing the cables buried below the sand and making them vulnerable to being hooked and damaged by commercial carriers and fishing vessels. Although we cannot confirm that such activities were intentional on the part of Beijing, this incident has raised concerns about the Chinese Communist Party’s unrestricted warfare carried out underwater and the vulnerability of submarine cables in times of war.

A few months after the Matsu cable incident, Russia officially stated its intention to weaponize undersea cables. on June 14, 2023, Dmitry Medvedev, who is the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council and a close ally of Putin, citing the explosion of Russia’s Nord Stream gas pipeline, publicly stated that there was no reason for Moscow not to destroy enemies’ submarine communication cables.

In response, NATO launched a new center to protect submarine pipelines and cables. Lieutenant General Hans-Werner Wiermann, responsible for the NATO task, told reporters in Brussels that Russian ships have actively mapped our critical undersea infrastructure. 

These incidents have brought Taiwan’s communication security into focus. Taiwan has 14 external submarine cables and three cable landing stations. They include important international internet infrastructures and some American submarine cable assets. Cutting Taiwan’s submarine cables is undoubtedly one of the CCP’s early priorities when it launches attacks on Taiwan.  

The second security concern is data theft and eavesdropping. Justin Sherman, a researcher at the Cyber Statecraft Initiative of the Atlantic Council, told Reuters that submarine cables are a “surveillance goldmine” for the world’s intelligence agencies. If submarine cables are built by Chinese firms, there is a great possibility that Beijing may obtain copies of the data.  

For many years, the global submarine cable business was primarily dominated by three major companies: the American company SubCom, Japan’s NEC, and France’s Alcatel Submarine Networks (ASN). In 2008, the establishment of Huawei Marine Networks as a joint venture between Huawei and the British company Global Marine Systems marked a significant shift in the industry.

huawei, submarine cables,

With the help of government subsidies, Huawei Marine grew rapidly and by 2018, its global market share exceeded 10%, ranking it as the fourth-largest submarine cable company in the world. In 2019, due to U.S. sanctions, Huawei was forced to sell Huawei Marine Networks to Jiangsu Hengtong Optoelectronics. In November 2020, Huawei Marine was renamed HMN Technologies.  

In 2016, the CCP launched the “National Information Development Strategy,” proposing a “three-step” approach to becoming a “cyber power,” with key milestones set for 2020, 2025, and mid-century. Part of the goals for 2025 includes achieving an international internet bandwidth of 48 trillion bits per second (Tbps), establishing four major international digital networks connecting the Pacific, Central and Eastern Europe, West and North Africa, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, and Russia.

In 2017, the authorities added the “Digital Silk Road” to the “Belt and Road” initiative. The National Development and Reform Commission’s “Maritime Cooperation Plan for the Belt and Road Initiative” specifically mentioned “promoting the joint planning and construction of submarine cable projects to enhance international connectivity.”  

In the international market, HMN has leveraged strong financial support from the Chinese regime to capture the market with predatory pricing strategies. According to the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology’s “Global Submarine Optical Cable Industry Development Research Report (2023),” among the 106 submarine cable systems delivered globally from 2018 to 2022, ASN, SubCom, NEC, and HMN accounted for 22%, 12%, 7%, and 23% of the market share by the number of delivered cable networks, respectively. Regarding delivered cable length, ASN, SubCom, NEC, and HMN accounted for 29%, 40%, 7%, and 18%, respectively.

According to Chinese data, by the end of 2023, China had participated in the construction of 24 international submarine cable systems, invested in the construction of 17 international and Hong Kong-Macau cables, and purchased or leased more than 30 international cables, with over 230 overseas communication network nodes.

The CCP’s expansion to dominate submarine cables poses severe challenges to information security for the United States and the world. On August 5, 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the “Clean Network” initiative to ensure that submarine cables connecting the U.S. to the global internet are not “substantially compromised for intelligence collection by China (CCP).” In 2020, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) revised the cable landing license to strengthen investment restrictions and ensure that hostile nations could not alter or intercept the communications carried by submarine cables.

in April 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice, citing national security concerns, vetoed the inclusion of Hong Kong in the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN); in 2020, Chile abandoned the CCP’s submarine cable construction plan in favor of a Japanese proposal; in 2021, the World Bank canceled its lead project to connect three Pacific island countries, invalidating HMN Technology’s bid; in 2022, partners of the 19,000-kilometer-long “Sea-Me-We 6” cable project from Southeast Asia to Europe switched from China’s HMN to the American SubCom at the last moment.

However, the CCP will not abandon its ambitions to dominate and control submarine cables and will look for ways to counter the U.S. After being excluded from the “Sea-Me-We 6” project, China Telecom, China Mobile, and China Unicom planned to invest $500 million in a project connecting Hong Kong and Hainan Island, to Singapore, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and France.  That project is called EMA (Europe-Middle East-Asia) and HMN is responsible for laying the cables and will receive government subsidies to do so.

Preventing cable data from being intercepted is a top priority of the U.S. government.   

While the U.S. excludes Chinese companies from participating in the construction of submarine cables, the CCP also tries to dominate the submarine cable industry under a similar concept, creating a clear divide between the two sides. It seems that “decoupling” is already happening underwater. Like geopolitics, undersea cable networks are moving toward two distinct camps, with China and its friendly countries forming one camp and the U.S. and its allies forming another. However, experts say this division is very costly and will take time to develop because many submarine cables are shared. 

Watch Lei’s full video here:

The Wisdom to Know – The Courage to Tell
The Wisdom to Know
– The Courage to Tell

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