Leveraging Submarine Cables for Political Gain: U.S. Responses to Chinese Strategy

Written by
Lane Burdette
May 5, 2021

By Lane Burdette


Submarine cables are critical infrastructure that carry nearly all internet traffic. However, unclear international governance does not always guarantee their protection, leaving global information networks vulnerable to sabotage and espionage. China’s access to submarine cables for strategic manipulation is greatly expanded through the Digital Silk Road and territorial claims in the South China Sea, posing a clear threat that requires a U.S. response. Current U.S. policy is uncoordinated and can be sorted into the isolationist, cooperative, competitive, and militaristic responses, which each present unique frameworks for future action. The isolationist response would disconnect the United States from insecure cable networks, limiting China’s influence over U.S. assets but reducing international connectivity. The cooperative response emphasizes international norms-setting processes to achieve multilateral agreements protecting cables from state influences. The competitive response advocates U.S. competition with China in the submarine cable market through alternate assistance programs, which would increase the redundancy of a secure network. Finally, the militaristic response explores the role of America’s military in defending submarine cables from foreign exploitation. This article recommends that future policy emphasize a combination of the competitive and militaristic responses in order to most immediately and effectively address China’s threat to information security along submarine cables while minimizing U.S. risk.


The submarine communications cable network, a physical manifestation of transnational connectivity, is an understudied area of international relations at the intersection of geopolitics and global cybersecurity challenges. Despite their importance, submarine cables are not well protected, and a heightened reliance on digital communications elevates long-standing risks posed by espionage or intentional damage. Shifting dynamics in cable construction, ownership, and topology have also given rise to increased Chinese influence. This influence may be exploited for political purposes that include intelligence collection. The United States currently lacks the integrated strategy required to check this threat. By evaluating the scope, risk, and immediacy of four possible response options, this analysis determines that multilateral defense measures and market competition offer the best path forward for U.S. policymakers.

Despite popular belief, submarine cables transmit data more cheaply, quickly, and reliably than satellites (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 7). As a result, 426 in-service cables—approximately the size of garden hoses—carry 97 percent of all internet traffic, including trillions of dollars daily in global transactions (see Figure 1). Unintentional damage is common. In rare instances, cables may be intentionally sabotaged (Kono 2019, secs. 1–2). Espionage may also compromise information security at the physical layer through the tapping of submarine cables. Current international governance is insufficient to safeguard submarine cables from these threats, especially during open conflict (Kraska 2020b). 

After the 2013 Snowden Disclosures revealed widespread U.S. and partnered espionage using submarine cables, many states sought to decrease their dependency on U.S. infrastructure or cables landing at U.S. shores. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offered an attractive alternative for internet infrastructure financing, particularly to the developing world. This initiative has improved connectivity but also carries risks. Submarine cables landing at mainland China, owned by Chinese companies, or financed by BRI loans are no more secure than their U.S. counterparts, and may be even less so given the breadth of China’s espionage programs and coercive lending practices. Insufficiently curbed by international governance and regulation, these threats to the submarine cable network require a U.S. response.

Figure 1: Global Map of Submarine Cables, 2021



Stylized map of submarine cables around the world
A stylized map of submarine cables around the world. Image by TeleGeography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

This analysis offers four options to bolster information security and check China’s growing influence on the submarine cable network. Each represents a component of the United States' current, uncoordinated strategy towards submarine cables. The United States may disconnect from risky cables in the isolationist response, or instead increase the number of secure cables in the competitive response. In the cooperative response, expanded international governance would create new legal safeguards for cables. Finally, the United States could protect cables by using the multilateral threat of force and new technologies in the militaristic response. The scope of responses is determined by the capacity of actors to address threats outlined in the section, “Submarine Cables as China’s Strategic Assets.” Immediacy and risk of each response are also evaluated. With these criteria in mind, the militaristic and competitive responses are determined to best protect U.S. data and maintain the neutrality of submarine cables as critical infrastructure supporting global communications and economy.

Vulnerabilities of Submarine Cables 

Understanding common threats to submarine cables and their protection under international law contextualizes the narrative surrounding state influence. Most damage to submarine cables is the unintentional result of normal anchoring or fishing activity. Natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes make up the next largest category of faults (Griffiths 2019, sec. “Network Down”). To prevent accidental harm, cables approaching the shoreline or in shallow water are armored and buried in the seabed (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 23). If a cable is damaged, strategically located specialist ships can begin repairs almost immediately (Green et al. 2009, 27). Nevertheless, cable faults carry high direct and indirect costs. Besides the initial cost of repairs, disconnection from the global submarine cable network could jeopardize up to eight percent of GDP, as in the case of South Korea (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 25–26, 38).

Countries connected to multiple cables mitigate disruptions by rerouting data through other parts of the network. Some, but not all data, may also be rerouted via satellite (Kono 2019, sec. 2c). This is not always possible; for example, Mauritania and Tonga were left offline for 48 hours and two weeks, respectively, after damage to each state’s only submarine cable (Tobin 2019, sec. “Virtually Remote”; Baynes 2018). However, well-connected states are still threatened by cable faults. Even the UK—which is connected to over 50 submarine cables—cites cable damage as a critical security and economic threat (Griffiths 2019, sec. “Malicious cuts”; Singh 2017, para. 9). 

Submarine cables may be intentionally manipulated through sabotage or espionage (Kono 2019, sec. 2c). International legislation mitigates these threats by criminalizing damage to cables in some instances (Kraska 2020a, para. 3). However, few protections are offered from foreign espionage, and protections against sabotage are often stripped during open conflict, adversely affecting even neutral states. Once an operation is uncovered, its discovery may profoundly affect perception of cable security across the globe. This is discussed in the context of the Snowden Disclosures and a subsequent shift towards internet infrastructure sponsored by China.

