Chinese ships cut the internet off Taiwan’s outlying islands

NANGAN, Taiwan (AP) — Last month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yu-lin had to tell guests he couldn’t provide them with internet.

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

Matsu’s 14,000 residents depend on two submarine internet cables to connect to the outside world leading to the main island of Taiwan. The first cable was cut by a Chinese fishing vessel some 50 kilometers (31 mi) out to sea. Six days later, on Feb. 8, a Chinese freighter cut through the second, according to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the cables.

The islanders, in the meantime, were 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 a text. Calls 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 disrupting lives, the loss of the internet cables, seemingly innocuous, has huge implications for national security.

As the large-scale invasion of Ukraine has shown, Russia has made shutting down its internet infrastructure one of the most important parts of its strategy. Some experts suspect China deliberately cut the cables as part of its harassment of the self-governing island it considers part of its territory, only to be reunited by force if necessary.

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

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

The Taiwan Coast Guard gave chase to the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it headed back to Chinese waters, according to a person who knew about the incident and was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. to discuss.

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

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

Internet cables, which can be anywhere from 20 millimeters 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 can be cut fairly easily by ships and their anchors, or by fishing boats using steel nets.

Still, “this level of breakage is highly unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Geoff Huston, chief scientist at Asia Pacific Network Information Center, a nonprofit that provides Internet resources such as IP addresses for the region.

With no stable internet, coffee shop owner Chiu Sih-chi said going to the doctor for his toddler son’s cold was a hassle because they had to go to the hospital first to get an appointment.

A breakfast shop owner said she lost thousands of dollars in recent weeks because she mostly took orders online. Customers came to her booth expecting food to be ready when she hadn’t even seen their messages.

Faced with unusual difficulties, the citizens of Matsu invented all sorts of ways to organize their lives.

One couple planned to cope with the upcoming high season by allowing one person to stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and pass the information on to the other via text message. Wife Lin Hsian-wen extended her holiday in Taiwan during the low season when she learned that the internet was down at home and will return to Matsu later in the week.

Some enterprising locals have crossed over to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecom companies, though they only work well closer to China’s coast, which is only 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) from the nearest point.

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

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

Chunghwa had set up microwave transmission as a backup for the residents. Broadcasting from Yangmingshan, a mountain just outside Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, the relay relays the signals some 200 kilometers (124 miles) to Matsu. Since Sunday, speeds were noticeably higher, residents said.

Wang Chung Ming, the head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu islands are officially known, said he and the legislator from Matsu went to Taipei shortly after the internet went down to ask for help, and were told they would be given priority at any plan future internet backup.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs publicly solicited bids from low-Earth orbit satellite operators to provide internet in a back-up plan, after witnessing the Russian cyber-attacks during the invasion of Ukraine, the ministry’s head, Audrey, told Tang, to The Washington Post last fall. Yet the plan remains blocked because a law in Taiwan requires the providers to be owned for at least 51% by a domestic shareholder.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Digital Affairs asked the National Communications Commission questions about the progress of backup plans. NCC said it will install a monitoring system for the submarine cables, while relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.

Many Pacific island nations, before adopting Internet cables, depended on satellites — and some still do — for backup, said Jonathan Brewer, a New Zealand telecommunications consultant who works in Asia and the Pacific.

There is also the issue of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with an early estimate of $30 million New Taiwan Dollars ($1 million) for the ships’ work alone.

“The Chinese boats that damaged the cables must be held accountable and compensated for the very expensive repairs,” said Wen Lii, the head of the Matsu branch of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

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

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

All residents can do now is wait and see. The earliest cable-laying vessels that can come is April 20, as there are a limited number of vessels that can do the job.

A month without functional internet also has its advantages. Chen Yu-lin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, feels more at ease.

The first week was hard, but Chen quickly got used to it. “From a life perspective, I think it’s much more comfortable because you get fewer calls,” he said, adding that he spent more time with his son, who mostly plays online games.

At a web café where off-duty soldiers played offline games, the effect was the same.

“Our relations have become a little closer,” said a soldier who only gave his first name, Samuel. “Because normally when there’s the internet, everyone keeps to themselves, and now we’re more connected.”


Video journalist Taijing Wu of the Associated Press in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.


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