Chinese ships cut internet of Taiwan’s outlying islands

NANGAN, Taiwan — In the past month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yu-lin had to tell his guests he couldn’t provide them with the internet.

Others living on Matsu, one of Taiwan’s outlying islands closer to neighboring China, had to struggle with paying electricity bills, making a doctor’s appointment or receiving a package.

For connecting to the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two submarine internet cables leading to Taiwan’s main island. The first cable was severed by a Chinese fishing vessel some 50 kilometers out at sea. Six days later, on Feb. 8, a Chinese cargo ship cut the second, according to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the cables.

The islanders in the meantime were forced to hook up to a limited internet via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as backup. It means one could wait hours to send a text. Calls would drop and videos were unwatchable.

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

Apart from disrupting lives, the loss of the internet cables, seemingly innocuous, has huge implications for national security.

As the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shown, Russia has made taking out internet infrastructure one of the key parts of its strategy. Some experts suspect China may have cut the cables deliberately as part of its harassment of the self-ruled island it considers part of its territory, to be reunited by force if necessary.

China regularly sends warplanes and navy ships toward Taiwan as part of tactics to intimidate the island’s democratic government. Concerns about China’s invasion, and Taiwan’s preparedness to withstand it, have increased since the war in Ukraine.

The cables had been cut a total of 27 times in the past five years, according to Chunghwa Telecom.

Taiwan’s coast guard gave chase to the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it went back to Chinese waters, according to a person who was briefed on the incident and was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

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

“We can’t rule out that China destroyed these on purpose,” said Su Tzu-yun, a defense expert at the government think tank, Institute for National Defense and Security Research, citing a research that only China and Russia had the technical capabilities to do this. “Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting the cables.” (AP)