Chinese Threat to The Submarine Cables and Prospective Countermeasures

April 18, 2023 Arghish Akolkar



Submarine cable infrastructure is the backbone of the global economy today. It is the sole reason that today's world can enjoy wireless connection in various forms, from messaging, telecommunication, emails and websites. The submarine cables run across thousands of kilometres on the ocean floor, connecting various countries and continents globally. Their importance is correlated to today's increasingly digitised world; one cannot grow without the other. These cables are present on the ocean floor. They are responsible for the transfer and exchange of data globally and also allow people globally to enjoy various amenities such as video or audio streaming, video calls between different continents, banking, sharing and transfer of data which may also be sensitive. Though these services by nature are required for the functioning of various activities and doing activities which we today consider as a basic necessity, the submarine cables which allow for this to happen have been completely forgotten at times in the global geopolitical discourses allowing for specific actions to go unnoticed even if they are of massive significance and will have a direct impact on our daily functioning.


The submarine cables seen today have been developing since the 19th century (, 2012) when they were laid for a telegraph between the United Kingdom and France across the English channel – but this lacked proper planning, theory of operations and proper contemplation of efficient execution of the plan. The next major endeavour was laying the Atlantic telegraphic cables, the first adequately planned, financed, and executed trans-national and trans-continental submarine cables (Britannica, 2022). These cables also marked the first attempt at a proper commercialisation model, which incentivised private funding of the submarine cables - becoming a model for future endeavours, especially during the post-WW2 period foundations of today's submarine cables and hence subsequently today's digital revolution as well.

Today the submarine cables and their laying is usually done by the major private companies, with the submarine cables being replaced at regular intervals as the new technology develops, with every new generation of submarine cables being smaller, more efficient and less damaging to the surrounding marine while also being capable of transmitting a more significant amount of data (Communications, 2022). Irrespective of the fast-paced developments in the frontier of submarine cable technology, submarine cables are still prone to be made incapacitated by something as simple as fishing nets or marine animals attacks/bites (Hopper, 2009 ) on submarine cables, hence reflecting the minimum or sometimes near defenselessness of these cables which are today the backbone of the globalised economy mainly when we may have motivated state or non-actors actively seeking to undermine them.


Dragon's Shadow on the Internet and Data

Made and tampered in China: Chinese Corporates

The People's Republic of China, since its period of reform over 20 years, has seen a massive expansion which at first encompassed just the Chinese mainland but slowly has expanded across East Asia through its said semi-private companies and publically owned companies. (Yongshun Xie, 2022 ) .Though a striking feature of the submarine cable cum internet infrastructure is highly censored and overlooked by the State Censors, their responsibility has also been expanding of late to the Submarine Cables, which just happen to have the landing ports in China as one of its intermediaries, with this being one of the reasons which were raised by the American Government body of Federal Communications Commission in 2019 (FCC, 2019).

In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party took the world by launching its grand One Belt One Road Initiative, now renamed Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). One of the secondary projects mentioned in the said white paper was the Digital Silk Road project, as per the ancillary report which was published by the Chinese Communist Parties, which highlights the ambitions of the Chinese state to push ahead an array of submarine cables across nearly all the continents (PRC, 2015). Before the ink could dry on the report, the Chinese state has pushed digital infrastructure across Europe, Asia, and Africa. It achieved rapid laurels by having nearly 96% of the Submarine Cables concerning the African Continent.

The Chinese state has likely rolled out various schemes and subsidies to provide a road of roses for their state-backed entities to undercut the market massively. These incentives and subsidies are significant as it allows for a market that revolves around business models about low-margin profits and the long gestation period of significant investments. The said incentives or subsidisation to undercut the market prices prevalent globally is not unique to the Submarine cables, this tactic of state-subsidised cost cutting has been used in other strategic sectors as well, such as the rare earth refinement process, which is incredibly low-margin and cost incentive similar to the Submarine cable industry.

