The war in Ukraine raises concerns in Taiwan over its fragile internet ties

BY ALASTAIR GALE | UPDATED 4/18/2022 8:39 AM EDT

kyiv’s successful use of the internet to counter Moscow highlights Taiwan’s reliance on undersea internet cables that China could cut

The war in Ukraine is rekindling concerns in Taiwan and some Asia-Pacific countries about the fragility of their internet connections, as they depend on undersea cables that could be severed in a Chinese attack.

Ukrainians have used the internet to rally resistance to the Russian invasion, counter Moscow’s propaganda and gain international support, including through President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeals for weapons. Ukraine has extensive internet connections across its land borders and most of the country has remained online despite Russian attacks on internet infrastructure.

By contrast, Taiwan, a self-governing island claimed by Beijing, receives and sends around 95% of its data and voice traffic through cables that lie on the seabed. Currently, officials say about 14 cables – bundles of fiber optic lines the thickness of a garden hose – are in service and reach land at four locations on Taiwan’s coast.

If the cables were to be cut at sea by submarines or divers, or if military strikes were to destroy the lightly protected landing stations, most of the island would be taken offline.

“We are very vulnerable,” said Kenny Huang, managing director of the Taiwan Network Information Center, a government-affiliated cybersecurity and internet domain registration organization.

There are no clear signs that China plans to invade Taiwan, but Beijing says it hasn’t ruled out using military force to take control of the island. Chinese military doctrine indicates that it would seek to achieve air, sea and information superiority before attempting an amphibious assault on Taiwan, said Ivan Kanapathy, who served as director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the staff of the council. White House national security from 2018 to 2021.

“Observing Ukraine’s very effective use of the media, Beijing likely judges that disconnecting Taiwan from the world would greatly improve China’s chances of success” if it invaded, Kanapathy said.

China did not threaten to attack the submarine cables. Western government officials have raised concerns about threats to seabed cables from Russian ships and submarines in recent years, but security analysts say China has the wherewithal to cut them as well. China’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to a question about the undersea cables, but said the tension in the Taiwan Strait should not be exaggerated.

In December, the United States said companies belonging to China’s Hengtong Group that lay and manage the undersea cables have ties to the Chinese military. Washington restricted their access to American investment and technology. Hengtong did not respond to requests for comment.

Wong Po-tsung, deputy director of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission, said the government is closely monitoring internet connectivity and will be alerted within an hour of any outages. By law, landing stations are protected by the police, coast guard and military if necessary.

Japan is also heavily dependent on undersea cables and fears being drawn into a dispute with China over Taiwan or some other islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. Most of Japan’s submarine cables arrive at two landing stations, including one near Tokyo.

“If you go there, all the fiber optic cables are bundled into a space of two meters by two meters. If it is bombed, all is lost,” said Nobukatsu Kanehara, deputy secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat from 2013 to 2019.

An extreme example of internet vulnerability came earlier this year when an underwater volcanic eruption severed the single cable connecting Tonga to the internet, creating a near blackout of information on the extent of the damage to the small Pacific archipelago for days.

In a war game conducted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, participants simulated Russian and Chinese attacks on undersea cables. In almost all cases, the attackers were able to “disrupt and degrade U.S., allied, and partner communications, and contributed to strategic-level confusion and distraction,” the think tank said in a report last year. .

Submarine cables are essential plumbing for the global economy. A recent report estimated the contribution of submarine cables to the US economy at nearly $649 billion, or about 3% of US gross domestic product.

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the highest concentrations of the approximately 436 active seabed cables that stretch more than 800,000 miles around the world. The cables, most of which are owned by private internet companies, also pose a security risk as they could be exploited to intercept data.

Even if all of its maritime cables were cut, Taiwan would retain some connection to the internet via satellites, with priority given to the government and military. However, the data capacity of satellite connections is only a fraction of that of submarine cables, and specialized terminals are required to receive connections from satellites.

Taiwan is encouraging the construction of new cables to provide more Internet connection sources and will likely add one or two more landing stations over the next five years, said Mr. Huang, CEO of the Taiwan Network Information Center.

In December, the United States gave Alphabet Inc., Google and Facebook’s parent company, Meta Platforms Inc., approval for a new cable that would link Taiwan to the United States and the Philippines starting this year. The companies are also teaming up to build a new cable connecting Taiwan to Japan and other countries in Asia, which should be ready for operation in 2024.

Alexander Huang, a former government council vice minister for China relations and a security adviser to successive Taiwan governments, said an early warning system could be developed to protect cables from interference at sea, but that there are no easy solutions.

“We have known about this vulnerability for a long time, but it is very expensive to deal with,” Huang said.

—Joyu Wang contributed to this article.

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