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Undersea cables carry 95% of transnational internet traffic & trillions of dollars of global commerce; protecting these from accident or sabotage is vitally important.

UNCLOS does not explicitly prohibit states from treating these as legitimate military targets during wartime.

Threats
Unintentional physical damage is the most common hazard – of the 500 cable lines, >100 cable break annually, mainly due to fishing, anchor gear damaging and/or pulling up cables. Natural disasters pose a threat. Taiwan earthquake in 2006 disrupted business & communications; repairs involved half the cable-servicing vessels in the world.

Sabotage is rising. Explosions on Nordstream pipeline in Sep 2022 sent alarm bells ringing. Russian submarines have deep-sea capability to map or destroy undersea cables; they are developing unmanned undersea drones. In Oct 2023, subsea gas & telecom cables serving Sweden, Finland & Estonia were damaged by a Hong Kong registered vessel. Scottish & Taiwanese islands have suffered due to damage to submarine cables.

China has launched Digital Silk Road (DSR) comprising 5G, satellite & undersea connectivity – to reduce dependence on US’ submarine cables, increase control over information corridors & influence on technology standards & governance. China’s National Intelligence Law (NIL) gives its intel agencies authority to demand Chinese companies hand over data (including from communications on undersea cables). Edward Snowden had made disclosures about US government agencies.

US wargames predict Chinese strike on Guam and/or cutting off communications to Taiwan. Damage to cables connecting Asia, Hawaii & the US could devastate Guam’s economy & dent its military & C3I capabilities. Chinese grey-zone activities could target undersea cables to Taiwan.

De-risking
International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC), founded in 1958, represented by 69 countries & 190 member organisations (corporations to government agencies), develops policies for info sharing, awareness & maintenance. It can bring together manufacturers, layers, maintainers, network operators, major cloud service providers, government & multi-lateral organisations.

Governments are aware of risks. EU’s NIS2 Directive stipulates submarine cable incidents occurring in the jurisdiction of member states be reported to relevant national authorities & member states should take confidentiality, integrity & accessibility of submarine cables seriously. France has set up its own “undersea cables task force.”

“Quad Partnership for Cable Connectivity & Resilience” was launched in May 2023 to strengthen undersea cable systems in Indo-Pacific. India’s telecom giants – Reliance & Bharti are part of consortia laying submarine cables across Indo-Pacific. Taiwan will build 700 satellite receivers as a contingency plan.

MNCs should factor in risks from damage to undersea cables in BCP & DR plans.

MitKat helps organisations pre-empt & manage operational risks.

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