A Rocky Return To Multilateralism

Retracing the most impactful events of the past year has become a December tradition for readers familiar with The Affiliate Network. In a year that started with a violent – and nearly successful – attempt to overturn a US Presidential election, and is ending with a military standoff that could draw NATO into combat against Russia, it would seem to be difficult to find much more to talk about…But 2021 has been special for all the wrong reasons. Two years following the COVID-19 outbreak, political turmoil lingers around the world. Latin America regressed two decades in terms of extreme poverty; and the fight against supply-chain bottlenecks continues to hinder commerce globally. The response from the Biden Administration has been to return to multilateralism. They have explored the possibility of restarting the Iran nuclear deal, reclaiming leadership on climate change and Pacific trade, and have visibly strengthened alliances damaged by the previous administration’s transactional approach. There are signs however, that much of Biden’s multilateral tendencies are superficial, leaving us to wonder whether we are witnessing a rocky return to the status quo ante or if Trump left us with a new, less-cooperative, normal.

Biden kicks off first NATO summit with focus on China, Russia https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/white-house/biden-kicks-first-nato-summit-plans-focus-russia-china-n1270645
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with President Joe Biden during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021.

Trade

Poised to become the world’s leading industrial power by 2049, China’s National People’s Congress released long-term objectives shortly following their centenary celebration in July. Central to these objectives is China’s “dual circulation strategy,” that will allow a balance of domestic demand and export markets to spur economic recovery since the outbreak of COVID. In the short term, dual circulation will integrate with the current Belt and Road Initiative. A good example of this integration is the Colombo Port City (CPC) in Sri Lanka. Through real estate development, business development, and technical outbound investment, China plans to launch CPC as a financial services center for South Asia. The strategy behind the project presents a challenge to the influence of the United States in Asia, a challenge that has been growing for decades. 

After four years of self-defeating hostility from the Trump Administration toward trade agreements, the White House is making superficial attempts to regain a place in the Indo-Pacific economic order. While on the surface this seems a repudiation of the previous administration’s trade policy, it is more a reflection of reality in the region. Despite the differences in tone, Biden has done little to advance climate goals or bolster the successor to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP (CPTPP). In addition, the domestic indecision that mired US vaccine assistance earlier this year made it seem as or more cynical than the overt vaccine “diplomacy” practiced by China and Russia. On trade, climate, and the pandemic, the United States is struggling to lead and failing to find a way to make multilateralism work. On security, the situation is more complicated. 

Security

In September, US foreign policy concerns about China took on a distinctly military focus when the leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced the AUKUS security deal. In their piece: Collateral Impact: The Calculus of AUKUS, Travis Johnson and Lino Miani analyzed the potentially far-reaching impact of the trilateral agreement. The centerpiece of the deal was the provision of nuclear submarines to Australia which came at the expense of a similar arrangement with France. The French submarine deal had long been the subject of controversy in Canberra because it was estimated to be $70 billion over budget and had failed to deliver any significant capability in the five years since its inception. The subsequent outrage from Paris prompted discord between allies and put pressure on certain provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). An erosion of these accords leaves room for Chinese diplomacy to further divide the United States from its European allies in ways that are not directly connected to AUKUS. 

Any success or failure of AUKUS in the Indo-Pacific will be completely overshadowed by the drama of the collapse of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The last year of the Trump presidency featured an apparent drive for a deal with the Taliban at any cost. With little room to maneuver that didn’t just prolong the war, President Biden extended the Trump Administration’s May 1st deadline for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops but did nothing to advance a deal between Kabul and the Taliban. Ultimately the delay simply allowed America’s enemy of two decades to position itself for a takeover as American troops managed a desperate and devastatingly chaotic last stand at the airport. With the Taliban back in charge, America cut ties with Afghanistan and now sits on the sidelines while the Central Asian winter and an unfamiliarity with actual governance has rendered the Taliban unable to provide for millions while they consolidate their power.  

