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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.

Isolating Japan

The White House announcement last month that the United States would abandon its position in Syria dumbfounded many of the world’s foreign policy practitioners including, it seemed, the entire executive branch of the U.S. Government. The subsequent attempt to react to the sequence of events it unleashed will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on U.S. allies around the world, especially those that are more or less dependent upon American security guarantees. In light of what appears to be a unilateral abandonment of a longstanding U.S. policy without warning or any appreciable coordination with allies, leaders around the world are almost certainly reviewing options for their defense. For them, reassessing the reliability of America’s commitment to their security will surely become a national security priority.

Vicious Cycle

Japan is arguably the most important of America’s nervous allies. With a post-war constitution that prohibits the maintenance of armed forces, Japan is particularly vulnerable to isolation due to a dramatic U.S. policy shift affecting security in Asia. This fact is presumably not lost on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe whose party has for years played at the margins of the Japanese Constitution’s Article 9 prohibition of military forces. The foundation of his party’s efforts sits at the heart of 70 years of Japanese politics but after the American pullout of Syria last month, Abe’s argument, that Japan must be less reliant on the United States for security, must seem strikingly tangible.

Japan exists in a difficult and dangerous part of the world. Apart from the immense and growing power of China, Tokyo faces renewed Russian challenges to disputed islands, festering animosity with the Republic of Korea, and a nuclear-armed North Korea that is suddenly receiving a great deal of coddling from Washington. The alarming apathy of the Trump Administration to America’s traditional role of keeping all this in balance is surely making Abe’s case. President Trump’s oft-stated desire to “get U.S. troops out of Asia” simply highlights that much of the shifting situation is due to his disinterest in the status quo ante. Though a few within the Administration have tried to make the case that America’s alliances are investments in its prosperity and security, all seem to have failed to convince him. While Japan’s moves to spend more on its own defense predate Trump, they will surely serve to confirm the President’s point of view…at least to some.


Apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.


The Cost of Peace

At the precise moment Japan is taking small steps toward a more independent defense policy, Korea is undergoing a political sea change. Though South Korean President Moon Jae In doesn’t speak about it publicly, there is evidence Seoul is greatly concerned about the trajectory of U.S. diplomacy with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). Though he is largely responsible for the rapid warming of inter-Korean relations that enabled the Singapore Summit between Kim Jong Un and President Trump in June 2018, Moon likely made these moves in hopes of steering the process. Instead he found himself locked out of the room in Singapore. From that moment it was clear the cost of the breakthrough was the abandonment of 70 years of U.S. support of Seoul as the only legitimate government of the Korean people.

Sharing legitimacy with Kim Jong Un is a terrible position for the South Korean leader to be in; particularly since it comes as the result of a decision made in Washington rather than in Seoul. The decision also solidifies the Japanese urge to re-arm which in turn, heightens South Korean insecurity. The lethal combination of Japanese and South Korean hedging with Trumpian apathy toward the traditional American role as marriage counselor between Seoul and Tokyo, will likely have an unfortunate effect on cooperation between them.

Isolating Japan

The sins of Imperial Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries serve as an inhibitor to cooperation with Korea. For this reason, the United States played a critical stabilizing role in the region as the broker of alliance politics between them. If, for example, Korea could not or would not work with the Japanese directly, they could at least collaborate multilaterally. At times when even this was not possible, each could work bilaterally with the U.S. towards common objectives determined by Washington. This approach, sometimes called “multilateral bilateralism” is not ideal but the United States uses it successfully in Southeast Asia.

In Northeast Asia where the stakes are higher, this approach requires a firm and flexible American hand. That consistency and the concentration it demands seem a distant memory now. Just yesterday, 14 November, Secretary of Defense Esper landed in Seoul with a demand the South Koreans pay an additional USD $5 billion to cover the cost of U.S. troops stationed there. The surprise 400% increase is a seemingly arbitrary number proposed by President Trump himself. and one sure to exacerbate Seoul’s insecurity. With the costs of alliance skyrocketing and its benefits decreasing, the unilateral abandonment of a Syrian ally in combat half a world away will surely echo in the ears of Moon Jae In and Shinzo Abe as they consider options for the future of their national defense.

We can already see the beginnings of Japan’s isolation in the form of worsening trade relations between Seoul and Tokyo, the abandonment of an intelligence sharing agreement between them, and Sino-Russian moves this summer to exacerbate a dispute over Takeshima/Dok Do. Though these examples predate the dramatic American retreat in Syria, we can safely assume Beijing and Moscow will view Washington’s lack of reliability as a golden opportunity to isolate Japan and use South Korean fears to break apart the mechanisms of U.S. influence in the region. Once a bulwark of stability, the self-inflicted decline of American leadership in Northeast Asia will present isolating Japan as a feasible and acceptable course of action for China and Russia to pursue.