Sabotage and Espionage

Sabotage of submarine cables involves physical damage including but not limited to a complete break. Such cable faults may cause delays or loss of connectivity, disrupting critical systems like banking, airline, and email services (Green et al. 2009, 24). Sabotage is especially threatening when used to weaken a target before the onset of a kinetic attack (Lindsay and Kello 2014, 184). Specialized equipment (e.g. submarines) facilitates cable damage but low-tech attempts exist, including a 2013 incident involving the arrest of three men accused of attempting to cut the SEA-ME-WE 4 cable—which then carried one-third of all traffic between Europe and Egypt—using scuba equipment and a fishing vessel (Arthur 2013). 

Cable Landing Stations (CLS) may also be vulnerable. There, clusters of cables connect to terrestrial telecommunications networks along the shoreline. The consolidation of multiple cables at CLS magnifies the threat of damage, as do lengthy CLS repairs, which stretch beyond the typical timeline for restoring connectivity (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 24). Some CLS are imperiled by natural threats (i.e. tsunamis), others lack basic security measures like surveillance cameras. Put another way, “undersea cables support billions of dollars’ worth of trade and yet many CLS are less protected than the average bank" (Kono 2019, pt. 3d). Cables may therefore be accessed at CLS without advanced technologies and more easily targeted by non-state actors (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 24).

Espionage against submarine cables accesses transmitted data, usually without damage or notable disruption. Specialized equipment is typically required. One example is Russian AGS: small, nuclear-powered mini-submarines which can tap fiber optic cables in hard-to-reach areas (Sutton 2020, para. 6). Cables may also be targeted for espionage at CLS, which were exploited in the British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) tapping operation revealed by the Snowden Disclosures. Tapping cables may produce huge intelligence gains, given that data can be sorted—identifying relevant needles from a digital “haystack”—and decrypted as necessary (MacAskill et al. 2013). Even without decryption, some information is retained, including the origin and destination of traffic. Espionage and sabotage operations may also be used in concert, as in World War I when Britain severed all but one of Germany’s undersea telegraph networks, then tapped the single remaining cable, yielding the Zimmerman telegram (Hinck 2017).

International Governance

Transnationalism complicates jurisdiction of submarine cables, which are typically owned by multiple parties—historically a consortium of telecommunications providers, although this is changing as content providers like Google, Huawei and Facebook enter the market—and may pass through several maritime jurisdictions (Tobin 2019). Both owners and coastal states seek influence over cable maintenance, protection, and exploitation. While some international legislation safeguards the submarine cable network, connectivity and data remain surprisingly unprotected.

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is critical to the protection of submarine cables and establishes three primary areas of maritime jurisdiction off the coast of states (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 52, 55). The first is territorial waters, which stretch a maximum of 12 nautical miles beyond the “baseline,” or that state’s low-water line. There, a state enjoys full sovereignty (Burgess et al. 2017, 12), including cable jurisdiction. The 1884 Convention on the Protection of Submarine Telegraph Cables also requires signatories to protect submarine cables under domestic law (Hinck 2017, secs. 2–3). Importantly, most if not all states have domestic laws criminalizing foreign espionage in sovereign areas including territorial waters.

Next is the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which may extend 200 nautical miles from the baseline. A state is entitled to any natural resources in its EEZ and may establish or use artificial islands there. States are also entitled to defend these rights (Burgess et al. 2017, 12–13). Per UNCLOS, all states may lay cables within the EEZ and continental shelf (Hinck 2017, sec. 2). However, authors of the Tallinn Manual 2.0—a non-binding document written by cyber experts on international law—disagreed on the “application of jurisdiction between the coastal State and the State laying the submarine communication cable” in these areas (Jensen 2017, 738, 766). Therefore, no clear legal consensus defines who controls cables in the EEZ: coastal states or cable owners. Finally, outside the EEZ and continental shelf are the high seas, which are beyond state-level jurisdiction (Burgess et al. 2017, 14). All states may lay submarine cables in the high seas. Intelligence operations in the EEZ, continental shelf, and high seas are not punishable unless they disrupt communication and affect physical damage, which is atypical for tapping (Kono 2019, pt. 4c).

Despite UNCLOS protections, no treaty adequately safeguards submarine cables. Existing measures frequently exclude warfare even when they expand cable protections otherwise (Hinck 2017, sec. 3). In effect, “states may expect that adversaries’ plans to disrupt international submarine cables during naval warfare are limited only by their national laws and their imagination” (Kraska 2020a, para. 8). Worse, protections for cables connecting neutral states in warfare are ambiguous. U.S. precedent, later upheld in a 1923 U.S.-U.K. arbitration tribunal, permits offensively cutting cables between target and neutral states within a target EEZ. However, this does not define the international consensus: per the Tallinn Manual 2.0, cyberattacks directed against neutral internet infrastructure are prohibited, as are attacks against cables owned by companies of a neutral state (Kraska 2020b, sec. 3). Even in peacetime, submarine cable maintenance is not well facilitated. Many states require permits for repairs in their EEZ which may delay reconnection by two weeks or more, despite no legal or practical reason for this. Maritime disputes may also complicate this process, causing further delays (Green et al. 2009, 30–31, 34). Intentional delay of permit requests—though barred under UNCLOS (Carter et al. 2009, 27)—would therefore afford one state tremendous economic power over another and is considered a form of sabotage within this paper. 

Laws protecting only cable segments or cables owned by certain companies are ineffective in a world increasingly defined by network redundancy and interconnectivity. After all, breaks anywhere “invariably will affect the economic and military communications of neutral states" (Kraska 2020b, para. 1). Because of this potential for incidental damage to neutral parties, submarine cables cannot be regarded as strategic assets to be manipulated in conflict. There must instead be an acute pressure for all states to favor submarine cable protection, sacrificing some advantage to ensure global connectivity and data security through neutrality of submarine cables. 

