Category Archives: Security

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.

Conflict in the South China Sea: Alternate Futures

“No serious futurist deals in prediction. These are left for television oracles and newspaper astrologers.” – Alvin Toffler, American writer and futurist

Much ink has been spilled over scenarios that may result in a conflict between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. It is fair to state that many have been deliberated and reiterated regularly – tensions on the Korean peninsula, clashes or incidents during a freedom of navigation or an intelligence-gathering operation in the South China Sea, or Taiwan declaring independence. This brief and speculative forecast explores four alternatives, within or beyond the South China Sea and occurring on a “spectrum of intent” ranging from premeditated and/or avoidable or unplanned and/or accidental. No matter how or where it occurs, each singular scenario in the table below could act as the fuse to a U.S.-PRC conflict by 2030.

The simple table shown below displays how four alternative futures are generated. For each, the text below in italics for each scenario gives a one-line summary as to the worldview in this possible future. It is followed by three possible signposts that may lead to, or are characteristic of, the imagined future.

Within the South China Sea Beyond the South China Sea
Premeditated, Avoidable Alternative Future A Alternative Future C
Unplanned, Accidental Alternative Future B Alternative Future D

Alternative Future A: High Seas Interdiction

A U.S. resurgence shows as the ‘Indo-Asia Pacific’ concept acquires currency and tangible forms, formal or otherwise, which the U.S. leads or sponsors but China contests. Select U.S. proliferation security or multilateral military exercises in 2020, involving countries beyond Southeast Asia, lose their original intent and gain aspects of informal alliances or unstated treaties revolving around the Indo-Pacific in 2030. Japan joins as a junior member, together with Germany, of the now-renamed “Five Eyes Plus Two” intelligence-sharing group. Regular and predictable joint statements from ASEAN are a thing of the past, as spirited debates and widening interests among its members mar what was once a due formality.

Scenario: A China Coast Guard (CCG) ship attempts to interdict an Indian-flagged civilian vessel inbound for Taiwan, in international waters within the South China Sea. Repeated boarding attempts by CCG boarding parties are frustrated by evasive maneuvers, emplaced concertina razor wires and sandbags, and serious resistance offered by the Indian crew members who employ water cannons and foam monitors. Suffering mounting casualties from small arms fire and the near-certainty of a CCG seizure of their vessel, the captain and chief engineer begin scuttling her, acting under sealed orders from New Delhi. An Australian Navy ship receiving the Indian vessel’s distress call quickly arrives at the scene to pick-up survivors under Chinese protestations. The Americans in turn rapidly converge nearby USN ships, which incidentally include a rescue and salvage vessel in transit to Japan, to secure the site and recover the rumored cargo: sea-launched cruise missiles destined for Taiwan’s German-licensed, indigenously built submarines. Amidst ratcheting tensions between the parties involved, an apprehensive Beijing quietly hastens mobilization for a cross-strait invasion, irrespective of its state of preparedness.

Alternative Future B: A Downed Flight

China’s leaders, confident, yet eager to entrench its self-perceived hegemony, ‘speak softly’ yet signal to officials down below that ‘big stick’ initiatives are “acceptable” to preserve the status quo. A handful of small countries, beholden to Beijing, officially recognize the PRC’s East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), now known as the Eastern and Southern Peace ADIZ, concurrent with China formally issuing a document on its definitions, interpretations, and enforcement. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) is no longer a Chinese talking point and is dismissed during regional backdoor meetings as an ‘anachronism’. It is suggested that a revised version be issued via “regional consultations”. China’s Maritime Militia are now equipped with newer and larger boats and are now shadowed by CCG ships during patrols or escort missions at contested fishing zones in the South China Sea.

Scenario: A Taiwanese civilian airliner mysteriously crashes in waters close to South Korea and Japan while attempting to defy China’s newly expanded ADIZ that has now encompassed the South China Sea. Onboard were Taiwanese officials, Japanese diplomats, and media entourage from both countries. Much later, air traffic control voice recordings and open-source data would indicate that the airplane was hailed and shadowed by two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force fighters, and for a short period, its flight path was well within the theoretical tracking and acquisition range of a PLA Navy guided-missile destroyer. Salvage, rescue, and naval ships from four countries – China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – converge on the general crash location in order to secure physical evidence and the airplane’s black boxes. Within days, it devolves into serious skirmishes between various parties that include ramming and direct fire, forestalling hopes of the quick recovery of the black boxes. The U.S. deploys a carrier battle group to support joint Taiwanese-Japanese efforts to recover the black boxes. Seoul quickly backs down, but China matches American naval presence in a tense stand-off in the East China Sea.

