API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo. The series will look into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.
From the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century, laying undersea cables to establish a telegraph communication network for the British Empire was a major geopolitical policy.
Vast submarine telegraph cables were put in place, including one running westward from the U.K. under the Atlantic Ocean, one between the U.K. and France, and one stretching southward around Africa and eventually reaching Hawaii in the Pacific Ocean.
In the 21st century, the undersea cables were replaced with fiber optic wires, and the network’s main role changed to distribution of digital data via the internet.
The operating principle of the internet is that if a path for traffic in a network is not available, another path is automatically selected. This means that the predominance of a model in which a country possesses and protects undersea cables connecting two points is lost.
Therefore, the issue has shifted completely to the geoeconomic question of governments and the private sector cooperating to consider how the cables should be laid on ocean floors for the benefits of people and society.
Proper functioning of the internet is vital for the global community as a whole, and how to keep it going is an important matter of policy for governments.
The internet can be described as a network of blood vessels that maintains the health of global society, and submarine cables are the arteries.
New undersea cables to Japan
A joint venture between Finnish infrastructure operator Cinia and Russian telecommunications company MegaFon finished the first stage of offshore surveys earlier this year as part of their Arctic Connect project, which aims to build a 138,000-kilometer subsea telecommunications link that connects the coastal areas of Northern Europe with Japan.
On July 6, California-based Ram Telecom International Inc. announced the completion of the Japan-Guam-Australia cable system that links Guam and Japan with the aim of making the former a new network hub in the western Pacific.
Guam would become a completely new hub in the region, as cables in the western Pacific are currently concentrated in the South China Sea.
Subsea cables are crucial, with fiber optic wires carrying more than 90% of all the data currently exchanged worldwide via the internet.
The Federal Communications Commission in the United States has estimated that only 0.37% of the country’s international data traffic is carried by satellite, indicating that almost all of the digital data on the internet is transmitted globally through submarine cables.
Mobile telecommunications networks — including 5G — function like a capillary network, providing internet access to every corner of the world.
Satellite communication, despite having much less bandwidth than fiber optic communication, can cover vast surface areas of the Earth since it uses a propagation path from space.
But because stationary satellites are lined up some 36,000 km above the equator, their signals weaken significantly near the north and south poles due to atmospheric effects as their elevation angle becomes low.
The melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean due to climate change is enabling undersea cables to be laid in the area, a development that is epoch-making in the sense that the project can provide high-speed communication to people living in the Arctic region for the first time.
This year, there are some 400 undersea cables worldwide. They are laid and jointly owned by a variety of business entities, including submarine cable operators, telephone companies and providers of over-the-top video or streaming media services offered via the internet, such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google.
The internet, which is based on an autonomous distribution system that makes it possible to route around damage by finding alternative paths if something bad happens in a network, has a high affinity with submarine cables built redundantly and spreading all over.
The internet makes good use of such undersea cables, meaning the cables symbolize the arteries and the core of the internet, which has a mission of guaranteeing access no matter what.
Brand new network topology
According to Weathernews Inc. which conducts consistent studies of trends in Arctic sea ice using its own methods, the total area of sea ice in the region has declined by approximately 3 million square kilometers compared with two decades ago.
In response to such climate change in the Arctic, Canadian cable builder Arctic Fibre came up with a plan in 2011 to send an expedition to the Northwest Passage to conduct offshore surveys to lay undersea fiber optics on a northbound route linking the U.K., Canada, Alaska and Japan.
When I was consulted about the plan, I recognized that both the fear of global warming melting ice in the Arctic and the dream of a completely new network being created are both coming true simultaneously.
At that time, all internet connections between Japan and Europe went through cables that ran underneath the Pacific Ocean, crossing the American continent and reaching the U.K. via the Atlantic Ocean.
While cables that cross continents inherently contain security risks, submarine cables are relatively safe and free arteries.
Calculations show that undersea cables have various advantages regarding latency as well.
In particular, the route that branches off at the south of the Bering Sea — the gateway between the Arctic and the Pacific — and links Seattle and Hokkaido makes Japan’s northernmost prefecture the closest Japanese location to New York, making it attractive for the finance industry.