More worrying perhaps has been the unexpected and seemingly unprovoked escalation of tension in eastern Ukraine. A large Russian military buildup so alarmed Washington that President Biden spent the better part of a week in early December in virtual summits with NATO and other allied leaders and ultimately Russian President Vladimir Putin. The solidarity from NATO was effective at deescalating tension, at least temporarily, but must be viewed in light of intra-allied stresses caused by AUKUS and the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Though it is not completely clear that Russia is deterred, Putin’s bold saber-rattling has succeeded in igniting a debate over the legitimacy of NATO expansion in the 1990s. The Kremlin’s seemingly outrageous demands would not have been outrageous in 1997. In 2021 Putin is pressing an advantage that only he can see. Whatever the eventual outcome of the crisis, Ukrainian membership in NATO is dead in the water. 

Alliances and the return of multilateralism represents the hallmark of 2021. Yet, strategy must not be cooperation for cooperation’s sake. NATO was founded in 1949 with the original purpose of ensuring that the core industrial, economic, and military regions of the world did not fall under the sway of a hostile power. The case of AUKUS is cut from the same cloth. Still, expansion should not be a substitute for long-term stability or diplomacy. Where Western sanctions against Russia have shown success, a similar military presence in Ukraine risks the threat of all out war. Ultimately, diplomacy, trade, and security must serve those willing to build and balance the peaceful international order. 


Travis Johnson is an active duty US Marine pursuing a MA degree in intelligence studies and is the associate editor for The Affiliate Network.

Collateral Impact: The Calculus of AUKUS

The Biden Administration’s strategic shift toward evolving threats in the Indo-Pacific signals an attempt to reaffirm the balance of power there in Washington’s favor. In a short trilateral statement issued from the White House on 15 September, President Biden — with Prime Ministers Scott Morrison of Australia and Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom — announced an enhanced security partnership they call AUKUS. Despite its brevity, the AUKUS declaration supports a profound broadening of pre-existing defense relationships in the region by means of technological, scientific, and industrial collaboration across fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and cyber warfare. Though AUKUS was not explicitly aimed at the expansion of Chinese power, some clues about the agreement’s implementation cause most analysts — and certainly those in Beijing — to believe that it is. Regardless of how the messaging surrounding AUKUS is intended or received, it clearly has the potential to complicate Chinese designs in the region.

AUKUS sent a ripple that began in the South China Sea but surged heavily onto world capitals in East Asia and Europe. One heavily touted aspect of the pact is an agreement for the US and UK to provision the Royal Australian Navy with nuclear submarines; a capability that could radically curtail China’s economy in the event of a conflict. Though the submarine deal was presented as an economic move with military implications, Beijing dismissed any attempts at nuance as “extremely irresponsible” and stated the pact “seriously undermines regional peace and intensifies the arms race.” Still, considering the enormous expansion of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in recent years, including the development of multiple military outposts in the South China Sea and the expanding reach of the Belt and Road Initiative, some enhancement of regional maritime security seems necessary. 

In initial remarks certifying AUKUS, President Biden made clear distinctions between nuclear-powered subs and those armed with nuclear missile systems. This distinction would allow for the use of weapons-grade uranium, provided Australia initiates and adheres to additional strengthening of safeguards on the production, use, and disposal of highly enriched uranium (HEU). Safeguards provided by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) prevent nuclear warheads aboard the Australian submarine fleet and also restrict the use of naval HEU reactors. The move would make Australia the seventh country to field such assets and the very first non-nuclear weapons state to do so but also raises the concern that North Korea or Iran could obtain similar technology. Though it is not clear what specific contributions the US and UK will provide in terms of technology and HEU, this capability enables Australia to undertake a variety of operations far outside its territorial waters, putting pressure on the Chinese “nine-dash line” and complicating planning for Beijing. 

