SSU Forum “Safeguarding Undersea Communication Cables: Critical Global Infrastructure and Geopolitical Battleground”

  • Date:
  • Time:
    10:30-12:00 (JST)
  • Location:
    【In person】Lecture Hall B (4th Floor), International Academic Research Bldg. Hongo campus, U-Tokyo MAP 【Online】Zoom webinar *The Zoom Webinar URL will be delivered by email on the day before this event.
  • Host:

    Security Studies Unit (SSU), Institute for Future Initiatives (IFI), the University of Tokyo

  • Co-host:

    Global Infrastructure Fund Research Foundation Japan (GIF)

  • Language:

    English (Japanese simultaneous translation not available)

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Undersea communication cables are crucial global infrastructure, responsible for over 97% of global communications. Their significance to the world’s economy cannot be overstated. They facilitate the transmission of confidential information, financial transactions, and international communication. However, these cables face vulnerabilities, both from natural hazards and deliberate attacks. Geopolitical rivals may exploit these vulnerabilities, making the cables a battleground for geopolitical competition. Attacks on undersea cables can cause severe economic and military disruption. The private ownership of these cables complicates protection efforts. Measures to increase resilience include using sensors, mining approaches, and promoting geopolitical diversity. Soft power approaches may also play a role in safeguarding undersea communication cables.


Opening remarks: Akio Takahara
Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics & Director of SSU Unit, the University of Tokyo

Welcome address and introduction to seminar: Mikiyasu Nakayama
GIF Executive Director / Emeritus Professor, the University of Tokyo

Presentation 1: Brendon Cannon
Assistant Professor, Institute of International and Civil Security, Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi, UAE

Presentation 2: Tetsuya Yano
Professor, Faculty of Law, Osaka University of Economics and Law

Moderator / Closing remarks: Yee Kuang Heng
Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP), the University of Tokyo

Opening Remarks
Akio Takahara Professor, Graduate Schools for Law and Politics & Director of SSU Unit, the University of Tokyo
Japan is an island nation, and its dependence on undersea cables for telecommunication is very high.
The first two undersea cables reached Japan in 1871, that is the 4th year of the Meiji Era. This fact tells us that undersea cables for telecommunications are an important public infrastructure that supports the modernisation and development of countries. I look forward to a lively discussion today.

Welcome address and introduction to seminar
Mikiyasu Nakayama Executive Director, GIF Japan / Professor Emeritus, The University of Tokyo
Over the past few years, there have been a number of cases of undersea communication cables being cut for “unknown” reasons. In Japan, there is a growing interest in physical security as well as cyber security of undersea communication cables. Today’s theme is very timely.

Presentation 1
The Quad’s trust deficit and the protecting undersea communication cables in the Indo-Pacific
Brendon Cannon Assistant Professor, Institute of International and Civil Security, Khalifa University, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)
As geopolitical competition between China and the QUAD countries (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) intensifies, undersea communications cables could become an important battleground. Indeed, new cables are being installed across the Indo-Pacific and around Southeast Asia that avoid Chinese territorial waters and the South China Sea.
The QUAD announced the QUAD Partnership for Cable Connectivity and Resiliency in May 2023. This is a significant development. It is also expected to increase the influence of the U.S.-sponsored Clean Networks Initiative and the Alternative Cable Consortium. However, the QUAD is an informal intergovernmental organization that avoids rules-taking and treaties in favor of informal cooperation on security issues. While Japan, Australia, and the U.S. are quite close, there are nevertheless issues with trust and collective action within the QUAD that will be difficult to surmount. In particular, coordination involving information gathering and sharing as well as cutting-edge technology sharing, is bedeviled by complexity.
When it comes to protecting undersea cables from malicious threats, coordination with the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC) is a feasible (and currently possible) option for the QUAD. We recommend that submarine communication cables be designated a “global common” and that norms involving a global code of conduct for communication networks be developed and published. For Quad members on an individual basis, surveillance of cable landing sites and counter-espionage measures should be prioritized. As an alternative to Chinese-sponsored projects, consideration should be given to funding a trans-Pacific QUAD or trilateral undersea communications cable-laying project led by Japan, the U.S. and Europe. Instead of tightening regulations on the private cable industry, “friendly” cable-laying companies and routes should be developed.

Presentation 2
Submarine Cable Security and Japan
Tetsuya Yano Professor, Faculty of Law, Osaka University of Economics and Law
Threats to submarine communication cables fall into three categories: natural disasters, fishing activities and malicious acts. The private sector response to protect submarine communication cables is the Cable Ship Maintenance Agreement between companies and the International Cable Protection Committee (ICPC). The ICPC is an international non-profit organization founded in 1958 in the United Kingdom that promotes the protection of submarine communication cables against man-made and natural disasters.
Responses by governments and international organizations have included naval exercises, the establishment of cable protection zones, the development of a “National Strategy for Seabed Warfare,” the commissioning of submarine communication cable protection vessels, and a coordinated anti-terrorism crime operation between the UN and the International Criminal Police Organization. In addition, a dedicated NATO-EU task force on critical infrastructure resilience is to be established in 2023, and recommendations include strengthening structural dialogue on resilience and military mobility, and expanding consultations on cyber, space, maritime and energy.
We recommend that the Japanese government strengthen maritime strategic communication, establish a new “Submarine Communication Cable Protection Office” in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, cooperate with the MSDF, domestic communication cable owners, and the ICPC in the maintenance of submarine communication cables, and participate in the making of new international rules, including the protection of submarine communication cables in cyber warfare. We recommend that Japan participate in this process. This is in Japan’s vital national interest. It is also necessary to support the private sector to speed up cable repair operations.

Question and answer session
Questions and answers were given;
– Differences in the priorities of QUAD countries for the protection of submarine communication cables.
– The division of roles among Japanese organizations (Self-Defense Forces, Police, Coast Guard, Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, etc.) regarding the protection of submarine communication cables.
– Whether there is an international framework to which all countries belong.
– Cooperation between the QUAD and NATO or the EU.
– The specifics of a new international law to be enacted.
– The legal protection of privately owned submarine communication cable.

Closing Remarks
Yee Kuang Heng Professor, Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP), University of Tokyo
I would like to summarize in three points. First, both speakers emphaised that undersea communication cables are important as a global commons. Thinking of the environment as another global commons, I am reminded of the Tragedy of the Commons, the difficulties of a collective action problem and it is necessary to consider how private and public sectors can work together to protect undersea cables. Second, the threats to undersea communication cables can both be accidents and malicious attacks. How to distinguish between them is important when considering liability and attributing responsibility for perpetrators. Finally, military exercises based on protecting undersea cables have been conducted. These exercises also need to include private sector entities who may be the frontline first responders with key roles in protecting the critical infrastructure on which we all depend.

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