The main focus of these state-subsidised and, at times, state-owned companies is to get directly involved or indirectly through getting into the ancillary industries which are associated with the submarine cables industry in an attempt to control where, when and how the submarine cables are being built and how they are managed and further how the global internet is being routed (Bischof, 2018). There have been instances of Chinese state-owned firms hijacking the global internet traffic by rerouting the cables which pass through the Chinese mainland via their borders hence through their data collection and data censoring technology (Sherman, The Politics of Internet Security: Private Industry and the future of the web, 2020).


The increasing alarm about the presence of Chinese submarine cables providers and operators is due to the suspicion of a backdoor for these to transfer the said data back to the mainland. This suspicion and concerns have been raised on them by the members of the QUAD and the United Kingdom as well, so far, on the grounds of data sovereignty, which raises national security concerns due to the increasing importance of data in the 21st century. As per the Atlantic Council report (Sherman, The Politics of Internet Security : Private Industry and the Future of the web, 2020).

The Chinese state-subsidised submarine cable industries can, in general, on the nature of their involvement, be classified into :


  • Chinese state influence through cable ownership

The Chinese state, under its overly ambitious and bloated project - Belt and Road Initiative, also launched a project named the "Digital Silk Route" back in 2015, under which, as estimated, the Chinese state has spent more than $79 billion in the construction of global submarine cables with China being at its epicentre, 'PEACE Cable system' is the main project about the DSR initiative of the Chinese state – this cable system (Peace Cable International Network Co. Limited, 2018) is approximately 15,000 km long ranging from France to South Africa, Pakistan and Singapore. New Delhi has viewed this project with scepticism, with there being an active threat of tapping and data surveillance, especially from the Mauritius landing station, which is separate from the project and connected to the Indian submarine cable network.

Along with the DSR initiative, the Chinese are also becoming co-owner of various cables by funding their construction from the beginning. This can be seen mainly in the African market, where the Chinese state, through its state-owned companies, has become the largest sponsor and co-owner of the submarine cables (Kinyua, 2021). Being an investor and co-owner can significantly shape the flow of global internet traffic by picking nodes and the bandwidth of new undersea cables, which along with them enjoying the control of various landing stations, allows for accessible intelligence collection as being an owner allows for the mandated insertion of monitoring equipment. The Chinese also accused Taiwan back in December 2020 of backing Pacific area cable investment to spy on foreign countries and steal their data and also seeking to monopolise all the information passing through the Pacific (Feng, 2021). The Chinese state today, as per a leaked internal Filipino government report, (leaked report warns China can shut off the Philippines' power grid at any time, 2019). owns the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, the sole owner of an undersea cable, making the country incredibly susceptible to tampering by the Chinese state.

China uses its various state-owned companies, which are: China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, CITIC Telecom International, CTM and the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines, to control directly total of 43 submarine cables (Sherman, The Politics of Internet Security : Private Industry and the future of the web, 2020), with this figure expected to increase soon with two more in 2023 (Sherman, The Politics of Internet Security: Private Industry and the future of the web, 2020). This nature of increasing influence in the global market has allowed the Chinese state to leverage its influence in monitoring the cable data passing through the global internet, with it increasing with the Chinese state companies being overtly invested in 40 such cable-oriented projects with it being a major stakeholder.


  • Chinese state influenced by cable builder

The Chinese state has been actively getting involved in the submarine cable manufacturing industry via Huawei Marine, which many say is an extension of the PLA and security apparatus (Balding, 2019), even if the company does not directly own any of the cables which are being used globally so far as per FCC document dating to October 2020 (Commission, 2020) the company has constructed or done maintenance work on a minimum quarter of the world's cables, this increasing influence has led to increasing American efforts in containing the growth of Huawei Marine with the American government actively trying to dissuade the Pacific islands from allowing Huawei Marine built cables due to security risks with it. The Chinese-backed companies recently withdrew their investments from the Sea-Me-We 6, which sought to connect the USA to the Chinese mainland or Hong Kong. Commenting on the increasing ire of the American state on the growth of Huawei Marine, the Chinese State mouthpiece had stated that: " The US's undersea battle with Huawei is all about taking control of data and information, which is also the backbone of networks, Washington is also worried that the Chinese will gain a larger share of the submarine cable market so that the Americans will not be able to listen in to networks or steal data from others", unwittingly claiming that they will do the same that the accuse the Americans of doing when they achieve a higher market share.