AUKUS proposes the development of similar nuclear-powered submarines for the purposes of the Australian naval fleet. https://www.navy.mil/Resources/Photo-Gallery/igphoto/2002371154/
(March 15, 2018) The Royal Navy hunter killer submarine HMS Trenchant (S 91) surfaces in the Beaufort Sea during Ice Exercise (ICEX) 2018. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication 2nd Class Micheal H. Lee/Released)

Collateral Effect

Though differences exist between the Trump Administration policy and Biden’s current focus on pragmatism, it is evident that countering the developing threat of China remains at the top of the bipartisan list of priorities. The same is true in the UK where critics of Boris Johnson initially hesitated to label him as a China hawk. However, by capitalizing on the 2007 decision to buy two aircraft carriers, their impact within the Pacific theater is a powerful reminder of “Global Britain.” In this respect, the US has effectively hardened the UK’s line on China. In Australia, the heavy-handed influence of Chinese interference is felt more strongly through cyber-attacks and state agents acting under the cover of Chinese journalists. While foreign policy must weigh necessary contingencies against the country’s developing trade, economic, and investment relations with its autocratic neighbor, stepping into commitments with AUKUS presents much more than a defensive posture. 

This expanding network remains most relevant in the 14-year-old Quad alliance consisting of Japan, Australia, India, and the US. As tensions continue to rise on all sides of China’s borders, the importance of the Quad is increasing tremendously. Taiwan regularly witnesses incursions of dozens upon dozens of military fly-overs, as do Japan’s nearby Senkaku Islands. Similarly, Indian and Chinese troops have repeatedly clashed in high-altitude tension in the Himalayas. Although critics are quick to write off these events as disparities common to the Indo-Pacific region, AUKUS offers more significant value given its intended depth. In addition to hardened physical boundaries, major strategies backed by the Quad and AUKUS have risen in importance over the past months as a counterforce to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. Build Back Better World, or B3W, announced in June at the G-7 summit in Cornwall, U.K., aims to counter Chinese influence through massive investment in infrastructure development of developing countries by 2035. The expansion is led by the principles of the Blue Dot Network (BDN) which sets standards for transparency and environmental impact in infrastructure projects in low and medium-income countries across the world. Among G-7 member states, there is talk of AUKUS broadening to align its activities with that of Japan, although such cohesion remains to be seen. Ultimately, this network will solidify spheres of influence to an extent not witnessed in decades.

Pending Reprisal

The most profound outrage regarding the AUKUS alliance erupted not in the Indo-Pacific, but in France. French President, Emmanuel Macron, was not notified of the pact before it was announced. France’s unsurprising response expressed betrayal by two NATO allies and aggrievement at the economic losses to its lucrative submarine deal with Australia. Though the French arguments seem justified, there was notable dissatisfaction with the submarine deal which was estimated to be nearly $70 billion over budget. Though observers debate the righteousness of French outrage, the opportunity it presents for China to drive a wedge between NATO allies is certainly more important. Faced with what European leaders are calling a “stab in the back,” Beijing’s recourse to diplomatic vindication is not unexpected. Indeed, Chinese diplomats contend that France’s vision of “strategic autonomy” is code for avoiding over-reliance on America. If China can effectively present AUKUS as an erosion of the NPT, it could provide further leverage in their efforts to divide the United States from its European allies far beyond Paris and in ways that are not directly connected to AUKUS. 

President Biden’s apparent willingness to risk relations with France over AUKUS suggests a rearrangement of US security priorities back toward something that resembles the Obama Administration’s “pivot to Asia.” The extent to which this may justify the Elysee’s push for “strategic autonomy” will shape how well Washington can maintain a balance of power against China. For some, this balance is increasingly urgent. Michéle Flournoy conveys this sentiment more precisely in a Foreign Affairs essay in 2020: “It will take a concerted effort to rebuild the credibility of US deterrence in order to reduce the risk of a war neither side seeks.”


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLCTravis Johnson is an active duty US Marine pursuing a MA degree in intelligence studies and is the associate editor for The Affiliate Network

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Peak 2020: An Apology to 2017

Readers of The Affiliate Network may recall that three years ago we dubbed 2017 “The Worst, Worst Year”. We were wrong and we owe an apology. 2020 has taken that title and expanded it beyond what most of us considered likely or even possible. The mysterious and terrifying pandemic and the economic tsunami that followed, triggered massive social, political, and economic upheavals around the world. Though the epoch-ending event is not exactly a “black swan” — many credible practitioners regarded it as a certainty — it will still leave a mark lasting decades and may permanently alter the course of human events.

