Taiwan is concerned about the threat from China sabotaging underwater internet cables

Undersea internet cables serve Taiwan’s Matsu chain of islands, but internet outages are not uncommon at points just a few miles from China. The cause of Matsu’s internet outage is well known: Chinese fishing boats, so ubiquitous that the glow of their green lights at night has become known as the islands’ auroras, The Washington Post reported. In the last five years, unpredictable anchors and trawls have destroyed the islands’ two internet cables 27 times. But this is the first time Matsu has faced such a long outage, as one of the world’s few dozen repair ships won’t be available to fix the breaches until late April.

The first cable was damaged by a Chinese fishing boat on February 2 and the second by a Chinese cargo ship on February 8, the Washington Post reported, according to Taiwanese authorities. This threw residents back in time, forcing them to confront what life would be like if rising tensions with China made Taiwan’s internet infrastructure a deliberate target. Tensions have flared in recent months following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August.

Taiwan’s military maintains a strong presence in Matsu. On a recent night, tired people were jogging around Nangan Port and playing basketball in front of the Matsu Islands’ only coffee shop. According to Chunghwa Telecom, there is no evidence the cables were intentionally cut. But analysts and local officials have said the frequent cable breaks caused by Chinese ships amount to a deliberate nuisance, leading Taiwan’s government and telecom companies to provide essential services.

“What happened in Matsu can be taken as a red flag,” said Wen Lii, chair of the branch of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). “If an internet outage could happen for Matsu, the same could happen for Taiwan. What would we do if Taiwan’s 14 international submarine cables were damaged?” Li added.

The Matsu chain of islands was at the forefront during the Chinese Civil War in the 1940s, and its closest island is just six miles off the coast of China’s Fujian Province. The islands, home to about 14,000 people, depend heavily on tourists drawn to the quiet, once heavily paved beaches where bunkers have become hip cafes and guesthouses. But without the Internet, businesses have become a trickle. Half a dozen hotel and restaurant owners said their business was down at least 50 percent from the same period last year due to the ongoing outage, the Washington Post reported.

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“At the worst point, the phone barely rang and the calls that came through were full of noise,” said Wang Yuan-song, who owns a hotel near the airport on Beigan, one of the Matsu Islands. “There was no way to communicate normally.” After a brief outage put his business on hold last April, Wang was prepared. He had friends on Taiwan’s main island send him prepaid mobile SIM cards, and then plugged the cards into his own Internet routers to create shareable Wi-Fi hotspots for guests. The weak signal is barely usable, but better than nothing, he said.

Chunghwa Telecom has deployed high-powered microwave radio transmission from towers near Taipei to provide a backup signal for online banking and other basic services for Matsu residents, but the service is intermittent and slows during peak periods. Chinese military ships, fishing vessels and sand dredgers regularly cruise Taiwan’s waters, using what military analysts describe as gray area tactics — part intimidation campaign, part resource extraction — to keep Taiwan’s people and government on high alert.

The Chinese Communist Party government shelled Matsu for decades after the defeated nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government withdrew to Taiwan in 1949 and gained control of some of the outlying islands much closer to China than Taiwan. In doing so, they drew an invisible boundary between previously free-flowing fishing grounds. Matsu’s rocky coastline, lined with the same type of stone houses built in Fujian, was fortified with land mines.

But China’s proximity isn’t just a threat to Matsu residents — for many, their neighbor is also a source of practical solutions. During the most acute phases of the outage, some Matsu residents stayed online with SIM cards from China. Some locals found ways to get SIM cards from China and connect to cellular signals inside the Great Firewall — a lifeline despite Beijing’s restrictions.

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As Beijing eased its strict “zero-Covid” policy in January, which had sealed China off from the rest of the world, ferries ran between Matsu and Fujian – which have long allowed people from both sides to visit relatives and check out properties and investments – – Resumption of service. A few weeks ago, Matsu Mayor Wang Chung Ming took a ferry to Fuzhou with a proposal: laying an underwater internet cable between Matsu and Fujian. The mayor — an integral part of Matsu’s Kuomintang establishment that historically has closer ties with China than the DPP — told officials in Fuzhou and the vice chairman of the China Mobile Communications Group he hopes Matsu, like Kinmen, another Taiwanese island chain , could be a few miles off the coast of China, which a common internet cable connects to southern Fujian.

Although he laid the groundwork for an agreement, the cable outage is a “national security” issue that cannot be resolved at the local level, he said. Wang now needs Taipei’s approval. “Fuzhou basically said yes. The rest is up to us,” he said.

Officials from Taiwan’s two rival political parties agree on the problem of frequent broken cables — and their costly repairs. Kuomintang and DPP leaders have expressed concern over Taiwan’s readiness for future fractures. “Taiwan needs to be better prepared for any kind of emergency, whether it’s a natural disaster or a military threat,” said Lii, head of the local DPP chapter, who called on the international community to strengthen Taiwan’s communications contributing skills.

Military analysts and officials said the frequent disruptions underscore the vulnerability of Taiwan’s Internet infrastructure. “Cable sabotage could become the blockade of our era — and unlike the blockades of generations past, it can be done stealthily,” warned Elizabeth Braw, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, in an analysis for Foreign Policy.

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Taipei is reportedly in talks with domestic and international investors to set up its own low-Earth orbit satellite internet service, similar to Elon Musk’s Starlink, which has provided internet to Ukraine with some support from the US government. “When wars break out, this technology has its purpose,” said Matsu Mayor Wang. Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs declined to comment on the status of proposals for its own satellite internet network.

In the meantime, an amplified version of the microwave radio signal might do the trick, Wang said. Taiwan’s National Communications Commission said the system is still under construction and will more than double its bandwidth by the end of the year. Anita Tsai, who runs a restaurant in Dongyin, Matsu’s northernmost island, shared the same frustration at the frequent internet outages. “The worst case scenario, it took me five minutes to watch a 10-second video,” Tsai said.

Tsai isn’t worried about whether the internet comes from cable, satellite, airwave, or China — she just wants her kids to be able to take her online classes. “Matsu people have always been practical,” said Beigan hotel owner Wang Yuan-song. “You cannot concern yourself with ideological matters, because you cannot eat ideology.” (ANI)

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)