Submarine and Survey Ship-based 'Anti-Piracy'

Post their deployment. Further, recently the Chinese, under their Anti-Piracy activities in Somalia region, under which in 2015 CCP, under its great wisdom, deployed a nuclear attack submarine (SSN) for anti-piracy operations in the area under the high threat area surrounding Somalia's pirate-infested waters. Many eyebrows were raised, especially from New Delhi, because the SSN, a stealth submarine, was not suited for anti-piracy operations due to its lack of ability to undertake surface operations. What makes the actions of deploying a silent stealth nuclear submarine is the fact that the oldest and most prominent method after compromising the port of the submarine cable is to semi-attach a device to the submarine cables to gain access to the flow of data, this was used widely by the Americans against their Soviet counterparts on the submarine cables which This is not a particular activity of the Chinese weaponising the UN resolution and global anti-piracy action as seen with the actions across the given areas (Bisen, 2022).

These activities have stopped post 1st January 2023 due to the removal of the 'Indian Ocean High-Risk Area (HRA)'. This has snuffled out the reason the Chinese can use to validate the access and presence of the said areas around the Gulf of Aden, one of the cluster points for various submarine cables seeking to collect Europe and Asia. This, though, does not ultimately end the Chinese threats on the said submarine cables due to the presence of the Chinese port in Djibouti and other countries being in the dead middle of the Gulf of Aden. Hence the Chinese threat to the Indian data through the cable ports // landing station of Aden might be reduced but still exist.


Global concerns under the rug

What further exacerbates the issue is that the Submarine cable industry already faces various global issues. Irrespective of the strategic significance of the said industry, there have been no significant efforts from any significant players to solve the said issue. They are enumerated as follows :

  • Neglected legal regime

The critical issue about submarine cables is that an international or intergovernmental body deals with the legal regime about submarine cables. While it is a highly strategic sphere of global strategic and economic interest, it currently holds an ambiguous and overlapping jurisdiction with the UN Division of Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea (UNDOALOS), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the Fisheries Division of Food and Agricultural Organisation (FA0) (Beckman, 2010).

The other significant reason for their lack of a proper legal regime is the commercial interests holding back the formation of such a focused International body. Many of today's submarine cable-providing cables have formed the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) – which is more of a Non-Profit Organisation than an international legal body, with most of its members being commercial organisations while there being few nations states; hence subsequently, lacking an international pan nation application and agreement. At the same time, most of the documentation emerges from this organisation through advisory. It lacks a proper mechanism to deal with failure or intentional sabotage of the submarine cables (Beckman, 2010). Further, one more suspected reason for this is that many sea-fearing maritime powers today are not signatories to the UNCLOS itself, with the following countries of significance being amongst them: Israel, Canada, Turkey and the USA.

  • Cyber or network attacks on the submarine cables or their infrastructure

There is an increasing threat of a coordinated cyber-attack on the submarine cables to target their operability. It is one of the most critical threats to the integrity of the submarine cables and their infrastructure as the submarine cables for their operability is overly reliant on the remote network management systems, which in turn are connected to the internet and rely entirely on HTTP and TCP/IP protocols and non-proprietary software; this all in turns make them incredibly susceptible to a range of cyber threats this can be seen with there is an increasing trend in cyber-attacks on the submarine cables, especially in the USA (Taraby, 2022).

A problem arises when it comes to ascertaining due to an ambiguity in identifying the hacker as a state-sponsored one or a third-party hacker due to the increasing blurring of boundaries due to Russia and China's weaponisation of third-party hackers.

This issue gets further exasperated due to the increasing trend of the submarine cable providers to use the previously mentioned remote management systems, which in contrast with the on-site personnel-based management system, is relative of poor security worsening the threat of a potential cyber-attack on them (Sherman,, 2021). In a worst-case scenario, due to the already existing security lapses, the hackers could compromise various remote network management systems which control the submarine cables and ultimately disrupt the internet data which is flowing through that particular infrastructure (Sherman, The Politics of Internet Security : Private Industry and the future of the web, 2020) not only there could be the possibility of the hacker being able to intercept data flowing through then compromised infrastructure (Beckman, 2010).

