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The new geopolitics of undersea cables

Published 30 April 2024

Nearly all internet traffic travels through a vast network of fiber optic cables, which not only facilitate billions of daily communications but also shape the distribution of wealth, knowledge, and power. This undersea infrastructure has become a focal point in the ongoing geopolitical tensions between the US and China as they compete for control over valuable data networks.

Undersea cables play a critical role in global communication and geopolitical power dynamics. Nearly 99% of international data is transmitted through these cables, making them vital for internet connectivity and international finance, as they carry an estimated $10 trillion in transactions daily. The Asia-America Gateway, the longest underwater cable linking Southern California to landing points in Asia Pacific like Hawaii, China, and Brunei, exemplifies the vast network that connects various global economic hubs, highlighting the strategic importance of these cables.

The geopolitics of undersea cables is marked by a hybrid Cold War, particularly between the US and China, where control over these cables translates to economic power and intelligence advantages. Research Fellow Alex Capri, in this paper, discusses the bifurcation of cable networks into American and Chinese spheres of influence, with the US leveraging techno-diplomacy to dissuade foreign governments and telecoms from partnering with Chinese firms like HMN Technologies, formerly Huawei Marine. This techno-diplomacy is part of a broader trend of strategic competition in technologies ranging from semiconductors to quantum science.

Technological risks, such as surveillance and sabotage, are associated with these cables, highlighting the need for secure and reliable networks. Currently, only about ten countries possess the capability to build and maintain these networks, with three companies historically dominating the industry. The entry of Huawei Marine in 2008 disrupted the status quo, leading to concerns over surveillance and the potential for cable sabotage. The paper highlights the importance of these cables in the context of US-China relations, where the US has been successful in preventing Chinese participation, and how both nations are trying to assert their influence over this critical infrastructure.

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Alex Capri

Alex Capri is a research fellow at the Hinrich Foundation and a lecturer in the Business School at the National University of Singapore. He also teaches at the NUS Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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