Alternative Future C: Ethnic Killings

The word ‘China’ in South China Sea is no longer a geographic description but de facto and de jure, with acquiescence by many countries surrounding the body of water via a tacit acknowledgment of China’s dominance. Most ASEAN militaries increasingly field and flaunt China-made planes and ships while occasional forays or extended presence by the U.S. in the South China Sea is indulged by PRC in 2030 as “American nostalgia”. The ASEAN countries that once hosted or trained with the U.S. Military, are terminating or reducing the once welcome presence. One or two are even abiding tour operators featuring excursions at China’s reclaimed “islands” open for tourism. China’s re-tooling of its much-criticized “debt diplomacy” is a great success as countries along its touted ‘string of pearls’ increasingly eschew the World Bank and IMF in favor of Beijing.

Scenario: Ultra-nationalists in a South Asian country carry out the first of a series of deadly attacks against their country’s religious minority by using a political procession – ostensibly to protest a remark by a minority rights activist in an interview – as both cover and rallying point. Unverified reports of mass killings follow claims that security forces failed to protect minority-populated areas or were ordered to stand down. As weeks pass with the country on verge of civil war, U.S. and India announce the dispatch of a combined joint task force to the South Asian country under a humanitarian pretext, pending a UNSC resolution. China denounces the preemptive move as blatant, unwarranted interference in the “internal affairs” of said country. The embattled South Asian government, wary of its giant neighbor, officially requests Chinese “peace-keepers.” Beijing quickly agrees and introduces a UNSC draft resolution of their own. Meanwhile, China rallies its token naval presence in-country and mobilizes reinforcements. The race is on to see who will be first to dictate “facts on the ground” aimed at denying or establishing, for the first time in centuries, a significant Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean.

Alternative Future D: Embassy Attack

Under domestic pressures, the U.S. voluntarily retrenches from the first island chain to the second and then third in quick succession, revealing to the world that American reach starkly contrasts with its self-professed global aspirations. U.S. freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and bilateral military exercises with Southeast Asian countries drop-off precipitously. Seoul and Tokyo turn into regional rivals while the U.S. is unwilling or no longer able to mediate between its squabbling allies. The United States commits to various new initiatives against Beijing, even attempting Russian-style influence operations across the “Great Firewall” and in China’s neighboring countries, seeking to displace or overturn China’s position with minimal resources.

Scenario: The Chinese embassy in a Central Asian country hosted a high-visibility diplomatic reception to celebrate a landmark treaty that enhances China’s influence in Central Asia. The reception comes under a coordinated attack launched by an extremist faction of a political movement banned in China and operating in exile from the U.S. Among the casualties is the second-highest-ranking member of the communist party’s politburo standing committee, reputedly a policy hawk on PRC-U.S. relations. The U.S. embassy is later noted as having delegated attendance to its lowest ranking foreign service officer, the cultural attaché, who left shortly before the attack. The leaders of the political movement, denounce the splinter faction but refuse to condemn the attack, giving fuel to long-standing Chinese claims that the U.S. is “sponsoring terrorism”. China’s state media plays up the “heroic sacrifice” of its “leading comrade”. The Central Asian government refuses Washington’s offers of forensic expertise and quickly concedes to Beijing the lead for investigation and interrogation of the lone surviving attacker. Within weeks, Beijing announces the attack was directed and sponsored by the CIA and vows retaliation at a place and time of China’s choosing.

“Strong opinions, lightly held.” – Institute for the Future

When angels cast pearls, the devil’s advocate plays swineherd. Much of the present-day discourse surrounding the likely chief causes of a future U.S.-PRC conflict has been extensively covered by other parties, thus this speculative foray into grounds less well-trodden. The alternative futures described and its attendant scenarios are considered implausible in the present but the preconditions that may lead to those paths already exist today. Great power ambitions and (mis)calculations of future leaders may entice or force the actors to perceive an advantage or leverage in the conditions as and when they arise. It is hoped that this thought exercise has shed light on unexpected blind-spots that may lead to a wider range of unexpected outcomes that could arise from the actions of the actors as they seek to advance or arrest their waxing and waning fortunes.