The United states and China's Adherence to Norms

International governance is only effective when enforceable. An “implementation gap”—rather than a legal gap—is said to exist in submarine cable governance under UNCLOS, such that most states do not fulfill their obligations under the treaty and lack domestic laws criminalizing destruction or theft of cables within territorial waters (Matley 2019, 181). States may also be unwilling to obey rulings under UNCLOS. As of 2016, no permanent member of the UN Security Council has “ever accepted any international court’s ruling when (in their view) it infringed their sovereignty or national security interests" (Allison 2016, para. 2). The United States and China are no exception. China, which negotiated UNCLOS and ratified the treaty (Wang 2016), has violated it repeatedly, including the illegal capture of a U.S. undersea drone in 2016 (Kraska and Pedrozo 2016). The United States is not party to the treaty, and is bound only by a 1983 announcement that it will respect UNCLOS so long as other states do the same (Kraska 2017, para. 6). This could lead to the breaking of international norms restricting sabotage by either state, eliminating cable protections afforded under UNCLOS and endangering connectivity (Green et al. 2009, 36).

Espionage is uniquely positioned as both within and outside of international norms, with staggering implications for the submarine cable market.

Since espionage using submarine cables is internationally legal in the high seas and within a coastal state’s own waters, spying operations against cables in these areas are limited only by a state’s morals and technology, though all who exploit this opportunity ask others not to do the same. Starting in 1971, American submarine officers tapped Soviet telecommunications cables through Operation Ivy Bells, while naval lawyers drafted classified papers certifying the dubious legality of inductive tapping (Sontag and Drew 1998, chap. “Oshkosh B’Gosh”). Massive intelligence gains encouraged the United States to spy on allies and adversaries alike, often using submarine cables (Miller 2020, paras. 17–21). Over forty years later, the Snowden Disclosures of June 2013 publicized this strategy, causing global outrage over privacy violations. The disclosures reduced trust in U.S. networks and created opportunities for competitors including China, who is now critiqued for its own cable espionage operations.

International backlash to the Snowden Disclosures was immediate. In Europe, concern for citizen privacy led the EU to threaten the suspension of data transfer agreements (Emmott 2014). A spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense decried the scandal as “reveal[ing] the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security” of the United States (Farrell and Finnemore 2013, sec. 2). Brazil, a country dependent on U.S. routing, increased national pressure to construct the Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) submarine cable, which would have reduced Brazilian traffic passing through the United States via a new connection to South Africa, India, China, and Russia (Emmott 2014). Though the BRICS cable was never completed, effects of the disclosures persist in submarine cable markets. In considering new Arctic routes, some developers exclude U.S. landing points, citing the need to circumvent potential privacy concerns (Submarine Telecoms Forum 2019b).

Alternatives to U.S. information and communications technology (ICT) have emerged through China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR), a component of the BRI, which assists in improving foreign telecommunications networks, AI, cloud computing, and surveillance capabilities, among others (Kurlantzick and West 2021). The DSR is a loosely defined policy directive directed by both bottom-up and top-down forces which blur the lines between public strategy and private action (Ang 2019). China introduced the program in 2015, the same year the failed BRICS cable was slated for completion. Through the DSR, “Chinese companies have quietly been eroding U.S., European and Japanese dominance over...the undersea cable market" (Tobin 2019, para. 3). Although a turn from U.S. ICT and routing following the disclosures is justifiable, cables landing in China or owned by Chinese companies may be no more secure than the U.S.-based technology they hope to replace.

Submarine Cables as China's Strategic Assets

China views submarine cables not as a neutral component of a global, mutually beneficial network but as strategic assets which could be tapped or severed in any future conflict (Kraska 2020a, para. 2). Per an official CCP outlet, “although undersea cable laying is a business, it is also a battlefield where information can be obtained” (Starks 2020). This section identifies three threats from China to the submarine cable network, which include the potential for global sabotage and global espionage through the DSR and private sector, as well as the potential for regional sabotage during conflicts including the South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute. Regional espionage is not considered here, as the threat of espionage at CLS is not specific to China. These three threats (global sabotage, global espionage, and regional sabotage) define the scope of U.S. responses to cable insecurity.

Global Sabotage and the Digital Silk Road

Bueger and Liebetrau argue that the risk of sabotage to submarine cables is exaggerated, particularly in the instance of Russian or non-state actors, because of high network redundancy and a lack of publicly reported instances of hostile disruptions (2021, 6, 9). However, such instances do exist (Sechrist 2010, 38–39), and others may be classified. Additional examples may include the 2013 SEA-ME-WE 4 arrests, about which little is known, and activity related to the Yantar, a Russian ship suspected of cable manipulation (Riechmann 2018). The threat posed by China’s DSR may also be unique in its global reach and targeting of developing economies, which often rely on fewer cable connections. Though the global network’s interconnectivity typically deters peacetime sabotage, the most efficient and least risky attacks would involve a saboteur with high network redundancy, a target with low network redundancy, and geographic distance separating the two. China’s DSR provides each of these. 

