The United States’ position as the world’s leading hub in subsea networks, which carry nearly all voice and internet traffic between continents, can no longer be taken for granted. More of the world is coming online, and China is emerging rapidly as a leading subsea cable provider and owner. Reflecting this fast-changing landscape, between 2004 and 2019, the United States went from handling half of all internet traffic to just under a quarter.

This four-part guide provides an introduction to these systems for U.S. policymakers, explains major issues, and offers recommendations for advancing U.S. economic and strategic objectives.

  • The first section explains the essential functions that subsea cables serve, how they are planned, and the most common threats they face.
  • The second section explains the U.S. economic and strategic interests at stake.
  • The third section describes three trends that could point to a diminished role for the United States in global networks.
  • The final section offers recommendations for protecting U.S. centrality in subsea networks. Policymakers should avoid adopting an overly restrictive posture, which would incentivise cables to land elsewhere, taking data centres and related economic activities with them.

The world is not waiting for the United States to address these issues, and global networks are evolving to reflect the interests of other countries. Chinese leader Xi Jinping, for example, has announced a “Digital Silk Road” to position Beijing at the centre of global networks. The United States has considerable strengths upon which to draw as it competes in this strategic domain, including cutting-edge technology, world-leading companies, and rule of law. Creating resilient subsea networks is both urgent and achievable.

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