Leveraging Submarine Cables for Political Gain: U.S. Responses to Chinese Strategy

Lane Burdette
Content Type
Journal Article
Journal of Public and International Affairs (JPIA)
Issue Number
Publication Date
Spring 2021
School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University
Submarine cables are critical infrastructure that carry nearly all internet traffic. However, unclear international governance does not always guarantee their protection, leaving global information networks vulnerable to sabotage and espionage. China’s access to submarine cables for strategic manipulation is greatly expanded through the Digital Silk Road and territorial claims in the South China Sea, posing a clear threat that requires a U.S. response. Current U.S. policy is uncoordinated and can be sorted into the isolationist, cooperative, competitive, and militaristic responses, which each present unique frameworks for future action. The isolationist response would disconnect the United States from insecure cable networks, limiting China’s influence over U.S. assets but reducing international connectivity. The cooperative response emphasizes international norms-setting processes to achieve multilateral agreements protecting cables from state influences. The competitive response advocates U.S. competition with China in the submarine cable market through alternate assistance programs, which would increase the redundancy of a secure network. Finally, the militaristic response explores the role of America’s military in defending submarine cables from foreign exploitation. This article recommends that future policy emphasize a combination of the competitive and militaristic responses in order to most immediately and effectively address China’s threat to information security along submarine cables while minimizing U.S. risk.
International Relations, Politics, Governance, Military Affairs
Political Geography
China, North America, Asia-Pacific, United States of America