Australia must do more to secure the cables that connect the Indo-Pacific

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In January, Britain’s defense chief Tony Radakin warned that Russian submarine and submarine activity posed a direct threat to undersea cable systems. There is speculation that Russia could cut the cables if it escalates the war in Ukraine further.

In July, the former head of Mauritius Telecom accused the country’s prime minister of circumventing processes to grant access to a ‘technical team’ from India to install a device that would monitor internet traffic at the station. landing site of the South African Far East submarine cable. in Baie Jacotet in Mauritius.

Closer to home, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, David Panuelo, wrote in May to his fellow Pacific island leaders about the regional risks of the security agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, stressing that ” much of China’s FSM research activity has followed our country’s fiber optic cable infrastructure.

In a recent article, we argue that a comprehensive approach is needed to address the resilience of submarine communication cables. There are over 430 undersea cables that can be targets for anyone who wants to disrupt global connectivity. These cables transfer more than 95% of international communications and data worldwide. They are basic critical infrastructures that underpin the internet, financial markets and digital economies.

To damage a cable, it is enough for a merchant ship or a fishing boat to drop its anchor on a cable not far from the coast. In January, an undersea volcano destroyed Tonga’s internet infrastructure, a single cable connecting the archipelago to the global internet. It took five weeks to repair. Fishing and anchoring incidents account for approximately 70% of cable faults worldwide. Divers, submersibles or military-grade drones could place explosives on the cables or plant mines nearby, which could then be detonated remotely. Cable repair ships could be attacked.

Several Indo-Pacific nations operate submarines capable of stealth tampering with cables, although this is technically difficult to do and there are easier ways to obtain data. But cable laying companies can potentially insert backdoors or install surveillance equipment. By hacking into network management systems, attackers could control multiple cable management systems. Terrorists and criminal organizations could exploit vulnerabilities in cables for different purposes.

But the biggest threat is cable interference at data points or landing stations. Sydney and Perth are the main cable entry points in Australia. Electricity could be cut at these sites or explosive devices could be detonated. Missile attacks are possible. Landing station locations are vulnerable because data can be intercepted and “mirrored” (i.e., copied while the sender and receiver are unaware).

While American, French and Japanese companies dominated the submarine cable market for many years, Chinese company HMN Tech (formerly Huawei Marine Networks) now has a global market share of around 10%. Recognizing China’s thirst for data, in 2021 the World Bank-sponsored Eastern Micronesia Cable tender was canceled over fears that HMN Tech might win. Last year, a consortium of companies including Google and Facebook abandoned the Pacific Light Cable Network’s Hong Kong conduit due to data integrity issues. It was to be a direct high-speed fiber optic link between the US East Coast and Hong Kong.

As for the Pacific, Australia and its partners should continue to fund and co-fund cable projects to fend off China-backed alternatives. This includes following up on HMN Tech proposals and tenders and seeking to encourage and facilitate alternative suppliers where possible. In May, a draft maritime cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands was leaked. China’s goal, he said, is to develop “a maritime community of shared destiny” by building wharfs, shipyards and undersea cables for the Solomon Islands.

Australia already co-owns the Coral Sea Cable Company, which connects Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands to Australia. The Australian government also partnered in 2020 with Japan and the United States to finance an undersea cable to Palau. More can be done with these partners, as well as with India, the UK and the EU, to fund and support new cables in the Pacific.

There is no international treaty to protect against physical or cyber attacks on submarine cables, but domestically, Australia’s submarine cable protection regime is considered a gold standard. regional. australia Telecommunications Act 1997 declares “protective zones” around cable trays, limits potentially damaging activities, criminalizes cable interference and requires permits to lay new cables. Although the geographical circumstances of each country are different, promoting the adoption of similar legislation by Pacific island nations would better protect their vulnerable cables from accidental damage and breakage.

Australia can work with its Pacific partners to facilitate greater information sharing on threats to the undersea communications network and build limited regional cable repair capabilities. We need to work with regional maritime agencies to integrate cable surveillance into national and regional maritime domain awareness systems and establish national registries for government and industry emergency contact points on cable resilience . If China signs more security deals with Pacific island nations, the battle to build, operate and repair this critical infrastructure will intensify. We must prioritize cable diplomacy in the Pacific to safeguard this essential international public good.

The Australian Government should also support the Northern Territory Government’s commitment to connect Australia to the Trans-Pacific Cable. Last year’s AUSMIN statement noted that both parties “welcome the Northern Territory Government’s commitment to connect Australia to the Trans-Pacific Cable, which will improve digital connectivity between Australia and the United States and will support critical infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific”.

The planned branch to Darwin would cost around $100 million. It would be the only submarine cable connecting the United States to Singapore with a national security capability that does not transit through the South China Sea. It is a secure, low-latency, high-speed data link to the United States and Asia. Building a connection branch in Darwin would be a key enabler for the Australian Defense Force, for wider national security and for digital access to the rapidly growing market of 680 million people in Southeast Asia. .

Despite the rise of undersea communication cables, Antarctica is the only remaining continent without fiber optic communication connectivity. But the Australian Bureau of Meteorology is now boldly talking about laying an undersea data cable linking Mawson, Davis and Casey stations on the Antarctic mainland and the Macquarie Island research station in Tasmania. Such a connection would pose challenges, mostly in the form of icebergs. But if it went ahead, it would provide unprecedented speed and reliability of communications and strengthen Australia’s position in our geopolitically contested southern flank.

And in the near future, it will not only be undersea communication cables and infrastructure that will need to be protected. As we move forward in clean energy, we will see more and more submarine transnational power cable connections to solar farms and offshore wind farms, with significant benefits for the environment. and energy security. Infrastructure Australia recently approved the economic benefits of the Australia-Asia PowerLink project. From 2024, it would export solar power from the Northern Territory to Singapore via a 4,200 kilometer submarine cable from Darwin and supply up to 15% of Singapore’s electricity supply. The Indonesian government has already approved the route of the cable and granted a permit to conduct underwater surveys in Indonesian waters to map the underwater route to Singapore.

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