Finding a Goldilocks Moment for India in the U.S.-China Subsea Cables Race

Recent Features

Flashpoints | Security | South Asia

Finding a Goldilocks Moment for India in the U.S.-China Subsea Cables Race

India’s capacity to produce fiber cables, paired with U.S. capability to lay them on the seabed, presents a prime opportunity for New Delhi.

Finding a Goldilocks Moment for India in the U.S.-China Subsea Cables Race
Credit: Depositphotos

At a time when the U.S. is significantly enhancing its presence and primacy across the length and breadth of the Indo-Pacific, the recent U.S. efforts to construct subsea cables near Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean is of paramount importance to India, and to the future of the burgeoning India-U.S. defense partnership. 

There is no doubt that the global order today is largely shaped by great power competition between the U.S. and China. Concomitantly, this is also a moment of reckoning for other leading players, like India. Amidst the emerging polarity shaped by the technology war on the surface, in the sky, and under the water, what remains to be seen is how this churn can benefit New Delhi in keeping its maritime neighborhood intact.

Despite the fact that nearly 97 percent of global data is transmitted via subsea cables, satellite communication has always been assumed to be the most common medium for global data transfer and communication across islands spread over the oceans. However, a recent Reuters report exposed the extent of U.S. subsea cable construction, especially that which is being developed for military purposes near Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Diego Garcia is a horseshoe-shaped coral island, situated 400 nautical miles south of Maldives and 1,240 miles north of Mauritius. Today, the island’s political status is muddled between the sovereign claims of Mauritius, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) claims of Maldives, U.S. military interests in the Indian Ocean, and its British colonial past. At present, it is effectively an American base in the middle of the Indian Ocean without any civilian population, which caters to nearly 4,000-5,000 personnel at any given time and is quintessential to maintaining U.S. influence and dominance in the region. 

The importance of the base can be captured in the words of Bertil Lintner, who opined that, though Diego Garcia is smaller than other U.S. military outposts in South Korea, Okinawa, or Germany, its strategic significance is greater. It assisted the U.S. in maintaining a forward position during the Cold War and later in the Gulf War, in addition to the 20-year war in Afghanistan.

Bolstering subsea cable infrastructure around an atoll of such high importance may have strategic as well as tactical implications for the security architecture of the entire region. China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) has been increasing, in particular under the guise of the so-called research vessels. One of the strategic implications of subsea cables might be to reduce dependency on satellite communication and improve network redundancy. It will also sharpen the military readiness of the U.S. forces stationed in Diego Garcia, by improving its information infrastructure.

If the emergence of the subsea cable ecosystem as a new front in the U.S.-China technology war, Washington is stepping up its game in the civilian domain too. The U.S., along with Japan and Australia, has pledged to collaborate on a $95 million subsea cable project to strengthen the Indo-Pacific network. The U.S. has also recently launched its CABLES program to enhance subsea cables protection infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific. The latest Sea-Me-We 6 subsea cables bid, won by SubCom, was backed by strong U.S. backchannel diplomacy. U.S. efforts at bypassing China in its newer projects, and making use of its tech giants such as Google, Meta, and others in leveraging bidding negotiations of new tenders, are fairly visible.

The U.S. and Japan have been the dominant players in the subsea cable domain since the end of World War II. Collectively they are responsible for 90 percent of the cable ecosystem in the Indian Ocean. On the other hand, China is currently manufacturing and laying only 10 percent of tenders. Even though China has captured a smaller share of the market, India cannot remain complacent and carefree. India manufactures 100 million fiber km (FKM) every year, and its domestic consumption is less than half of its manufacturing capacity, at 46 million FKM. India has been exporting nearly 16 million FKM annually to over 100 countries. This provides a Goldilocks moment for India to use its manufacturing capacity in combination with the laying capability of the U.S. in the IOR for the benefit of all. 

Although India does not yet have any companies contributing to the laying of subsea cables, New Delhi does have the Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ geographical location as one of its biggest strategic assets. Real-time information sharing capabilities between India and its partners could increase many times over if strategic use of the islands was realized.

However, the Indian military does not have any separate subsea cable connecting mainland India to Andaman and Nicobar. The islands face issues of strategic connectivity with the mainland, and thus cannot provide reciprocal intelligence input efficiently unless their communications infrastructure is improved. In this context, increasing U.S. involvement in the Indian Ocean’s subsea cables ecosystem can potentially be beneficial for India. India, with U.S. help, can work toward increasing its network redundancy and strategic connectivity with Andaman and Nicobar. This will result in a trickle-down effect and will benefit both the civilian and military population on the islands. 

Last month, India and the U.S. concluded the INDUS-X summit under the “Defense Innovation Bridge” in order to increase public-private cooperation in the defense sector. This initiative will also lead to the formation of a Joint Innovative Fund to encourage tech defense startups in both countries. India and the U.S. can make use of this platform to encourage innovation that can strengthen the security of subsea cables. There is an attempt to build SMART cables (Science Monitoring and Reliable Telecommunications), which make use of deployed temperature, pressure, and other sensors in order to detect unusual interference in the ecosystem. Such initiatives can be encouraged under this partnership.

The triangular dynamics between the U.S., India, and China are increasingly complicated. While Washington-Beijing ties are nosediving, the New Delhi-Washington strategic partnership is strengthening from pillar to post. Especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington last month, which was high on both symbolism and substance, military-to-military ties have become more tangible.

Under three foundational agreements – namely the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geospatial Intelligence, the General Security of Military Information Agreement, and the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement – the U.S. can now share information from its military subsea cables with India. But more importantly, more use of subsea cables will help in enhancing the much needed real-time communications capability between the two countries given the limitations of satellite communications pertaining to efficiency and speed. This will also allow New Delhi to enhance its surveillance system and improve its accuracy at a time when threats of both a traditional and non-traditional nature are looming large in the Indian Ocean. As both have come together to manage the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific region, sharing such information will add more tangibles to their partnership.