  • Cable terrorism: Intentional physical disruption and damage

Today most of the damage to Submarine Cables is due to fishing and anchoring activities. While they remain susceptible to damage caused by human activities, they remain prone to damage when natural disasters like earthquakes or hurricanes strike (Burdette, 2021), irrespective of the ever-increasing developments in the field of submarine cables to protect them from it.

Whenever an intentional action is carried out which aims at causing physical disruption and damage, it is termed Cable terrorism (Sechrist, 2010) when non-state actors do it; the critical instances of there being cable terrorism which took place are November 2007: Intentional sabotage on the cable landing in Bangladesh causing disabled communications for over a week (Beckman, 2010), 2008: Cable segment theft which happened in Jamaica (Beckman, 2010), 2010: a terrorist attack on a sable station disrupting a cable link between Philippines and Japan, 2013: sixteen tonnes of Submarine Cables were stolen in Indonesia causing massive disruptions across the country,2013: three men were arrested by the Egyptians coast guard while they were attempting to cut off the SEA-ME-WE-4 cable system and the steal of 31.7kms approx of Submarine Cables linking Indonesia and Singapore (Beckman, 2010).To seek the intentional physical disruption and damage of a given submarine cable, various methods (Policies, 2022) can be employed, such as utilising civilian vessels such as fishing trawlers, hatch and others, which possess a form of an improvised cutting device or a dredging device, or heavy-duty anchors. There has been an instance of disruption caused by the Soviet trawler Novorossiisk which disrupted the communications between Canada, the USA and European countries. It happened near Newfoundland (Chapman, 2021) and lasted for nearly four days until it was resolved between the nation-states. Further, there was also an attempt to cut Europe's internet connection through various cuts made in the Submarine cable network in South France, which was deemed as an act of vandalism by the Zscaler CEO. It impacted the internet globally though the company in charge of the cable had done its best to dampen its impact.

There can also be the usage of undersea explosives via naval mines or MIEDs- Maritime Improvised Explosive Devices, which have become easier to produce and manufacture (Truver, 2007). There also lies the possibility of their being an attack through subversive boats and amphibious vehicles which are of military grade, similar to that of the MIEDs there has been an increasing development of submarine boats due to essentially the narco trade and terrorism prevalent between the North and South America with them being created for the specific purpose of being undetected vehicles to smuggle narcotics across the American coastal guards, with price cost averaging around $1.5 million. When it comes to pinpointing the potential targets for such an attack limiting the scope of these attacks restricted to the submarine cables and their landing ports would be limiting in nature. Hence the possibility of such an attack on the maintenance infrastructure of the submarine cables or even the submarine cables laying ships themselves cannot be ruled out (Policies, 2022).

Actions of the Indian Government

Corporate and Regulatory Response

  • Increased Indian corporate presence in the Submarine Cable market

There has been lately an increased presence of the Indian corporate houses in the Submarine cable market by themselves or with other global corporates such as Microsoft or Facebook. We have seen the presence of the state-owned BSNL in the market, laying the BLCS submarine cables being the earliest Indian company to be present in the market. Pre-2016 the only major Indian players when it comes to the national market were Tata and Airtel post-2016, we have seen India through Reliance (Jio) get into the market on a large scale along with Facebook, they are working on creating two of the most massive projects about the international market which are Indian-Asia-Xpress(IAX) and Indian-Europe-Xpress(IEX). Recently the likes of Adani and Tata also showed intention to make a mark and increase their presence in the market. Further detailed market reports have predicted bright growth prospects for the Indian market and investments depending on government policies (Market Research Guru, 2021).

  • Recent TRAI consultations on licensing framework and regulatory mechanisms are being made with stakeholder consensus.

