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Race to the Bottom: Security Imperatives of Undersea Cable Infrastructure

Patrick Quinn | Pacific Fellow

Image credit: iStock

Geopolitical competition in the Pacific appears set to promote forms of regional militarisation, maritime tensions, and the repudiation of international norms. However, amid these well-observed trends, concerningly little attention has been paid to the security imperatives of key infrastructure on the ocean floor.

While submarines and other maritime assets have become, more or less, the "sexy" topic in recent years, the more prosaic but no less critical issue of undersea infrastructure may redefine the scope of strategic priorities in the coming decades. Specifically, the largely “invisible” network of undersea internet cables, comprises the core infrastructure of our age, delivering over 95 per cent of the world’s internet data. These cables traverse a multitude of territorial and international waters, establishing global connectivity and enabling everything from military communications to international financial markets.

In the Pacific, the importance and influence of these cables is particularly pronounced. These cables not only lie out of sight at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, but also lie at the often-underappreciated nexus between conventional security considerations and the unique developmental priorities of the region.

As the recent sabotage of the Nordstream gas pipeline has laid plain, critical undersea infrastructure remains especially vulnerable in times of geopolitical stress or outright conflict. Political actors have increasingly sought advantage through non-conventional or otherwise non-kinetic means, comprising a “grey-zone” of actions which sit below key escalatory thresholds. Such actions have, moreover, become increasingly common at sea, as exemplified in recent years by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s seizing of ships, the GPS spoofing of navigation systems, and the use of fishing fleets in advancing territorial claims.

The apparent vulnerability of undersea infrastructure is in-part a consequence of “sea blindness”, the phenomenon by which seas and oceans are treated as distant spaces or empty voids, requiring no further regulation beyond the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Formally, articles 113 to 115 of UNCLOS provide that undersea cables are regulated by the countries they connect, and those whose waters they traverse. However, unlike ships that have a clearly assigned nationality, cables have no flag. They negotiate a multitude of jurisdictions, and are laid, maintained, and ultimately owned by a complex architecture of states and private entities.

Analysis commonly situates cable security in the context of greater resilience, militarisation, surveillance, or the legal and regulatory capacity to deal with transgressions. However, attempting to simply mirror or escalate narrow militarised policies in response to potential brinkmanship will prove neither prudent nor effective. Grey-zone actions are deliberately ambiguous and aimed at impeding or undermining decision-making processes. By their very nature, they often concern a thicket of outright lies and unknowable facts that are difficult and ultimately counterproductive to address in full.

In this context, what makes the Pacific unique is that internet cables occupy the often-overlooked nexus between aforementioned security concerns and acute developmental priorities, in a region all too aware of their overlap. The point here is that unlike most of the world, Pacific island nations often rely on a single cable, or have no direct cable link at all. The recent severing of Tonga’s sole fibre-optic cable following a volcanic eruption in January saw repairs take two weeks, with the consequences causing economic damage on such a scale it was later declared a “national crisis”.

Concerns over low cable redundancy have seen the Pacific become the most active region for cable construction over the last decade. In this context, more than the outright security of the infrastructure itself, the very provision and establishment of these cables has become increasingly intertwined with geopolitics.

At its core, the establishment of the infrastructure sets the conditions for deeper integration with, and more reliance on, chosen operating systems and providers. Such integration promises to skew the trajectory of political and economic relations, limiting or expanding the entry points of would-be competitors into these ecosystems of connectivity. The capacity to deny the connectivity projects of would-be competitors in favour of one’s own has thus become paramount to, yet underexamined in, analysis of regional politics.

It was ultimately this reality which drove Australia to intervene in 2019 following a proposed internet cable which would have connected the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. Given this proposal was funded by a perceived strategic competitor, the event was deemed an unacceptable security risk based on concerns it would connect a cable to the backbone of Australia's domestic internet infrastructure or otherwise impede Australia’s network access. Following similar concerns, a mid-2020 bid to deliver a World Bank-funded cable in the Pacific triggered extensive diplomatic engagement by Washington, given it would connect with cables bearing US military traffic to Guam.

Far from being targets of would-be grey-zone action in the passive sense, these undersea cables thus represent perhaps the heaviest point of strategic leverage for both larger nations and Pacific island nations more broadly. The dual nature of this infrastructure as both threatened and threatening must mark a shift in the strategic significance of undersea cables in the region.

Technological interdependence in the region will foreground specific and more tangible forms of transnational relations far into the future. From here, it is worth remembering that concerns over grey-zone actions stem from their capacity to undermine decision-making and arbitration processes, especially in the context of democratic governance and multilateral institutions.

Providing for the development of infrastructure that connects the Pacific, and the proactive integration of it within capacity-building projects, will prove the most effective means of countering any such intent.

Patrick Quinn is the Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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