The Worst

The world’s understanding of the novel Coronavirus, nCoV2, is that it emerged out of Wuhan, China in the waning weeks of 2019, and swept across the world like a wildfire. It turned human lungs to concrete, seemingly at random, and left paralysis and ruin in its wake. The contagion quickly spread to Iran before turning up in Italy, Spain, Belgium, France, and eventually New York. The time between the first reported cases in Wuhan to the day the World Health Organization declared Coronavirus 19 Disease (COVID19) a true pandemic: ten and a half weeks. At the time the WHO made the declaration there were 150,000 cases. Nine months later there are nearly 73 million.

A clue to the breathtaking speed of the contagion lies in the WHO declaration which cites “alarming levels of inaction” by the world’s governments. Reflecting a trend among democratic governments with populist tendencies; the leadership of Belarus, Brazil, Hungary, Great Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, and most notably, the United States, chose to place short-term economic concerns above public health despite the terrifying data and the uncertainties about immunity, transmissibility, treatments, and fatality rates. Though the northern European governments (except Sweden) rapidly reversed course, the most bizarre and damaging response came from the White House itself.

The President of the United States, in a daily Coronavirus briefing, alternated between touting the aggressiveness of his personal response, to dismissing COVID as “just a flu”, a “hoax” perpetuated by his rivals, and even claimed it “would go away like a miracle.” He promoted myths and miracle cures, pushing the untested hydroxychloroquine and speculated that ingesting disinfectants and “powerful light” could be helpful, all while rejecting preventative measures such as masks and social distancing. The effect upon the United States was obvious. It soon led the world in every COVID statistic and has maintained that grim superlative ever since. What is less obvious, is that US leadership in this dubious regard has produced political headwinds for governments around the world struggling to get their populations to make sacrifices in the interest of public health.

The Rest

Though COVID certainly impacted quite literally everything in 2020, only Victor Perez Sañudo and Lino Miani wrote specifically about the disease in The Affiliate Network. While Mr. Miani made an early analysis of the virus’s potential impact on Africa in “The Cloud Over Africa“, Mr. Perez Sañudo explained how to manage COVID risk to business in “Back to Work“. For most of the rest of 2020 our content focused on the foreign policy moves of ascendent states seeking to capitalize on US retrenchment in the hands of an isolationist White House facing the impacts of the virus.

To some degree or another, Turkey, Russia, and China all pressed their advantages in the international arena this year. Dino Mora warned of Russian influence in Central America in “Educating Costa Rica“, while Mike Skillt, in “Why Russia Cannot Win“, introduced us to the Turkish-Russian struggle for dominance in Syria after the Trump Administration ceded the field. Our colleague Wolfgang Pusztai, one of the world’s most respected Libya watchers, pointed out that conflict is an expanding one. In “Libya: From Civil War to Regional Conflict” Mr. Pusztai describes the Turkish struggle for influence against a cast of actors that have interests there. Russia, he says, used the same ineffective strategy of proxy war it applied against the Turks in Syria. As we would soon see, Russia and Turkey would again glare at each other across the field of battle before the end of the year in Nagorno-Karabakh. With Russian proxies in combat on three sides of a NATO member state, Turkish foreign policy is a concern on a global level.

Meanwhile on the other side of the world, both Teoh Jit Khiam and Mr. Miani wrote repeatedly about developments in the South China Sea where Beijing seeks to set the facts on the ground to its advantage. Mr. Teoh’s “Between a ROC and a Hard Place” analyzed the costs and benefits of Taiwanese independence. He later walked us through the history of China’s relationship with the rest of the region in The Malay Annals.” Lastly, Mr. Teoh capped off his performance with a fun “Alternate Futures” piece that presented a variety of triggers that could spark off a Sino-US conflict. Among the categories of event Mr. Teoh analyzed were “pre-planned actions that take place inside the South China Sea;” similar to the Sino-Indonesian row Mr. Miani wrote about in “Engulfing Natuna.” At the end of the year, Mr. Miani once again turned his pen to the region. In “Strategic Geography of the Internet,” he described efforts by the United States, Australia, Indonesia, and others to safeguard the web from Chinese dominance in the South China Sea. 