Teoh Jit Khiam works in private practice. He writes on topics concerning Asian politics and history.

With the Drawdown of US Forces in Germany, Is South Korea Next?

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


With the drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany underway, a reduction of U.S. forces in South Korea is now more likely than ever, given evolving U.S. defense priorities and longstanding trends on the Korean Peninsula. Rumors of an imminent U.S. force drawdown in Korea have been circulating since at least 2019, and President Donald Trump has made it clear he wants to reduce large overseas basing. South Korea, however, is a particularly contentious case, as any changes to the size and structure of U.S. forces must take into consideration both the local mission of deterring against North Korea, as well as the broader U.S. strategic mission of refocusing on great power competition, particularly with China. And that will require reassessing South Korea’s own national defense capabilities, the benefits and risks of having a large forward force based on the Asian mainland, and the impact of any shift in forces on the overall perception of U.S. commitment and reliability with other allies and partners in the region.

The Question of U.S. Forces in South Korea

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has sought to reduce its large-scale overseas basing, both to reduce financial and political costs and create a more flexible and responsive force structure better adapted to the changing threat dynamic. Cost-sharing agreements are often contentious, and the current stalemate between the United States and South Korea has dragged on with no end in sight. U.S. basing is also often a source of protest inside South Korea, over land use, accidents or illegal behavior by U.S. personnel, and the perception of continued occupation. Reducing the U.S. footprint and shifting more to naval, air and rotational units could ease these tensions.

Under the current National Defense Strategy (NDS), Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is now reviewing the overall posture of U.S. forces abroad, with the mandate toward a more flexible forward posture. Since the early 2000s, U.S. forces in Korea have moved out of the major facility at Yongsan in Seoul. The United States has also pulled most of its forces south of the Han River. During the Iraq War, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush cut total troop numbers in Korea by nearly 12,000 as well, in part because forces based in Korea cannot be readily used for contingencies elsewhere.

Amid reports that the Pentagon had already recommended force restructuring in Korea, Esper said on July 21 that he had given no order to withdraw forces, but then emphasized that he was reviewing all geographic combatant commands in line with the current NDS, with a desire for more rotational forces and greater strategic flexibility.

In that context, a longstanding suggestion for reshaping the U.S. military posture in South Korea is a further shift toward more naval and air assets, and reduced U.S. ground forces — potentially moving more ground forces to a rotational basis, rather than extended deployments. Doing so would maintain a deterrent presence in Korea and retain the benefit of training with South Korean forces, while still reducing constraints due to limits on the deployment of Korean-based forces to conflicts elsewhere. Rotational forces also have a smaller footprint in overseas basing, as they do not include family or family support functions that extended deployments entail.


The U.S. will not abandon South Korea given its value in deterring both North Korea and China. Washington will, however, continue to reshape its overseas force posture.


The restructuring of U.S. forces, however, is complicated by U.S. operational control (OPCON) over South Korean forces in the event of war. South Korea has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War in the early 1950s, with the South Korean military only regaining formal OPCON of its own forces in peacetime in 1994. Over the decades, the transfer of wartime OPCON to South Korea has been delayed numerous times due to its military’s perceived unreadiness and occasional flare-ups of tensions with North Korea. For South Korea, particularly under liberal governments like that of current President Moon Jae In, OPCON transfer is a critical step to fully realizing its independence and national pride. Korea was under Japanese control from 1910 to 1945, and has had its military under U.S. OPCON since the Korean War. And while its alliance with the United States remains important for Seoul, the nature of the two countries’ military relationship is still at times seen as paternalistic

The Case for Restructuring

There are several arguments in support of such a restructuring. For one, U.S. forces in South Korea are largely a Cold War left-over and are limited in use for operations outside the country. South Korea, Germany and Japan continue to represent the largest hosting of U.S. forces abroad, and the largest expenditures for basing. Prior to the announced drawdown, Germany hosted more than 35,000 U.S. forces, South Korea more than 26,000 and Japan more than 55,000, according to the latest tally by the Heritage Foundation’s Defense Manpower Data Center. The Pentagon has traditionally avoided using U.S. forces stationed in South Korea for operations elsewhere, both due to the North Korean threat and to South Korean political concerns.

