Foreign PolicyForeign Policy

Decoupling is already happening—under the sea

By Elisabeth Braw

24 May 2023 · 5 min read

Editor's Note

Growing tension between the U.S. and China puts subsea internet cables at risk, ushering in the era of the "undersea Iron Curtain," according to FP's Elisabeth Braw.

Subsea cables carrying internet traffic connect the world by traveling through risky waters. That, as the world now knows, makes them vulnerable to geopolitically motivated harm. But the cables are a remnant of more peaceful times, when operators didn’t have to worry about geopolitics. Now it’s no longer safe to build new cables connecting, say, the United States and China. We’re entering the era of the undersea Iron Curtain.

These days, the Baltic Sea, the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Gulf of Oman, the South China Sea, and most of the world’s other bodies of water are home to subsea cables that connect countries to the internet and one another. Indeed, today not being connected to a subsea cable means not being part of the world, as the residents of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands—a popular tourist destination—discovered when Chinese vessels cut the islands’ two cables in early February this year.

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