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Navigating China-US Subsea Cable Competition

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Trans-Pacific View | Security | East Asia

Navigating China-US Subsea Cable Competition

China’s expanded access to and potential manipulation of underwater sea cables necessitate greater attention and joint strategy.

Navigating China-US Subsea Cable Competition
Credit: Depositphotos

In July, there was a notable surge in attempts from both the United States and China to establish a more stable relationship. Following U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing in late June, there was a subsequent series of visits to China by Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen, Special Climate Representative John Kerry, and China expert Henry Kissinger.

Despite these face-to-face meetings, one thing remains clear – relations will remain turbulent for the foreseeable future. Consequently, examining each side’s strategic advantages becomes crucial. These potential assets include alliance networks, bases in the Indo-Pacific region, trade relations with countries, and much more.

Against that backdrop, China’s expanded access to and potential manipulation of underwater sea cables necessitate greater attention and joint strategy.

The prevailing thinking is that global communication predominantly relies on satellites. In reality, over 95 percent of international and voice data is routed through the fiber optic network of cables located on seabeds. There are approximately 400 submarine cables in service around the world, totaling 1.2 million kilometers of cable.

Although these subsea cables are integral to global communications, they are not exempt from China-U.S. competition. As a Reuters report from earlier this year highlighted, the United States has intervened in six private undersea cable deals in the Asia-Pacific over the past four years to ensure that China does not win the contract. These U.S. government interventions prevented the Chinese company HMN Technologies Co Ltd and its consortium from securing the project contracts. HMN Tech’s predecessor was the Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd – a company that has long been a target of the U.S. government’s scrutiny.

HMN Tech was initially selected to build the Southeast Asia-Middle East-Western Europe 6 or SeaMeWe-6 cable. Backed by Chinese subsidies, its bid of $500 million was one-third of the initial proposal’s asking price. However, due to U.S. fears of China utilizing the cables for espionage, the U.S. government successfully campaigned for the contract to go to the U.S. company SubCom.

The United States is also not the only country to fear Chinese prevalence in the field of subsea cables. AUKUS partner Australia also took exception to a planned project connecting Solomon Islands with Australia on a PPC-1 cable. The Asian Development Bank originally planned to fund the 2012 project. However, progress was slow for several years. This led the newly created Solomon Islands Submarine Cable Company to seek a partnership with Huawei Marine. This decision provided enough incentive for Canberra to get involved. Australia announced that it was unwilling to have Chinese equipment connected to its infrastructure and stated that it would fund the Coral Sea Cable System. This project connects Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and Sydney, Australia.

These submarine cable projects represent only two of the multiple ventures in the Indo-Pacific region that have gained prevalence in the past decade. It is clear that the United States sees these cables as a potential security threat in terms of espionage vulnerability and in the event of a conflict breaking out with China. As James Kraska, a professor of International Maritime Law at the U.S. Naval War College, stated in an interview with MarketPlace, minimal rules are in place regarding submarine cables in the event of a conflict. The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea currently provides protection to these cables; however, the U.S. is not a party to this convention. This lack of codified and enforceable protection leads to anxiety in the international community.

When examining the Taiwan situation, these feelings of trepidation are heightened. If China seeks unification through the use of force, one key aspect that will lead to a successful invasion is whether Beijing can cut off Taiwan from the rest of the world. Thus, subsea cables take on greater importance.

In April of this year, the tiny island of Matsu and its 14,000 residents lost internet connectivity for a time when two submarine cables leading to Taiwan were cut. The National Communications Commission blamed two Chinese vessels for cutting the cables. However, the Taiwanese government did not directly state it was a deliberate attempt, leaving open the potential for an unfortunate accident.

According to data from Taiwan’s largest telecommunications company, the cables have been cut 27 times in the past five years. Due to Taiwan’s limited capacity to monitor the totality of its waters and China’s increasing usage of gray zone activities in the Taiwan Strait, the Taiwanese military has been unable to stop these efforts.

Despite the limited focus on the significance of subsea cables, the United States. has initiated some measures to tackle the matter –  such as attempting to prevent China from winning contracts to own and construct subsea cables. Additionally, to a lesser extent, Congress has become aware of this pressing issue. In March of 2023, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Congressman Brian Mast’s bill to “ protect American superiority in undersea cable capabilities from China’s economic and military reach.” The UnderSea Cable Control bill requires the Biden administration to develop a strategy that limits China’s ability to access goods and technology that could be used in cable production.

The Ukraine War has also highlighted the importance on communication channels. The governments on both sides have warned of Russian submarine presence near fiber optic cables.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military has been using Starlink satellites, which proved instrumental in ensuring Ukrainian communication remains unbridled. Both China and the U.S. have begun to place greater importance on developing this communication medium. China has stated its desire to launch 13,000 satellites for its Guowang satellite internet project. However, although satellites may have increased prevalence during wartime, they are far from replacing undersea cables during times of peace and in economic matters.

Among the various elements of competition, the significance of submarine cables has become increasingly apparent. They are critical to global communication channels and indispensable for commercial and national security. With that in mind, the United States must continue engaging with its international partners to address significant issues of concern. For example, the Biden administration should work with the international community to codify rules against cable manipulation. Implementing these measures will protect the cables from espionage and destruction and will also strengthen U.S. soft power, solidifying the country’s position as a rule maker.

As global communication and security dynamics evolve, it is essential to remain vigilant about the role of subsea cables in shaping relations and communication strategies between nations.