The Apology

After living through 2020 and observing its effects with a critical eye, we at the Affiliate Network feel we owe 2017 an apology. The events of 2020, shaped by COVID and made worse by some governments, have changed the game in so many ways. We can only go up from here and we are interested and excited to see what 2021 brings. Among our hopes for the new year are a return to predictability and stability in US foreign policy; a reinvigoration of US alliance relationships both in the North Atlantic and the Pacific; and an embrace of the technology and techniques for remote work that COVID forced upon us. If 2020 had any silver linings, it is up to us to make the most of them.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

What a Biden Win Means for Latin America

Latin America has had an interesting history with democracy.  From the “southern cone” to the Rio Grande, the countries of the western hemisphere have endured a political cycle of right-wing fascism that gives way to leftist insurgency and socialist governments which in turn were vulnerable to military coups. The common denominator through it all was a robust U.S. foreign policy interest in the region. Though American foreign policy manifested differently through the decades, no country south of the border can remain unaffected by decisions made in Washington. This was as true in 1820 as it is in 2020, so what will a Biden win mean for Latin America?

Carry a Big Stick

The history of U.S. influence in the region arguably begins with the administration of James Monroe whose “doctrine” is presented to history as an anti-colonial gesture aimed at the powers of Europe. In Latin American and European capitals however, it is seen less as a benevolent hedge against colonialism and more as an argument for giving Washington a free hand in the region.

Whatever Mr. Monroe’s true motivation, its effect was a succession of American Presidents that dealt roughly in the region. James K. Polk needed to win a war against Mexico to secure the southern flank for manifest destiny. William McKinley bowed to political pressure and declared war on Spain, a conflict that handed America its first taste of imperial responsibility. Theodore Roosevelt supported insurrection to create a nation (Panama) favorable to construction of the canal. Even Eisenhower, the ultimate practitioner of a cooperative foreign policy, did not shy away from supporting the overthrow of democratically elected governments in Guatemala and elsewhere. Thereafter, US foreign-policy in Latin America became a balance of fighting communism and fighting drugs; neither of which did much to impede existing oligarchies or bring peace.

While post-war relations brought cooperation and development to those that sought it and coercion and deterrence to that that did not; the Trump administration somehow managed to weave it all together. Characterized by a transient focus on a handful of issues that would impact Trump’s domestic voting base, the United States shifted all its development programs and most of its diplomacy to the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense, and the independent Development Finance Corporation; a government agency that guarantees loans to be issued to local investors by local banks. The result was the commoditization of a narrow list of foreign policy priorities that had little to do with anything except providing sound bytes for the never-ending Trump campaign.

Aside from a recurring focus on deterring immigration from Central America, none of Washington’s policies south of the border seemed to have any longevity or credibility. American ambassadors and working level-diplomats continued to make cooperative noises and broadcast neighborly themes of solidarity against endemic poverty, inequality, and crime but their voices were drowned out by the President who cancelled summits, made fun of and threatened leaders that displeased him, subordinated complex relationships to his narrow interests, and seemed unable to focus on anything for meaningful periods of time. Among his short lived fixations were making Mexico pay for a wall they did not want and which would not accomplish its purpose; a renaming of the North American Free Trade Agreement without any of the legislative legwork required for meaningful reforms; a poorly conceived attempt to topple Venezuela’s president by supplying his rival with humanitarian assistance and political top cover; and a very brief “war” against cartels in the Caribbean. The result was a decline in goodwill toward American leadership and a generation of Latin American leaders that got very good at telling Washington what it wants to hear while doing as little as necessary to keep the money flowing.