At the end of last year, I was asked by a friend in NORDUnet — a research and education network of the five Nordic countries — to cooperate in making a new plan to link northern Europe and Japan using Cinia’s cables.
If realized, cables will run from northern Europe through the Bering Sea, diverge to the U.S., Tokyo and Tomakomai, Hokkaido, cross the Tsugaru Strait and land in Vladivostok, Russia.
Previously, most of the cables running across the Atlantic landed in the U.K. But following Brexit, an increasing number of projects are planned to lay cables to reach areas in the European Union, such as Marseille, France. The Nordic nations’ project is apparently in line with such trends.
Undersea cables and cybersecurity
While submarine cables are a relatively safe and free network, cables crossing continents can be affected by nations’ policies.
The latest cables will provide a completely new artery in the north for telecommunications connecting the EU to Japan and Asia, which are currently dependent on cables crossing over the American continent or Russia.
Submarine cables are made up of optic fibers, protective covers and electrical cables that transmit electricity to amplifiers to boost weakened signals. The protective covers give security against being bitten through by sharks, for example.
Compared to electrical signals used in the past, fiber optic communications are much more difficult to tap, which means there is less of a security risk of undersea cables being compromised.
On the other hand, because undersea cables’ signals and electric power transmissions fluctuate due to external factors, close measurements of such fluctuations are sometimes used as seabed sensors to detect fish and submarines.
Undersea cables are also actively used as sensors to measure sea floor movements, especially earthquakes and undersea volcanoes.
The most dangerous risk for such cables is for them to be cut, which can occur as a result of trawling, the raising or dragging of anchors, undersea construction, sand dredging, earthquakes and undersea landslides.
In order to safeguard against such man-made and natural hazards, the laying of undersea cables is managed by the International Cable Protection Committee, which covers 97% of the cables in the world’s oceans.
Linking Japan and Asia
Most of the cables connecting Japan and other Asian countries are concentrated in the sea south of Taiwan, and statistics show that undersea cable failures occurred in this area once a week on average since 2005.
Such cases are rising every year, indicating that failures in submarine cable systems are increasingly caused by factors other than natural disasters such as earthquakes.
Considering that communication cables linking the U.S. and Asia have been running from the Pacific Ocean through parts of Japan, such as Ibaraki, Chiba and Mie prefectures, most of the telecommunications between North America and southeast Asia must have been disrupted by the cable failures in this area.
This has prompted the development of a new cable topology in the Pacific, setting Guam as a hub, starting with a plan by academic networks for research and education comprising members from the United States, Japan, Singapore and Australia.
Building a new submarine cable network in the western Pacific centered in Guam would not only supplement the existing networks in the region but also lead to the creation of new routes leading to Europe through the Arctic.
Another surprising development was a media report in July concerning Chile’s plan to build submarine cables across the Pacific to connect with the Asia-Pacific region.
The report had two implications. The question of where in the west of the Pacific will be linked with the Chilean project is significant as a trade policy agenda. And the project was also significant in the sense that it represented a technological war between a proposal by Chinese firms and those by companies from Japan, the U.S. and France.
If the cables are to be laid between Chile and Japan via Australia as reported, it may lead to a new relationship between South America and Asia, especially Japan.
According to the report, the underlying issue was the undersea cable technology competition between the one proposed by companies of Japan, the U.S. and France versus the one presented by China. The fact that NEC Corp. has been given high marks for the quality of its submarine cables is highly likely to determine the future of the project.
What needs to be done
Submarine cables are the arteries of the internet that connect the world and maintain a cybersociety. The global community must cooperate as a whole to make this network continue functioning properly.
Japan, which is located at the center of this new arterial network, has the responsibility to get actively involved in the role of a healthy heart and organs to make the network do the necessary tasks for the health of the Earth and human beings.
It is important for Japan to fulfill its responsibilities in the global information society and play a leadership role, as a member of international organizations, to protect the safety of this arterial network.
Jun Murai is dean of API’s Institute of Geoeconomic Studies and a senior fellow at API. He is also a professor at Keio University and a co-director of Keio University’s Cyber Civilization Research Center.
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