Chinese ships cut internet from Taiwan’s offshore islands

NANGAN, Taiwan (AP) — Last month, Chen Yu-lin, owner of a bed and breakfast, had to tell guests that he could not provide internet to them.

Others living on Matsu, one of Taiwan’s remote islands closer to neighboring China, have had trouble paying utility bills, making a doctor’s appointment or receiving a package.

To connect to the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two underwater internet cables that connect to Taiwan’s main island. The first cable was severed by a Chinese fishing vessel some 50 kilometers (31 miles) out at sea. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship cut off the second, according to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the cables.

Islanders, meanwhile, have been forced to connect to a limited internet via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as a backup. It means you can wait hours to send an SMS. Calls would be dropped and videos could not be viewed.

“Many tourists would cancel their booking because there is no internet. Nowadays, the Internet plays a very big role in people’s lives,” said Chen, who lives in Beigan, one of Matsu’s main residential islands.

Aside from the disruption to lives, the seemingly innocuous loss of the Internet cables has huge national security implications.

As demonstrated by the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia has made the shutdown of Internet infrastructure one of the key elements of its strategy. Some experts suggest China may have cut the cables on purpose as part of its harassment of the self-governing island, which it considers part of its territory, to reunite by force if necessary.

China regularly sends fighter jets and naval vessels to Taiwan to intimidate the island’s democratic government. Concerns about China’s invasion and Taiwan’s willingness to resist it have increased since the war in Ukraine.

According to Chunghwa Telecom, the cables have been severed a total of 27 times over the past five years.

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The story goes on

Taiwan’s Coast Guard pursued the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it headed back into Chinese waters, according to a person with knowledge of the incident and not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

So far, the Taiwanese government has not pointed the finger directly at Beijing.

“We cannot rule out that China intentionally destroyed these,” said Su Tzu-yun, a defense expert at the state think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research, citing an investigation that found only China and Russia had the technical capability to do so to do that. “Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting the cables.”

Internet cables, which can range from 20 to 30 millimeters (0.79 in to 1.18 in) wide, are encased in steel armor in shallow waters where they are more likely to encounter ships. Despite the protection, cables from ships and their anchors or fishing boats with steel netting can be easily cut.

Even so, “this level of breakage is highly unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Geoff Huston, senior researcher at the Asia Pacific Network Information Center, a nonprofit organization that manages and distributes Internet resources, such as IP addresses for the Region.

Without a stable internet, coffee shop owner Chiu Sih-chi said that seeing the doctor for his young son’s cold became a problem because they first had to go to the hospital just to get an appointment.

One breakfast shop owner said she’s lost thousands of dollars over the past few weeks because she typically takes orders online. Customers came to her booth expecting the food to be ready, even though she hadn’t even seen her messages.

Faced with unusual difficulties, the residents of Matsu came up with all sorts of ways to organize their lives.

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A couple planned to handle the coming high season by having one person stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and pass the information to the other via SMS. Ms. Lin Hsian-wen extended her vacation to Taiwan during the off-season when she heard the internet wasn’t working at home, and will return to Matsu later in the week.

Some enterprising residents crossed the bank to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecom companies, although these only work well in places near the Chinese coast, which is just 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) away at its closest point.

Others, like bed-and-breakfast owner Tsao Li-yu, went to Chunghwa Telecom’s office to use a Wi-Fi hotspot the company had since set up for locals’ use.

“I wanted to work at (Chunghwa Telecom),” Tsao joked.

Chunghwa had set up a microwave transmission as a backup for residents. Broadcast from Yangmingshan, a mountain outside of Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, the relay beams the signals some 200 kilometers to Matsu. The speeds have been noticeably higher since Sunday, local residents said.

Wang Chung Ming, head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu Islands are officially known, said he and Matsu lawmakers went to Taipei to ask for help shortly after the internet crash and were told, that they would take precedence in any future Internet backup plans.

Taiwan’s digital affairs ministry publicly solicited bids from low-Earth-orbiting satellite operators to provide the internet in a backup plan after seeing Russia’s cyberattacks in invading Ukraine, the ministry’s head, Audrey Tang, told the Washington Post im last fall. However, the plan has stalled as a law in Taiwan requires providers to be at least 51% owned by a domestic shareholder.

A spokesman for the Digital Ministry directed questions to the National Communications Commission on the progress of backup plans. NCC said it will install a monitoring system for the undersea cables, relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.

Many Pacific island nations relied on satellite — and some still do — for backup before they started using internet cable, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecoms consultant from New Zealand who works in Asia and the Pacific.

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There is also the question of cost. The cables are expensive to repair, with an early estimate of $30 million (US$1 million) for the ships’ labor alone.

“The Chinese boats that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for the very expensive repairs,” said Wen Lii, chairman of the Matsu chapter of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Wang, head of Lienchiang County, said he mentioned the cables on a recent visit to China, where he met a China Mobile executive. They offered to send technicians to help. But compensation, he said, requires hard evidence of who did it.

China’s Bureau of Taiwan Affairs did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

For now, residents can only wait and see. The earliest cable-laying ships may arrive on April 20th as there are only a limited number of ships that can do the job.

A month without a working internet also has its advantages. Chen Yu-lin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, feels more comfortable now.

It was tough the first week, but Chen quickly got used to it. “From a life perspective, I think it’s a lot more comfortable because you get fewer calls,” he said, adding that he’s spending more time with his son, who usually plays online.

In a web cafe where off-duty soldiers were playing offline games, the effect was the same.

“Our ties have gotten a little closer,” said one soldier, who gave only his first name, Samuel. “Because when there’s internet, everyone usually keeps to themselves, and now we’re more closely connected.”


Associated Press video journalist Taijing Wu from Taipei, Taiwan contributed to this report.


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