Submarine cables make up the vast majority of global data infrastructure, carrying over 95% of transoceanic internet traffic. Yet control over this critical network rests in the hands of just a few nations and companies. As geopolitical tensions rise, submarine cables are becoming the latest front in the intensifying cold war between the United States and China.
The Global Submarine Cable Network
There are over 500 active and planned submarine cables worldwide, spanning about 1.4 million kilometers – roughly the diameter of the Sun. Cable landing stations connect this undersea network across oceans and continents at over 1,400 coastal sites globally. One such station is located in Marseilles, France, connecting cables to Europe, Asia and Africa.
On the surface, these landing sites appear nondescript. But they connect to an undersea network that transmits over $1 trillion in daily financial transactions and carries the vast majority of international internet traffic. This includes everything from Netflix and YouTube to diplomatic cables and military communications.
Given the strategic importance of this infrastructure, control over submarine cables has become a geopolitical imperative. Yet, the market rests in the hands of just a few companies and nations. French manufacturer Alcatel Submarine Networks (41%) and American supplier SubCom (21%) together account for over 60% of global submarine cables.
Submarine Cable Design and Vulnerabilities
Belying their strategic importance, submarine cables themselves are surprisingly thin – about the diameter of a garden hose. Their anatomy includes layers of plastic and steel for insulation and protection, surrounding hair-thin fiber optic cables that transmit data via laser signals.
These signals lose integrity over long distances, so repeater devices are placed every 60-70 km to boost transmission. However, experts warn that repeaters could enable surveillance during manufacturing or maintenance. Cables are also vulnerable at coastal landing stations, presenting tempting targets for espionage.
Moreover, submarine cable installation and repair relies on a handful of specialized ships – only around 50 vessels globally. This leaves ample opportunities for rival powers to access each others’ cables during repairs. Devices enabling surveillance or data corruption could easily be installed, turning the cables into a liability.
The New Cold War Over Submarine Cables
Given their strategic significance yet relative vulnerability, new submarine cables have become part of escalating cold war tensions between the U.S. and China.
After expanding aggressively last decade, Chinese companies like Huawei Marine captured 15% of the global submarine cable installation market by 2015. Alarmed over security risks, the Trump Administration tightened restrictions to muscle out Chinese firms. Huawei was forced to sell its stake in submarine cable partnerships, leaving its former joint venture HMN Tech with just 10% global market share.
America now dominates submarine cable planning and installation, while China maintains more influence in maintenance – providing continued access and risk of tampering. U.S. cables are increasingly routed to avoid Chinese waters. America is also working to counter China’s ‘Digital Silk Road’ in Asia and Africa via rival cable projects.
One key friction point has been the $500 million SEA-ME-WE 6 submarine cable from Singapore to France. Despite HMN Tech underbidding competitors by two-thirds, U.S. threats of sanctions pushed the contract to American firm SubCom instead.
Meanwhile Chinese ships have been implicated in suspicious cable repairs near Taiwan and in disputed South China Sea waters. All this increases chances of misunderstandings and the targeting of cables during future conflicts.
Conclusion: Submarine Cables Risk Escalating Tensions
Control over the world’s submarine cables rests in the hands of a shrinking number of corporations and governments. As communications infrastructure laid today shapes power structures for decades to come, this is becoming a vital front in cold war tensions between the U.S and China.
Yet international laws concerning submarine cables remain vague and outdated. Efforts by Washington and Beijing to unilaterally assert control risk escalating friction and conflict. And accidents or sabotage could easily spiral out of control, given the inability to distinguish between intentional cable interference versus negligence.
As the world’s digital pipelines, submarine cables are becoming the latest conduit of geopolitical struggle. Their protection – along with enhanced multilateral governance – is critical for commerce, security and stability in the 21st century.