The government regulatory body of this sector is the TRAI, which has adopted a highly progressive policy-making approach by doing thorough public and stakeholder consultations on the nature of regulation which should be there for the submarine cable industry. It has to lead to an active response from the stakeholders, whether associations, firms or companies. The government regulatory body has also gone further ahead to have a more open and detailed stakeholder perspective on the submarine cable market by going against the usual norms and extending the duration for the last date of submitting the consultation papers from the stakeholders. This approach of the TRAI has been actively appreciated by the stakeholders, with there being an active response from them, with all the major and medium-sized organisations chipping in.

The usual result of a regulation made with stakeholder consensus and perspective is that the resulting regulations are incredibly liberal and market-oriented, usually set so stakeholders can further grow and prosper in the said industries. These prospective regulations are innately bound to increase the share of Indian and friendly foreign corporations in the international markets. These reforms are required and the need of the hour as most of the Indian submarine cable infrastructure is usually, on average, at least 1-2 decades old.


Military and Strategic Measures

One of the most exciting and critical factors when it comes to the strategic and military investments which are to be made and have been made to prevent submarine cables from getting harmed or tampered with, with these measures are innately anti-submarine warfare or anti-undersea warfare strategies as well.

  • Introduction and Integration of Integrated Underwater Harbour Defence

The government has gone ahead since 2017 with the integration and introduction of the (IUHDSS) in various parts of India. IUHDSS comprises surveillance, observation, surface, and underwater sensing arrays that can detect, locate, and track various threats - whether from small boats and submersibles, swimmer delivery vehicles (SDV), swimmers or divers. IAI subsidiary Elta Systems have developed the stated system.

IUHDSS is a modular system tailor-made to meet specific customer needs. The system includes an advanced command and control system, a range of coastal surveillance radars, diver-detecting sonars, electro-optical sensors, and automatic threat identification systems. The central command and control system automatically integrates all sensors, creating a common situational picture for port defence (Israel Aerospace Industries, 2017). This system has so far been announced and deployed in the major ports of Mumbai, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam.

  • Military investment in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands

The government in 2019 had announced an exclusive package of Rs. 5,650 Crores for the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the fundamental goal being to strengthen the capacity of the Andaman and Nicobar Command significantly. This package is set to provide additional military forces, warships, aircraft, missile batteries, and infantry soldiers on the island. This package will seek to strengthen the Andaman and Nicobar command, which has lately seen increased emphasis and importance with the setting up the QUAD. When it comes to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, when seen with the Malacca strait, they are not only significant in trade matters. However, they also are the hub of the Indian submarine landing stations, which go on to merge with the massive submarine cable cluster in the Malacca Strait. Increased maritime surveillance capacity in this region not only helps us in ensuring that there is no tampering in the Indian landing ports but also in the landing ports of neighbouring countries in the Malacca Strait. Hence, this will increase India's strategic leverage over the Chinese while acting as the net security guarantor in the said region, especially in anti-submarine warfare and maritime domain awareness.

  • Maritime Domain Awareness in Indian Ocean Region

Maritime Domain Awareness refers to "effective understanding of any activity associated with the maritime environment that could impact the security, safety, economy or environment" (Organisation, International Maritime, 2012). Indian Navy further has described Maritime Domain Awareness pertaining Maritime Domain Awareness as "an all-encompassing term that involves being cognisant of the position and intentions of all actors, whether own, hostile, or neutral, in all dimensions of a dynamic maritime environment, across the areas of interest." (Indian Navy, 2015). Regarding Submarine cables, promoting maritime domain awareness allows for ensuring operational security and ensuring that the cables are non-compromised. The issue in the case of India for maritime domain awareness is that the region where we have to do it is the Indian Ocean itself (Indian Ocean Region ) which is bound to be highly funded and technology-intensive. Hence, this demands the Indian government, while doing unilateral action, to also have a multi-national and cooperative approach with like-minded countries and strategic partners. This approach and non-military corporate-orientating maritime domain awareness-oriented activities are well.