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.

Water Wars

On October 11th, the Nobel Prize Committee announced its decision to award the 2019 Peace Prize to Ethiopia’s charismatic Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to “resolve the border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.” After 30 years of insurgency and 21 years of war, Ethiopia may finally have peace with its breakaway neighbor, a conflict that cost tens of thousands of lives. With the Nobel Prize announcement, the young and energetic former Army Lieutenant Colonel joined 99 of history’s most treasured peacemakers. Eleven days later, he promised he would mobilize millions of soldiers to fight Egypt if that country sought to prevent completion of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The spectacle of a Nobel Laureate threatening war, even a defensive one, over water rights may seem like an anachronism but it is not. Water wars are the future of conflict in many parts of the world and the distribution and intensity of that conflict is intertwined with history, climate change, population growth, and of course geography. In East Africa perhaps most of all. The Nile River is the longest in the world. Its waters flow through 11 countries and provide water to 250 million Africans on its way to Alexandria, Egypt where it flows into the Mediterranean Sea. That geographic fact has determined the rise and fall of empires from the time of the Pharaohs, through the rule of Alexander the Great and later the Ottomans. Its course shaped European colonialism on the continent and is the source of a great deal of tension between source and consumer countries today. Despite this, riparian states like Ethiopia say Nile waters are not distributed fairly.

Africa’s Water Tower

Ethiopia is a vast country that sits on a mountainous plateau. It is the source for 84% of the water in the greater Nile river system upon which so many millions depend. The country’s mountainous geography and unique political history are the reason Ethiopia is the only country in Africa that was never fully colonized by Europeans. Despite this, Ethiopia remains poorly developed and water-stressed. Successive regimes in Addis Ababa viewed dam-building as a birthright solution to Ethiopia’s water and power needs but were blocked by vigorous opposition from more powerful governments down stream. No longer it seems. Increasing pressure to dam the Blue Nile led to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. Announced in 2011, it will be the largest dam in Africa when it is finally complete next year.

Egypt sees the Renaissance Dam as a threat to its security. So does Sudan. Both have promised to defend their rights to Nile waters. This is not hyperbole. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s 99 million citizens live within 20 kilometers of the river and receive 90% their water from it. Any reduction of Nile waters is quite literally a limitation on the viability of Egyptian society and industry. Thus far, both Egypt and Sudan base their claims to Nile water on the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement and the 1959 Egypt-Sudan Agreement which guarantee 66% of Nile waters to Egypt and 22% to Sudan. Designed to allocate Nile waters between British colonies in East Africa and the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium, those treaties included no provisions for Ethiopia or the other riparian states that subsequently achieved independence. More importantly, the 1929 agreement gave Egypt veto power over construction of dams upstream.

Unsurprisingly, Ethiopians reject this arrangement on the basis that they were never a party to the agreement. More recently, they have been working with other upstream countries — Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya — as a bloc to pursue a more inclusive agreement that is nonetheless sensitive to Egyptian concerns. As part of that effort, Addis Ababa offered to release 30 billion cubic meters from the dam annually, a total they claim is the maximum they can release while filling the reservoir. Egypt however, is not satisfied with this number and wants 40 billion cubic meters instead, a discharge rate that would increase the time required to grow the reservoir from 5-6 years to 7-9 years. For the time being, Sudan is comfortable with 30 billion and was brokering a mutually acceptable quantity until those talks broke down last week over drought provisions.

Diplomatic Timeline of Nile Water Utilization

Water Talks

Where the talks go from here is a matter of growing concern in the region and beyond. The dam will be complete sometime in 2022, a decision point in Egyptian calculations and the reason the Egyptian Foreign Minister said the dam “will have negative consequences for stability in the region” if Egypt’s concerns are not addressed. Recognizing the danger of a conflict that could engulf all of East Africa, the United States and Russia have both offered to mediate but even the question of their respective roles remains a matter of some disagreement between the parties.

The controversy of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam demonstrates that water wars are no longer a topic limited only to science fiction. They are indeed a real and growing concern that erodes existing mechanisms of diplomacy and international security at the exact moment global warming, population growth, environmental degradation, and great power competition are changing the dynamics of supply and demand between source and consumer countries. Though resource wars are not new, the explosive results of water wars, like the one that could happen on the Nile, will carry these conflicts far beyond their parched origins to areas less vulnerable to water conflict. Responding preventatively must be an international diplomatic priority today so it does not become an international military one tomorrow.


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.