The DSR’s influence is growing, most notably in developing areas. Reliable information on the project is difficult to find (Ang 2019). However, as of 2019, more than 70 percent of African nations and the African Union signed memoranda of understanding (MOU) with Beijing on the BRI (Dahir 2019, para. 2). The involvement of Chinese company Huawei Marine alone in submarine cable development worldwide nearly doubled following the DSR’s announcement, with five new systems between 2012 and 2016 (Submarine Telecoms Forum 2016, 47) and eight between 2015 and 2019, a trend unmatched by other industry leaders. Unlike similarly sized companies, most of Huawei’s cable development also occurs outside its home region (Submarine Telecoms Forum 2019a, 39). Even for states without MOU, the DSR is hard to avoid. For example, Brazil is not a partner under the BRI, despite partial ownership by state-owned telecommunications provider China Unicom of a 2018 cable connecting it and Cameroon, a state which is listed under the BRI (Dahir 2019). 

Rather than create a peaceful system of reciprocal dependence, increased globalization may invoke principles of weaponized interdependence, in which asymmetric control of global networks allows states coercive power over one another (Farrell and Newman 2019). Submarine cables represent one such network, and one that is increasingly under China’s influence. To limit this kind of weaponization, the United Nations Open-Ended Working Group’s (OEWG) latest report found that capacity building for critical information infrastructure should be “sustainable....politically neutral, transparent, accountable, and without conditions…[and] undertaken with full respect for the principle of state sovereignty” (“Final Substantive Report” 2021, para. 56). China is likely in violation of these principles, as many BRI loans contain broad confidentiality clauses and others entitle China to terminate loans and demand immediate repayment if debtors act against PRC interests (Gelpern et al. 2021, 6–7). The PEACE cable—headed by Chinese company Hengtong Optic-Electric and designed to connect several BRI participants—represents one instance of a DSR cable critiqued by U.S. officials as unsustainable and nontransparent (Mifrah 2021; Kurlantzick and West 2021, sec. “Pakistan”). 

Manipulation of DSR connectivity aligns with China’s leveraging of BRI infrastructure for economic and political gain, which has led some to call the initiative a “Trojan horse for China-led regional development and military expansion" (Chatzky and McBride 2020, para. 2). For example, to pay its debts to China, Ecuador agreed to sell 80 percent of its oil exports to the state at a discount. Ecuadorian energy minister Carlos Pérez later commented that China’s strategy is clear, seeking to “take economic control” of countries, including his own (Casey and Krauss 2018, paras. 8–11). Control may then be used to "punish" offending states whose policies do not align with China’s, including when the state cut credit lines to Vietnamese engineering, procurement, and construction projects following anti-China riots in 2013 (Bowring 2014). This strategy of punishment extends to digital infrastructure, as China has also used its knowledge of international ICT to disrupt critical services (Boudreau and Chau 2016). 

Submarine cable connectivity is critical to the economies of coastal states. Given common stipulations in BRI loans and China’s willingness to manipulate related infrastructure, states whose network depends on China’s support risk disruption of connectivity if they pursue undesirable policies. Unclear jurisdiction over submarine cables and the DSR’s blurred private/public nature would complicate the legality of this action. Though intentional obstruction of connectivity is illegal under UNCLOS, the treaty remains unlikely to constrain China’s strategic goals. Cable manipulations may also not meet the threshold for traditional warfare, allowing China to exert international influence without setting off tripwires for retaliation. 

Global Espionage and China’s Cable Companies

China may also use the DSR to conduct espionage across submarine cables worldwide. Huawei Marine, now under Hengtong Optic-Electric, was a magnet for such claims. However, because many BRI/DSR projects are market-driven and not under direct government oversight, it is not immediately clear how much sway China holds over its ICT sector. Huawei—the “world’s largest vendor of telecommunications equipment, bar none"—was founded in 1987 by a former deputy director of China’s People's Liberation Army engineering corps (Winder 2020). The company has been involved in constructing or updating nearly 100 submarine cable systems globally, though it entered the submarine cable market a decade before the BRI’s announcement (“Huawei Marine Achieves over 100 Contracts” 2020; Greene and Triolo 2020, para. 13). 

Huawei asserts its independence and commitment to protecting user data, but the success of Chinese technology companies is often contingent upon government support (O’Flaherty 2019; Inskeep 2018, para. 3), increasing the likelihood of a close relationship between Huawei and the Chinese government. Western entities also insist that Chinese ICT companies receive government subsidies which allow them to lowball bids and gain increased access to developing markets (Stavridis 2019, para. 4; Pompeo 2020, para. 18). This kind of price manipulation may represent an attempt to coerce developing nations into using insecure technologies (Glick 2020, 11:30), including submarine cables. Although Chinese investment through the BRI/DSR should not be categorically dismissed as detrimental, insecure networks undermine the self-reliance of developing nations (Risberg 2019, para. 6; Glick 2020, 21:50). 

China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law further calls into question the independence of ICT companies like Huawei. Under the law, Chinese citizens and organizations are required to cooperate with state intelligence services without due process protections (Girard 2019). For Chinese ICT companies, this would include sharing personally identifiable information, intellectual property, national security information, or any other relevant data traffic (Glick 2020, 16:30). Experts are therefore “justifiably concerned about the inclusion of espionage ‘back doors’” in internet infrastructure by Chinese companies, a policy which contradicts international best practices for data governance (Stavridis 2019, para. 5; Greene and Triolo 2020, sec. 3). Despite the quick denouncement of international espionage by Western nations, this law nonetheless ensures China its own access to ICT for similar purposes.

Access to Huawei Marine/Hengtong Groups’s data—along with that of other Chinese companies (i.e., China Telecom, China Unicom, and China Mobile)—exponentially increases the reach of Chinese intelligence by affording access to data transmitted via cables which do not land at mainland China. This espionage may also be legal under international law, as taps to cables laid by one’s own state or its companies in the high seas does not violate coastal state sovereignty per the Tallinn Manual 2.0 (Kono 2019, pt. 4g). Intelligence on this scale could be used in economic campaigns or to target Chinese dissidents for cyberattacks (Schlesinger 2012, para. 2; Lindsay 2015, 15). States may also hesitate to denounce China for espionage related to the DSR. For example, after helping construct the African Union headquarters in Ethiopia, Chinese state actors bugged the complex and siphoned surveillance footage. Even though this activity was discovered, “any official protest over the spying is unlikely…[because] China plays a critical role in keeping the organization running” (Satter 2020).