The Indian government hence has undertaken the following initiatives to promote maritime domain awareness:

The government has taken various initiatives to address the non-military-orientated Maritime Domain Awareness by launching various satellites by its space agency and others with the partnership of like-minded countries. HawkEye 360, an American geospatial analytics company, launched the recent satellites. The government has also increased cooperation with the Indo-Pacific's various organs and resource centres, funded by the EU, USA and Singapore. Further, the government has also launched the National Maritime Domain Awareness (NDMA), which will subsume the Naval Information Management and Analysis Centre (IMAC), which will seek to bolster India's overall maritime security with their being an increased chance of the government acquiring surveillance drones to increase the capabilities as well.

The Prime Minister 2015 launched the SAGAR initiative (Security and Growth for All in the Region) in Mauritius, highlighting it as "Our vision for the Indian Ocean ''. Through the policy doctrine, the Indian government will seek deeper economic and security ties and cooperation with its Indian Oceanic neighbours, the goal being to emerge as the net-security guarantor in the region. The government has, under this doctrine, pushed for the exchange of information, coastal surveillance, the building of infrastructure, and strengthening the capabilities for ensuring a 'Global Commons' approach in the Indian Ocean region. The Indian government has also joined the Indian Ocean Rim Association. This initiative to have increased interaction and cooperation with the IOR countries along with the EU-funded MASE (Maritime Security Programme) for the ESA-1O region under which various initiatives and centres have been further launched to promote Maritime Domain Awareness


The government of India, along with its QUAD partners, have launched the Indo-Pacific Maritime Domain Awareness (IPDMA) initiative to deliver on the promised goals of enhancing maritime domain awareness in the region via technology and training support (The Whitehouse , 2022). Under this initiative, the countries will seek to promote the creation of compilation, correlation and fusion of surveillance data collected from diverse sources: satellites, radar, reconnaissance planes or human intelligence. The initiative will further support/operate regional fusion centres like India's IOR IFC, Australia-sponsored Pacific Fusion Centre in South Pacific, Japan's MDA Situational Indication Linkages (MSIL) and the US Navy's SeaVision platform (Singh, 2022).

  • Integration with the US-Japan SOSUS Fish Hook system

SOSUS refers to the US Navy's pioneering Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS), which allows for a long-range early warning system against underwater movements, especially about the submarines. This system has been the critical system of the anti-submarine warfare mechanism by the American allies. The Americans had launched their fish hook strategy in the Indo-Pacific region with the help of its regional systems. The pre-India joining Fish hook strategy went through Tsushima – Sasebo –Kyushu – Okinawa – Senkaku – Luzon – Palawan, this being the first hook; post India joining the second hook has joined from Andaman and Nicobar – Sumatra- Java – Borneo. The system includes acoustic sensors around the first island chain extending from the Java Sea to the Great Nicobar Island. It has allowed the country to ensure complete control of the nature of its presence in the said region (Jha, 2020).


With the ever-increasing digitisation worldwide, the strategic and economic significance of the Submarine cable will also increase. Submarine cables in today's world are highly data-driven. They are not less than what an oil and rare earth mine was for the previous 20th century, as the data transferred through these wires are not just casual or commercial data, but they also include military data. Hence, cutting off access or damaging a country's submarine cables is no less than regressing that country back to the medieval era in matters of communication and strategy.

We have seen renewed attention of the world on them of late due to the Russo-Ukraine crisis. India has been actively taking steps with like-minded partners in these areas while adopting an extremely pragmatic approach so far by including the corporate and civilian aspects of them as well. Further, the measures being taken to counter the prospective tampering activities on the submarine cables also bolster the country's anti-submarine warfare in the said regions.

The current measures underway have been the necessary actions to protect our country's data integrity and national security. There are further measures that the government can take to enhance and bolster the integrity and protection of the cables further, majorly by promoting local business and by doing further maritime domain awareness in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). These measures, along with the ones already underway, will ensure the country's emergence as data secure and broadly a security guarantor in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), which will be an area of broad global interest strategically and financially in the 21st century.


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About the Author:

Arghish Akolkar is currently working as a Research Associate at Indic Researchers Forum


The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the Organisation.

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