The frequent cutting of underwater internet cables connecting the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands off the Chinese coast to the island of Taiwan suggests Chinese craftsmanship.
The alleged sabotage is viewed as a major cyber and electronic attack on Taiwan to sever its civil-military decision-making infrastructure before an invasion.
Meanwhile, Matsu Island’s approximately 13,000 residents are being provided with emergency services such as a backup microwave system for communications from Chungwha Telecom (CHT).
The cables have been damaged 20 times in the past five years, and reports point the finger of suspicion at China’s civilian naval militia.
It has long been appreciated that China prefers non-kinetic means of attack that confuse enemy militaries. This supports the minimal use of force to achieve geographic and strategic goals in a non-escalating manner. These “grey area” tactics in the western Pacific have also been observed in India.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait remained high after former US spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi’s visit as China conducted unprecedented live-fire drills around the island.
Part of Chinese attack plans?
The nature of drills and flights at Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) has become more specific and targeted, suggesting China is preparing its secondary option of military recourse to Taiwan if its peaceful reunification policy fails.
Therefore, the ongoing nature of the cable damage cannot be separated from China’s possible mobilization towards Taiwan, where its military movements cannot be reported to the military leadership in Taipei.
Even more intriguing is the administrative and logistical hassle for the Taiwanese government to repair the underwater cables that lie on the seabed each time they are damaged or severed by Chinese dredgers or fishing vessels.
The resulting impact on citizen morale and the commercial consequences of business and finance contribute to the general coercive pressure on government that can be used to impose favorable policies – in this case, acceptance of Chinese rule.
Representation image of a submarine cable
A significant portion of Taiwanese citizens were skeptical about going to war with China because of business or family ties (or both). So, part of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership hopes these groups will put pressure on the hawkish Democratic People’s Party (DPP) to reconcile with the mainland.
Promoting such public demands through covert means is also becoming a campaign issue in Taiwan’s political landscape, where neither the ruling People’s Democratic Party (DPP) nor its counterpart Kuomintang (KMT) party can afford to lose votes and risk it.
Wire cutting harrows Citizens
The first incident this year occurred on February 2 when a Chinese fishing vessel sailing near Matsu Island cut one of the two cables connecting the island to Taiwan. Again on February 8, a Chinese freighter cut the second cable.
After the second cable was cut, Wong Po-Tsung, vice chairman of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission, told local media that the incidents “do not appear to be intentional.”
But international observers have their doubts. According to an article in Foreign Policy by Elizabeth Braw, “Two losses in a row are either really unfortunate or possibly not accidental.”
Considering that it will take time for repair ships to arrive – in this case until April 20th, when such a boat will be available – it is safe to assume that China foresaw the lack of resources.
The repairs themselves cost between $660,000 and $1.3 million. Such recurring and risky spending can force companies like CHP to stop providing services for good, putting pressure on citizens and the government. It’s not uncommon for organizations to pull out of high-risk environments.
China could seize Taiwanese islands
And as for Taiwan’s islands (Matsu, Penghu, Kinmen), strategists have long speculated where China would first take the small, poorly defended pieces of land just off China’s coast and use them as bases to attack Taiwan.
The military balance in the Taiwan Strait is heavily skewed in Beijing’s favor, and China has the means to move troops and heavy war equipment over the 180 kilometers.
It is unlikely that an invasion would begin with the capture of the smaller islands in a first phase. This gives the US and allies like Japan even more time to intervene. Any attack on Taiwan would be sudden, fluid, and simultaneous.
Possible plans to take the islands would come in parallel with a massive combined arms operation on Taiwan, including electronic strikes and the disruption of internet between the islands and Taiwan to overwhelm the Taipei leadership.