What Would Joe Biden Do?

A future Biden administration will have its work cut out for it in Latin America. While the job will not be as straightforward as simply rolling back Trump’s policies, there is recognition the United States must rebuild relationships for mutual benefit down South. Immigration is the most obvious starting point. The Trump Administration’s migration policies were among the most comprehensive attempted during his tenure. Building the wall and deploying the military was only part of that. Changing U.S. interpretations of political asylum procedures; imposing legally questionable deportation practices; and altering incarceration standards that saw children separated from their parents and held in horrifying conditions also came into play. But these were only the symptoms of a larger bureaucratic alignment that Biden will fix.

In 2018 the Trump administration crippled U.S. development and cooperation relationships in Central America by prohibiting USAID and parts of the State Department from initiating new programs there. Diplomats report an inability to secure meetings, a lack of involvement in events, and are facing difficult decisions to cut valuable local staff. Coupled with the government shutdown at the outset of that year that affected all but the Defense Department, U.S. engagement with host nation governments has been radically shifted to the security sector at the expense of education, anti-corruption, and judicial reform. In much of Latin America security agencies are the least capable of addressing the preconditions that lead to migration and in some cases have terrible relationships with the exact segments of the population that are most likely to migrate.

The upshot of this is we will see an immediate move to rebalance U.S. foreign aid programs in Latin America in general but in Central America in particular since the focus will be once again on immigration. Rather than reiterating the punitive approach taken by Trump, Biden will likely adopt four policy aims:

  • Redouble and revitalize cooperative efforts to help Mexico address its rule of law challenges with special attention to the problem of corruption. Social programs that reduce U.S. drug addiction, illegal firearms flows, and money laundering will reduce the size of the U.S. market and profitability.
  • Rebalance U.S. Foreign Aid: U.S. security interests in Central America include a complex mix of countering transnational organized crime, building partner capacity, intelligence sharing, and countering malign influences that impact the stability of governance or impede U.S. objectives. Addressing these threats requires improvements to the capability of law enforcement, refocusing military roles away from traditional law enforcement tasks, improving disaster response capacity, and countering malign influences from abroad.
  • Address Conditions that Lead to Migration: The vast majority of Central American migrants to the United States are seeking economic opportunity or to escape violence by either government or criminal organizations. Relatively small investments in economic development, enhancements to fairness and impartiality in both governance and economics, protection of minority rights, and assistance to migrants and refugees can go a long way to prevent Central Americans from making a decision to migrate. USAID has long been the primary foreign policy tool for addressing these problems. Biden will re-enable USAID and breathe life back into relationships with its governmental and non-governmental partners.
  • Encourage Regional Integration: Regional integration in Central America is expanding in some very effective ways in the Northern Tier and will be encouraged. Examples include cooperation agreements on immigration, disaster response, human rights, and legislation. Biden will encourage regional initiatives as a way to develop efficiencies in the above areas and more by enabling more meaningful engagement with international organizations and resuming a U.S. leadership role.


    Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

    Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Strategic Geography of the Internet

Nearly 30 years since the invention of the world wide web, we have become accustomed to having high-speed, relevant content at our fingertips virtually everywhere we go. The availability of rapidly searchable information is now so important that the service economy globally is completely dependent upon the internet. Increasingly, automation and machine learning have made it possible to integrate the industrial economy as well. Public utilities, industrial and commercial supply chains, emergency response capability, transportation, and public health are all monitored and controlled via the web. Entire economies, governance, and even military power is now largely determined by availability of information…and it all rides on the thinnest of fibers.

If there is a physical structure to the internet, it is the thousands of miles of fiber optic cable that wrap around the planet. These tiny filaments are bundled into cables that carry trillions of terabits of data over mountains and under oceans at the speed of light. The amount of data exchanged daily between machines, sensors, and humans is increasing exponentially and includes everything from cat videos to military targeting data. For that reason, control of the internet, and the cables that carry it, has become a strategic concern for governments and industry alike.