Figure 2: Map of Submarine Cables in the South China Sea, 2021 



Stylized maps of cables in the South China Sea
Image by TeleGeography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Figure 3: Map of South China Sea Claims



Map of South China Sea claims
Image by Voice of America is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Regional Sabotage and the South China Sea

Submarine cables may also be subject to Chinese influence through offensive damage in regional disputes and/or the intentional delay of repair permits within China’s EEZ. These tools may be used to cement disputed claims in areas including the SCS, of which China claims 85 percent through its infamous nine-dash-line. The SCS is a major shipping corridor that hosts one-third of all maritime traffic and a shocking $5 trillion in trade annually. Called a “second Persian Gulf,” the area could yield 130 billion barrels of oil (Macias 2016). The SCS territorial dispute is “critical” and “worsening” per the Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, and involves competing claimants Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam (“South China Sea Claims Map” 2012). The nine-dash-line violates UNCLOS per a 2016 ruling favoring the Philippines, which China rejects (Wyne 2016, paras. 1–3). China aggressively defends its claim, and has created 3,200 acres of new or expanded islands, including those in the Spratly Group, to house military equipment and infrastructure in the SCS (Panda 2020; Blackwill, Cohen, and Economy 2020). 

Yet there is another traveler through this water: data. As of 2021, at least 15 submarine cables—each owned by up to 60 international entities—traverse the SCS, placing neutral internet infrastructure in the crosshairs of global conflict.

The quantity and closeness of cables makes the SCS a network chokepoint, where the probability of simultaneous breaks increases overall risk. The SCS’s high volume of maritime traffic and potential for severe earthquakes also increase the likelihood of accidental damage (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 31–32). Overlapping claims mean that permits are required from multiple states to repair damaged cables, exaggerating an already lengthy reconnection process disruptive to regional economies (Green et al. 2009, 34). Intentionally delaying cable repair processes is illegal under UNCLOS, though this alone may not limit China’s actions.

The dispute’s outcome confers implications for regional submarine cables. In the unlikely case that China’s claim is accepted, the nine-dash-line would afford the state significant, legal access to data within the SCS. Territorial waters around the artificially enhanced Spratly Islands alone would place a full 10 percent of the SCS under Chinese sovereignty. Beyond this, the new Chinese EEZ would fill nearly the entire sea (Mastro 2020, sec. 3). Because submarines or undersea drones are not included under the EEZ’s right of innocent passage, China’s claim would restrict the espionage capabilities of other states under international law (Kono 2019, pt. 4g). China’s lax record of enforcement against shipping vessels that cut submarine cables may contribute to accidental damage rates and connectivity loss (Kraska 2020a, para. 4). Permits to repair damaged cables in the sea would be almost fully under Chinese discretion. 

More likely is an escalation of the conflict (Blackwill, Cohen, and Economy 2020). Strategically damaging cables or refusing access to cable ships without Chinese permits could provide leverage to China against fellow claimants by imposing crippling economic and communications effects. This would be particularly threatening to Taiwan, whose submarine cables have been described as its “Achilles Heel" (Huang 2017, para. 7). Intentional cable faults could also affect the global network, as most cables in the SCS provide connectivity to states not involved in the dispute. Interestingly, China’s artificial islands in the SCS may rely on a separate group of cables that do not appear on public maps. In 2016, Reuters reported a planned submarine connection between the island of Hainan and Woody island in the Paracels (Martina and Brunnstrom 2016). State media later reported cables laid by China Unicom in the Spratly Group. Further unknown cable activity was detected in June (Long 2020). This network, if robust, may be sufficient to maintain connectivity between islands in the case that other cables are sabotaged.

U.S. Responses and Future Options

While U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas recently reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to an open and secure internet (Mayorkas 2021), there is no singular, coordinated policy towards submarine cables. Current policy is decentralized and volatile, with existing programs frequently abandoned and new posts created sporadically. However, some momentum for integration is growing, as seen by the recent establishment of the Office of the National Cyber Director and the formalization of ad hoc Team Telecom into the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (Costello and Montgomery 2021; “The Committee” 2020). 

This section organizes components of U.S. policy towards submarine cables into four distinct options: the isolationist, cooperative, competitive, and militaristic responses (see Table 1). Analyses evaluate how each response addresses the threat’s scope, including global sabotage, global espionage, and regional sabotage. Other factors considered are risk, the likelihood of damage to the United States, and immediacy, the speed at which the response could produce meaningful results. For a summary of response analysis, see Table 2. 

Isolationist Response

The isolationist response would limit transmission of U.S. data through vulnerable cables, whether due to their ownership or routing. An early version of this response is the Clean Network program, which distinguishes ‘clean’ cables from those surveilled by hostile foreign powers with limited success. Critiqued as “unimplementable” (Lewis 2021), the Clean Network’s page on the State Department website was archived after the inauguration of President Biden. Though the use of cables owned by Chinese companies or connecting to mainland China is risky, this response incorrectly assumes that the internet is compartmentalizable and that local responses alone are sufficient to check China’s influence on a global network. The isolationist response is ultimately not recommended as a future course of U.S. action.

