Underwater Cables - A New Frontier for Competition?

On March 14th, the Financial Times (FT) reported that China had been imposing new measures to exert influence on underwater cables in the South China Sea, such as delaying the approval process or introducing stricter permit requirements of new cable projects.

The “victims” include projects connecting Japan – Singapore and Taiwan - Hong Kong, parts of which located outside China's recognized territorial waters (12 nautical mile areas), which is contrary to the provisions of UNCLOS 1982.

Observers have taken notice of this tendency. Some consider that China fears the possibility of contractors placing spying devices around its territory. Meanwhile, Bryan Clark - a former US Navy official - claims that China aims to use its underwater cable system to map the seabed. Others, such as Professor James Kraska (US Naval War College), argue that China wants its underwater cable system to serve communication purposes between its military bases and to monitor other countries’ vessels in the region.

Although FT’s info has not been verified, and the explanations on the matter are only based on personal perspectives, it still can be seen that underwater cables could potentially become a tool for great powers competition or to implement “grey zone” tactics in the South China Sea and neighboring regions, indicated by the followings:

  • Since 2020, the US has made attempted to prevent China to participate in international underwater cable projects. In 2021, Reuters reported that the Pacific Ocean underwater cable project, in which many Chinese companies participated, has been cancelled due to US pressure.
  • In 2020, according to some media sources, China might be installing underwater cables in the disputed Paracel Island. In 2021, there was information about China’s plan to build two bases to maintain undersea cables in the South and East China Sea in the next five years to “establish an internationally competitive capability”.
  • In 2023, there was information that Chinese fishing boats were approaching the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands to cut underwater cables. Some sources pointed out that the only cable lines connecting the Matsu Islands with the world were cut 27 times in the past five years.

The post was originally published here.  

Translated by Nguyen Tien Dat

Revised by HD, Viet Ha