Is China Deliberately Cutting Taiwan’s Internet Cables?

The rocky Matsu island chain would be on the front line if China chose to invade Taiwan; they lie just 20km off the coast of mainland China, but almost 200km from Taiwan’s main island. However, there is speculation that the Matsu Islands have already come under attack. Soon after China started floating spy balloons across North America, both of the undersea internet cables that connect Matsu to the rest of Taiwan were cut in separate shipping incidents that occurred less than a week apart. The ships that were blamed were not military in nature — one was a fishing trawler, the other a cargo freighter — but they were both from mainland China, according to the Taiwanese authorities. Taiwan’s politicians have doubts about whether the cuts were accidental. The Washington Post reports:

“What happened in Matsu can be seen as a warning signal,” said Wen Lii, the head of the local chapter of Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). “If an internet outage could happen for Matsu, the same thing could happen for Taiwan — what would we do if Taiwan’s 14 international undersea cables were damaged?”

Elisabeth Braw, in an article written for Foreign Policy, argues that the cables were cut as ‘practice’ for disconnecting the whole of Taiwan.

With both cables down, even moderately slowed-down internet immobilizes daily life. Beijing is watching to see how island residents get on with this impediment to their existence — and to see how they manage to communicate with Taiwan proper. It’s also keeping close military watch of what it considers a renegade region. Taiwan’s offshore islands have always been its Achilles’s heel; in 1958, China shelled the Matsu Islands and the neighboring island of Kinmen. Last summer, the People’s Liberation Army Navy conducted large exercises near the island, purportedly in response to then-U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, though their large and well-executed nature suggested they had been planned long in advance.

Indeed, it’s striking how often Chinese vessels have damaged the undersea cables connecting islands in recent years. It’s especially striking because it’s no mystery where the world’s 380 undersea cables are located. On the contrary, there are maps detailing their location to ensure that fishing vessels don’t accidentally harm them while dragging their nets. By and large, this works: The International Cable Protection Committee reports that each year there are between 100 and 200 cases of damage to the cables and only 50-100 of those incidents involve fishing vessels; the rest are the result of construction and other activity. The incidents involving damage to the cables connecting the Matsu Islands are, in other words, disproportionately frequent.

There are already plans to use a third cable to connect Matsu, and this would be protected by being buried under the seabed. However, it will not enter service until 2025. In the meantime, Matsu’s 14,000 residents are making do with a backup microwave link and free wifi that provides slow internet connections around the stores run by Chunghwa Telecom. It will feel like a long wait until a cable ship sails to the islands to make repairs that may not be completed before the end of April.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.