In 2019, President Trump banned by executive order trade of ICT that posed “unacceptable risk” to national security (Segers 2019, para. 2). Huawei Technologies—along with other Chinese companies—was blacklisted soon after, effectively barring Chinese telecommunication firms from American markets (Winder 2020, sec. 2). This approach expanded into the Clean Network initiative, designed to protect U.S. information security from “aggressive intrusions from malign actors, such as the Chinese Communist Party." It has six components: Clean Carrier, Apps, Store, Cloud, Cable, and Path. Most relevant here is Clean Cable, which bolsters U.S. and partnered information security by connecting exclusively to cables free from hostile espionage (“The Clean Network” 2020).

Though the use of cables owned by Chinese companies or connecting to mainland China is risky, this response incorrectly assumes that the internet is compartmentalizable and that local responses alone are sufficient to check China’s influence on a global network.

Less than one month after Clean Cable’s announcement, the United States withdrew approval for the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), which would have connected Los Angeles and Hong Kong (BBC News 2020). The PLCN represents the “first cable rejected [by the U.S. DOJ] on the grounds of national security" (Tobin 2019). Cited among the reasons for the cancellation is China’s "access to other countries' data through...digital infrastructure investments" (BBC News 2020, sec. 2). The expensive cable was already placed under the assumption that a landing point in Hong Kong was more secure than one in mainland China. However, China’s growing regional control made this distinction less relevant, and the separate Hong Kong-Americas project was later cancelled on similar grounds (Tobin 2019; FitzGerald and Purnell 2021). 

Table 1: Matrix of Possible U.S. Responses



Matrix of potential U.S. responses

Table 1. This table displays a matrix of potential U.S. responses. 

Isolationist protections offered by cable cancellations and technology bans are tenuous. American data is only as safe as the least secure cable it traverses, and many cables still connect to CLS in China or are owned or operated by Chinese companies. Some changes were made following the 2019 ban, including the sale of Huawei Marine Systems to Hengtong Optic-Electric (Hardy 2019). Also based in China, the new owner is unlikely to be exempt from China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law. Huawei’s status has also been quietly reinstated after its temporary removal from standards-setting bodies including the WiFi Alliance, the Bluetooth SIG and the SD Association (Hasler 2019, paras. 3, 7).

While countries in the Clean Network would face reduced threats from cable manipulation, connection to any cable deemed ‘risky’ might subject data to surveillance. Protection would therefore limit communication to or through China for all participants. Many key U.S. allies would likely remain connected, but data might struggle to reach parts of East Africa or South Asia, which frequently rely on cables passing through Asia. This problem would likely increase, as the proportion of cables landing in China is expected to double to 20 percent by 2030 (Fouquet 2021). China might then “pursue a separate technology stack, replete with its own standards-setting process that includes a subset of BRI/DSR countries” (Greene and Triolo 2020, para. 20). Taken together, these actions could result in the internet’s fragmentation. The isolationist response therefore lacks long-term viability as the primary method of securing U.S. or other transnational data traffic.

Table 2: Relative Merits of Possible U.S. Responses



This table lists the relative merits of possible U.S. responses.
Scope is defined as: global sabotage (leveraging of influence over DSR cables), global espionage (intelligence collection using DSR cables), and regional sabotage (manipulation of connectivity in conflicts including the SCS maritime dispute). Immediacy reflects the speed at which the response could produce meaningful results. Risk reflects the possibility that the response might damage the U.S. 

The isolationist response addresses two of the three threats outlined in Table 2. By disconnecting member states from vulnerable cables, it would limit global espionage and sabotage. However, the response does not address damage to cables during conflict, as even an informationally secure network may be strategically sabotaged. The response in its ideal form would be difficult to accomplish, leading to low immediacy. Finally, risk to the United States is high because it might jeopardize international connectivity, which contributes $1 trillion in GDP annually to the United States (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 38).

Cooperative Response

The cooperative response advocates for international governance measures to protect submarine cables and reduce cable manipulation globally, by China or other actors. Key areas for bolstering current governance include facilitating the cable repair process and establishing protective zones around cables. Ideal legislation would also restrict espionage against cable networks, but enforcement of this may be unattainable. If these efforts fail, the United States could also work with a subset of like-minded allies on coordinated cable protection measures. Low compliance and implementation of current governance reduces the effectiveness of this response.

American data is only as safe as the least secure cable it traverses, and many cables still connect to CLS in China or are owned or operated by Chinese companies.

In developing international cyber law, each state seeks to limit others’ strategic advantages while increasing their own, as outcomes “will determine how states can use modern ICT to further their political agendas" (Henriksen 2019, 4). International agreements on cyber governance are thus historically elusive. For instance, two of five United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) meetings failed produce a final report—despite the UN GGE being the “primary avenue for interstate dialogue about the international legal regulation of cyberspace”—and most successful findings were “rudimentary" (Henriksen 2019, 2–3). Nevertheless, some hope exists for submarine cable legislation, as the physical layer of internet infrastructure is often easier to legislate than its virtual or informational counterparts (Nye 2014, 5). For example, the recent UN OEWG’s final report proposed criteria to protect information security and reduce the potential interstate leverage using critical information infrastructure (2021, para. 56). However, even this agreement is non-binding. Banning espionage would likely be futile, especially within territorial waters. Alternative legislation might criminalize the conditioning of domestic licensing for telecommunications providers or cable operators upon their disclosure of transmitted data to local governments (MacAskill et al. 2013, para. 25). 

Legislation within the cooperative response could address several areas of submarine cable insecurity. The current cable repair process is time-consuming and slows the rapid restoration of connectivity. The International Cable Protection Committee therefore recommends that governments “eliminate all repair permits/licenses/fees/guard boat requirements for all repairs to international cables beyond territorial seas” and “accord cable repair ships innocent passage status for the purpose of undertaking repairs in territorial seas" (Green et al. 2009, 35). This is seconded by a 2013 APEC report (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 73). Measures like these would facilitate repairs even in disputed territories and might be comparatively easy to pass. 