The balance of forces on the Korean Peninsula also currently favors South Korea, reducing the necessity of a large ready U.S. presence. That balance was an important consideration in U.S. President Richard Nixon’s decision to reduce forces in South Korea in 1971, desiring for Seoul to carry more of the burden for its own national defense. A revision of U.S. intelligence estimates of North Korean strength also played a role in reversing President Jimmy Carter’s decision to further reduce forces in South Korea less than a decade later.

North Korean capabilities no longer require the U.S. force posture currently configured in South Korea as well. While North Korea has significantly improved its missile and rocket capabilities, the effective counter is not necessarily more forces open the ground, but rather improved missile defense capabilities and the development of South Korean counter-strike capabilities. South Korea has been constrained in the latter for decades by the United States for fear of triggering a war with North Korea that would lock Washington into conflict. But Washington recently agreed to allow Seoul to develop solid-fuel rockets and has expanded its acceptable payload size. South Korea has also recently identified ground and air-launch missiles as a key component of its force development, along with local missile defense. Given the developments in the South Korean military and the situation in North Korea, it is unlikely that Pyongyang would see a reduction of U.S forces in South Korea as an invitation to roll tanks south.

The Case Against Restructuring

But there are also valid arguments against a U.S. withdrawal from South Korea, including:

Preserving a key, amphibious entry point to Asia in the case of a U.S.-China conflict. South Korea’s most concrete value to the U.S. defense posture is perhaps its role as an amphibious bridge between the maritime world and the Asian continent. Strategic competition between the United States and China plays out where the maritime power of the United States meets the continental power of China. Korea has long been the bridge between maritime Japan and continental China, for culture as well as warfare — serving as the launching point for the Mongol invasions of Japan in the 13th century, the Japanese attempted invasion of China in the 16th century, and the Japanese imperial invasion of Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. The United States is strengthening military ties with other amphibious points around the Chinese periphery, including Vietnam and India. And while South Korea may be vulnerable due to its lack of strategic depth, its proximity to the Chinese north fleet and Beijing also makes it a key strategic point.


It’s unlikely North Korea would see a reduction of U.S forces as an invitation to roll tanks south.


Maintaining the longstanding U.S.-South Korea relationship. In both South Korea and the United States, support of a continued robust U.S. force presence is often based on the two countries’ 70-year military partnership. U.S. forces fought in Korea, Korean forces fought alongside the United States in Vietnam, and the two continue to train together.

Reassuring other allies of the United States’ commitment to the region. A robust presence of U.S. forces in South Korea also serves as a consistent reminder to North Korea, and perhaps China, of a U.S. commitment to protect its democratic allies in the region. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea clearly took this to heart, and its military development has shifted from a focus on overwhelming the South Korean ground forces to a missile, rocket and cyber-heavy emphasis that targets the U.S. forces and interests. Countering these capabilities requires a nearby U.S. presence, just as countering Russian threats or Iran’s missile and nuclear developments require U.S. military operations across Europe and the Middle East, respectively.

A reduction of forces could signal that, despite its Pacific Defense Initiative, the United States is more concerned with keeping competition and conflict bottled up in Asian waters far from U.S. shores, rather than strengthening and defending its allies and partners. Despite hosting more U.S. troops, Japan is particularly sensitive to any changes to the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, which helps buffer it from Asian conflict. Japan has been very vocal each time a major revision to U.S. forces in South Korea has been contemplated, as a complete withdrawal would leave Japan the frontline. And while Tokyo has gone far to reinterpret its pacifist constitution, there is still strong political and social sentiment against Japan’s role as a regional belligerent.

Current Dynamics Facilitate Restructuring

The United States is not going to simply abandon South Korea, but will instead continue to reshape its overseas force posture — reducing singular large basing in favor of more flexible and dispersed permeant and rotational presence, while allowing for the concentration of forces as needed, rather than as dictated by existing large basing. With the U.S. presidential election less than three months away, there is pressure on Trump to take action on issues it wants to see accomplished before a potential change of government, and reducing U.S. forces abroad has been a key issue from the start of his administration.

With South Korea currently under a liberal government, and seeking to heal rifts with North Korea while strengthening its own national defense capabilities and industry, a tailored reduction of U.S. forces may not meet significant resistance from Seoul, though it would certainly play into the deadlock over cost-sharing. While always a contentious issue, there may now well be an alignment of factors that make this the time for the United States to start once again downsizing its military presence in South Korea.


Rodger Baker is the Senior VP of Strategic Analysis at Stratfor. He leads Stratfor’s strategic thinking on global issues and future trends.