Chances are that you’ve never heard of the International Cable Protection Committee. Founded in 1958, the ICPC is an international institution with 69 countries represented by around 190 member organisations, ranging from corporations to government agencies. The clue to its business lies in the name – the committee aims to ensure the protection of the vast network that spans the world’s oceans by developing policies focused on information sharing, awareness and maintenance.
As an institution, the ICPC can also talk seriously about the security of the subsea cables from intentional threats. Yet like many multilateral organisations, this talk never seems to be followed by concrete action.
Recently, NATO has speculated about possible Russian attacks on subsea cables following the war on Ukraine. Meanwhile, concern about the growing US-China tech competition has brought attention to subsea cables as well. Discussions have taken place about strengthening the institutions such as International Telecommunication Union and making state level policy changes to curb the increasing presence of China in the telecommunications and subsea cables industry. But international regulation hasn’t kept pace with developments in the digital age.
Indeed, there is no specific international legal framework focusing only on subsea cables.
Subsea cables are responsible for around 97 per cent of the data and information flows that result in trans-continental communication. The UN General Assembly has described cables as “critical communications infrastructure”. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) also describes intentional damage to the subsea cables as a punishable offence. But neither carry an accountability mechanism.
Cutting off the subsea cables to disable communication for an opponent country or committing espionage activities by tapping the wires on the bottom of the ocean traces its history back to the First World War. In February this year Chinese vessels cut the Matsu Island internet cables which forced Taiwan’s peripheral island into anxious isolation for about six weeks. With the rise of China’s Huawei Marine Networks in the subsea cables industry, worries increase manifold about Chinese espionage activities in the already strengthening information war.
But while China is a quest to dominate information, it will have to surpass the already existing strong subsea cables architecture that the Quad partners have built. Together, the Quad partners comprise the largest stakeholders in the subsea cable ecosystem. Companies such as SubCom LLC in the United States and Japan’s NEC are the top two subsea cable manufacturers, while the strategic location of Australia and India in the Pacific and Indian oceans respectively make them a routing priority for a consortium of subsea telecom operators and network service providers.
With increasing digital demands expected for countries in the Indo-Pacific into the future, the challenges associated with laying and maintaining subsea cables will only become more common.
The Quad has an onus of protection for this crucial infrastructure. And the ICPC offers the Quad the best platform to interact with stakeholders in the subsea cable ecosystem, including manufacturers, layers, maintainers, network operators as well as major cloud service providers.
The Quad countries can talk “security” in the ICPC by looking for opportunities to enhance if not enforce accountability mechanisms in case of intentional damage to subsea cables. India has particular need to encourage the security dimension, given its rising status. The Australian government’s Department of Home Affairs is already a member of the ICPC and other Quad partners members should also ensure relevant government bodies are involved to signal the seriousness of the security needs for subsea cables.
The world will increasingly struggle to balance open standards for data sharing in support of democratic systems with the rise of extravagant claims to digital sovereignty that underpin techno-authoritarianism. And the potential battleground is not only on screens but in the infrastructure that lies deep in the ocean.