Another option would be to establish international protective zones around submarine cables in the high seas and EEZ, which could legitimize the complicated jurisdiction of submarine cables. This would simplify future measures prohibiting wartime sabotage or espionage beyond a state’s territorial waters. Clarification on submarine cable jurisdiction is also key for state responses to non-state threats, as there is currently no legal basis for responding to a terror attack against cables conducted by foreign nationals (Matley 2019, 178). Instead of requiring new legislation, existing treaties like UNCLOS could be amended. It is also recommended that the United States join UNCLOS (Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 71). This is the subject of much debate but could be important to the maintenance of a rules-based international order as the U.S. refusal to ratify UNCLOS allows “China to deflect U.S. criticism and highlight Washington’s hypocrisy" (Wright 2017, para. 11; Wyne 2016, para. 4). 

If global measures are unsuccessful, the United States could leverage its ally network to form a like-minded consensus. Rather than disconnect from insecure cables, each party would coordinate domestic policy changes to slowly shift international norms in favor of increased protections. Relying on a smaller group of states would circumvent some challenges of the cooperative response. For example, NATO recently recognized the growing importance protecting civilian and military cables by expanding the definition of Sea Lines of Communication (traditionally referencing shipping routes) to include submarine cables (Sutton 2020, para. 11). Two other state groupings which may be able to reach a consensus are the Five Eyes intelligence alliance between the United States, Canada, the U.K., New Zealand, and Australia; and the Blue Dot Network, a trilateral partnership launched in 2019 by the United States, Japan, and Australia (Goodman, Runde, and Hillman 2020). Australia, included in both groups, may be particularly interested in expanding global submarine cable protections (Matley 2019).

This response addresses most threats in Table 2 though it is unlikely to effectively limit espionage. It would, however, limit global and regional sabotage to cables through the establishment of protective zones and a shortening of the cable repair process. The immediacy of this response is low, as UNCLOS took nine years to negotiate (Davenport 2015, 67) and more specific protections may be difficult to agree upon. Finally, the risk to the United States is also low, as any political losses from joining UNCLOS may be counteracted by a furtherance of U.S. standing globally. Uncertain compliance and damaged trust between the United States and international partners are weak points of this response (Lewis 2021, sec. 2).

Competitive Response

To counter the proliferation of insecure technologies including compromised Chinese 5G equipment, a third response seeks to expose the insecurity of Chinese ICT and promote adoption of U.S. or partnered alternatives. This would strengthen the redundancy of a secure network without disconnecting the United States, as in the isolationist response. Work by the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) aligns with the early stages of a competitive response, which seems promising. Given its lag behind the DSR, it is necessary to promote other responses alongside the competitive response until it can take effect.

Already, many BRI countries recognize the initiative’s coercive nature and have taken steps to distance themselves from Beijing’s influence. This includes Vietnam, which has quietly avoided Chinese infrastructure in its 5G rollout despite 3G and 4G inclusion (Murray 2019, para. 11). Democracies in particular are turning away from the BRI, as “China is struggling to sell its soft power initiative in places where it cannot simply hide embarrassing or inconvenient details" (Balding 2018, sec. 3). Nevertheless, alternative foreign partners are still needed to counter the BRI/DSR (Murray 2019, para. 11). Because many countries opt-in to China’s DSR for economic reasons (Dahir 2019, para. 7), the United States may be able to reduce China’s influence over the submarine cable market by encouraging the adoption of American or partnered cable options at a competitive rate.

One U.S. agency central to the competitive response is the DFC, established in 2019 to integrate capabilities of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation and USAID’s Development Credit Authority. DFC, which hosts the Blue Dot Network, recently invested $190 million in cable supplier Trans-Pacfic Networks to connect Singapore to the United States in a route excluding the SCS (“DFC Approves” 2020; McBeth 2020). The cable, ECHO, is further supported by content providers Facebook and Google (Qiu 2021). DFC’s Connect Africa initiative has also pledged $1 billion in aid to improve the continent’s telecommunications infrastructure, though the site does not list any submarine cables projects (“Connect Africa” 2021). USAID messaging complements DFC investment. Both agencies support the U.S. Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership, which seeks to expand U.S. access to overseas ICT markets (DCCP 2020). USAID also announced its first-ever digital strategy in 2020, citing concerns of “cyber authoritarianism" (“Digital Strategy: 2020-2024” 2020, 14). In a recent interview, former Deputy Administrator Bonnie Glick stressed the importance of speaking directly with foreign leaders about the threat of Chinese ICT (Glick 2020, 17:00-21:00). China, of course, critiques this as a smear campaign rooted in American biases (Lee 2021, para. 12). 

The use of DFC and USAID in communicating and funding a need for internet infrastructure independent of China is promising and aligns well with U.S. values of market competition and transparency. However, trans-oceanic cables may cost up to $500 million and the typical cable planning and production cycle lasts two to three years (Davenport 2015, 65; Gerlach and Seitz 2013, 11). China has already invested $79 billion in the DSR-related projects, though only a portion involve submarine cables (Kurlantzick and West 2021, sec. “Conclusion”). Nevertheless, the competitive response offers several benefits. It is timely, given a 25-50 percent increase in internet traffic amid the COVID-19 pandemic (Schofield and Bressie 2020, 2). It also meets China’s call for U.S. investment following critiques of the PEACE cable (Aamir 2020). Finally, the response contributes to network diversity, as in the case of ECHO, which uniquely routes around the SCS. 