The Thinnest of Threads

The cables that carry the web are simple in concept but complex in reality. Data, in the form of light, passes through tiny transparent fiber optic cables. These fibers, fractions of millimeters in diameter and made of glass, are unsuitable for use in the environment without reinforcement. With some variation, their structure resembles the diagram below with different layers designed to provide functionality and to protect the core from the elements and from breakage by stretching, creasing, or crushing. Adequately protected, the fiber assemblies are bundled into larger cables and laid across the ocean floor by specially equipped vessels.

Fiber Optic Cable
Diagram of a typical fiber optic cable. Many of these will be combined into the large cables that carry the internet between continents.

There is nothing simple however about the function of fiber optic cables. The simultaneous transmission and reception of vast amounts of data on either end of the cable is a complex operation. Distributing that data across all the various fibers must be done with enough redundancy so that information is not impeded by tiny breakages or blockages along the thousands of miles of cable. However, transmitting all data on all fibers all the time is inefficient and instead must be done so that data can reliably reach specific destinations without wasting bandwidth. Balancing this distribution at the speed of light and monitoring the health of the cable along its entire length requires sophisticated servers and feedback mechanisms.

Despite careful management and protective measures, the cables are still vulnerable in a number of ways. Materials degrade over time, making the cables lose strength and possibly eroding their efficiency. They can be broken or damaged by fishing or survey gear, punctured by wildlife, or severed by landslides and earthquakes. On 26 December 2006, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Taiwan, severing eight cables in 18 places. The event severely disrupted internet connectivity in most of Asia for several weeks. Despite subsequent improvements to the strength, diversity, and resiliency of the network, it is still vulnerable to seismic activity and of course, there is no combination that is safe from intentional tampering.

Internet Bottleneck

Herein lies the strategic challenge and opportunity presented by undersea cables. All but one of the multitude of cables servicing Southeast Asia and the southern and western parts of the Indian Subcontinent pass first through the South China Sea. Not only is this an arena of intense strategic competition, but the sea itself is uniformly shallow making the cables relatively easy to access. While any reasonably capable state actor could cut these cables – certainly all those with claims in the South China Sea possess this capability – a more valuable, but more difficult, endeavor is to steal the information flowing through them. Though this is notoriously difficult with fiber optics, it is not impossible.

The techniques for tapping fiber-optic lines are a tightly guarded secret but the principle is an old one. Put a sensor on the line, record all the information that flows past it, and analyze it later. Naturally the lines are more vulnerable at retransmission stations called “regeneration points” and at “landing stations” where the cables emerge from the sea. Still, preventing such theft is not easy. Sensing technologies do exist to detect such tampering but it is not clear how effective they are or how dependent on interpretation. Even if tampering could be reliably detected, it cannot be prevented and it will never be possible to determine what information was stolen and what was not.

Strategic Geography

In historical conflicts, adversaries sought to deny each other access to critical resources or domains of competition such as the seas. In the event of a future conflict in the Indo Pacific region, it may not be possible for an adversary to deny Australia and Southeast Asia access to the world’s oceans, but it is indeed possible to limit their access to the lifeblood of the world economy. U.S. and Australian strategic planners take this problem seriously. They recognize for example there are no complete solutions to the threat posed by Chinese access to the South China Sea and the cables that lie underneath it. One partial solution is as simple as it is ancient. By laying a new cable from the United States to Australia, Indonesia, and Singapore, on a route that passes south of New Guinea, planners can protect the line by putting a tremendous amount of physical distance and defensible terrain between it and the adversary.

The route, which has obvious geographical advantages, also says something about the future of US-Australian-Indonesian relations vis-à-vis China. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the project is being implemented as a cooperative venture between private industry, the respective militaries, and in the case of the United States, as an economic development project funded by the Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The fusion of development with economics and security is not a new concept and is in fact a feature of imperial behavior throughout history. In the 19th Century the fuel that defined power in the Pacific was agriculture and coaling stations. In the 20th it was oil. In the 21st Century, it is — in part — the strategic role of information and the infrastructure that carries it.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

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