The competitive response is effective at combating two of the three threats that define its scope. Because insecure cables would remain in use and no protective measures would be taken, it does not address espionage. It does, however, address sabotage by increasing the redundancy of a secure cable network. This in turn decreases potential damage through manipulation of any one cable. The immediacy of this response is medium, as it would not take immediate effect but could produce some results within the next few years. Though this response requires a financial commitment, it is unlikely to damage the United States and therefore is low risk.

Militaristic Response

There is a case for U.S. military involvement in defense of submarine cables threatened by sabotage or espionage, especially if the cable is partially owned by a U.S. firm. Per the 2020 Oslo Manual on Select Topics on the Law of Armed Conflict, states that have laid submarine cables or pipelines, or whose nationals have done so, are “entitled to take protective measures” to prevent or terminate “harmful interference” of them (Kraska 2020a, para. 7). Cables are also essential to communicating defense intelligence, including transmission of unmanned aerial vehicle video footage (Davenport 2015, 63). A militaristic response may therefore define U.S. action in the SCS or beyond, whether through defensive positioning or developing technologies to secure data.

A primary U.S. response to China’s SCS claim is regional Freedom of Navigation Operations. Six have occurred since 2017 (Blackwill, Cohen, and Economy 2020). When China illegally captured a U.S. undersea drone in the SCS, the U.S. also protested and called on China to obey UNCLOS. However, a stronger response might also announce the U.S.’ legal capacity to act in self-defense and “warn China that any future interference with U.S. survey ships or reconnaissance aircraft operating legally on, under and over the high seas will be viewed as a hostile act" (Kraska and Pedrozo 2016, sec. 4). Alongside efforts to increase the security and defense capabilities of other SCS claimants, statements like these function as deterrence against aggression in the region. 

The development of defensive technologies, including the improvement of encryption used to send U.S. data, is also crucial. Both domestic and internationally-bound data would need this protection, as the use of “end-to-end encryption in all internet-based communications…would make the task of compromising the security of the information on the cables much more difficult" (Stavridis 2019, para. 10). Put another way, if data is adequately encrypted, “then the question of hostile state interception and snooping becomes moot" (Winder 2020, para. 9). However, high-level encryption on this scale may be difficult to accomplish and would require constant improvement to stay ahead of foreign decryption. The U.S. defense industry could also facilitate mechanisms to better detect cable taps or sonar frequencies near cable routes, the latter of which is characteristic of high-tech undersea vehicles (Martinage 2015, para. 24). Such detection measures could alert states to risks and help secure otherwise vulnerable cables.

The militaristic response is adept at addressing threats of espionage and regional sabotage through increased encryption, espionage detection measures, and defensive measures in key strategic areas. However, it struggles to combat global sabotage. While deterrence may offer some protections, cyber threats are often considered below the threshold for warfare, making a military response difficult to justify. Multilateral action is suggested whenever possible in the militaristic response because no state can single-handedly defend the sprawling, global submarine cable network. The immediacy of this response is classified as high, as components not already incorporated in U.S. policy could begin immediately. A ranking of medium risk represents the possibility for conflict escalation following increased military involvement. 


China’s leveraging of submarine cables as strategic assets is a global threat that compromises information security and opens the door to sabotage against both DSR countries and fellow claimants to the SCS. Further action is needed by global leaders—including the United States—to increase network security. Thus far, the U.S. response has taken several forms, including the isolationist, cooperative, competitive, and militaristic responses. Each response addresses areas of the threat but none are complete in scope. Some combination of these responses is therefore required. This paper ultimately recommends a combined militaristic and competitive response.

Whichever set of responses the United States chooses is, in some ways, a moral issue. In the wake of the Snowden Disclosures, the United States must “be compelled to start practicing what it preaches” or risk the loss of its global influence (Farrell and Finnemore 2013). Despite advocacy for international norms, the United States has participated in global espionage campaigns and refuses to ratify key treaties defending cable security. U.S. critiques of China’s ICT espionage through private companies also fall flat when contextualized with the United States' own history of foreign espionage through Western Union telegrams or Crypto AG encryption technology (Walton 2020, sec. 2; Miller 2020). The United States should therefore limit its actions to those espousing its liberal values of human rights, economic interdependence, and international governance. This most naturally leads to the competitive and cooperative responses. It also serves as a warning against the isolationist response, which fails to reconcile U.S security needs with global connectivity and transnationalism. 

Thus far, the U.S. response has taken several forms, including the isolationist, cooperative, competitive, and militaristic responses. Each response addresses areas of the threat but none are complete in scope. Some combination of these responses is therefore required. This paper ultimately recommends a combined militaristic and competitive response.

It is also important to choose a combination of responses that both treats the symptoms of data insecurity and its causes, thereby protecting data with an immediate solution while awaiting the success of a broader, long-term response. The only response awarded high immediacy is the militaristic response, which would fulfill the first role by improving encryption and monitoring cables for manipulation. An ideal pairing would then also include either the cooperative or competitive response. Combined, both options (militaristic/cooperative and militaristic/competitive) are complete in scope. Because affordable alternatives are needed for developing areas to reject insecure Chinese ICT and because of differences in immediacy, this paper recommends a primary militaristic/competitive approach. However, the cooperative response remains notable, as it would limit the potential influence of any state on the submarine cable network, not just China. Some elements of the cooperative response should therefore be maintained, at a minimum to include ratifying UNCLOS and seizing future opportunities to support international governance protecting submarine cables from sabotage.

*This piece was edited by JPIA editors Lynne Guey (Princeton University), Corbin Stevens (Princeton University), and Sofia Alessandra Ramirez (Princeton University). 

About the Author

Lane Burdette completed this article as a Master of International Affairs candidate at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. After graduation, she joined the team at TeleGeography and can now be reached at [email protected]


The author would like to give special thanks to Dr. Jesse Sowell for his guidance and continued support.


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