China ‘cuts internet to Taiwan islands in latest intimidation tactic to force reunification’

By James Callery For Mailonline and Ap

10:35 08 Mar 2023, updated 10:38 08 Mar 2023

  • The National Communications Commission accused Chinese ships of cutting cables
  • Some living on Matsu Island are struggling to pay their utility bills

China has been accused of disrupting the internet on one of Taiwan’s offshore islands as part of its latest intimidation tactic to force reunification.

Some living on Matsu, near neighboring China, have had trouble paying utility bills, making a doctor’s appointment, or receiving a package.

Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two undersea internet cables that lead to Taiwan’s main island.

The National Communications Commission (NCC), citing the island’s telecommunications service, accused two Chinese ships of cutting the cables.

It said a Chinese fishing vessel was suspected of cutting the first cable some 50 kilometers (31 miles) out at sea. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship cut off the second, NCC said.

A woman walks in front of the Lienchiang County Government Office in Matsu Island, Taiwan, Monday, March 6, 2023
Telecommunications equipment is seen on Sunday March 5, 2023 on a hilltop in Beigan, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan

Taiwan’s government was reluctant to call this a premeditated act by Beijing, and there was no direct evidence that the Chinese ships were responsible.

As demonstrated by the all-out invasion of Ukraine, Russia has made the shutdown of Internet infrastructure one of the key elements of its strategy.

Some experts suggest China may have cut the cables on purpose as part of its harassment of the self-governing island, which it considers part of its territory, to reunite by force if necessary.

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

Islanders, meanwhile, have been forced to connect to a limited internet via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as a backup.

This sometimes meant waiting hours for a text message to be sent, calls dropped and videos became unwatchable.

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“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.

The loss of internet cables also had a huge impact on national security.

The cables had been cut 27 times in the past five years, but it was unclear which country the ships were from, based on data from Chunghwa Telecom.

Taiwan’s Coast Guard chased the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it headed back into Chinese waters, according to an official who was aware of the incident and was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Authorities found two Chinese ships in the area where the cables were cut, based on data from an automated identification system, similar to GPS, which shows a ship’s location.

“We cannot rule out that China intentionally destroyed these,” said Su Tzu-yun, a defense expert at the state-run think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research, citing a study that only China and Russia had the technical capabilities to to do that.

Tourists were seen on Tuesday March 7, 2023 on the street in the shopping district on Nangan, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan
On Sunday, March 5, 2023, closed ticket machines with signs reading ‘Due to internet signal interruption, machine service is temporarily suspended’ are seen at a ferry terminal in Beigan, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan
Off-duty Taiwanese soldiers use their phones at Chunghwa Telecom’s office in Nangan, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan, Sunday March 5, 2023

“Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting the cables.”

Internet cables, which can range from 20 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 from ships and their anchors or fishing boats with steel netting can be easily cut.

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

Without a stable internet, coffee shop owner Chiu Sih-chi said that seeing the doctor for his young son’s cold became a problem because they first had to go to the hospital just to get an appointment.

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One breakfast shop owner said she’s lost thousands of dollars over the past few weeks because she typically takes orders online. Customers came to her booth expecting the food to be ready, even though she hadn’t even seen her messages.

Faced with unusual difficulties, the residents of Matsu came up with all sorts of ways to organize their lives.

A couple planned to handle the coming high season by having one person stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and pass the information to the other via SMS.

Some enterprising residents crossed the bank to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecom companies, although these only work well in places near the Chinese coast, which is just 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) away at its closest point.

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

Wang Chung Ming, head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu Islands are officially known, said he and Matsu lawmakers went to Taipei to ask for help shortly after the internet crash and were told, that they would take precedence in any future Internet backup plans.

Wang Chung Ming, head of Lienchiang County, speaks during an interview about Nangan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan, on Monday, March 6, 2023
Local B&B owner Tsao Li-yu works in the lobby of his company, which has no customers, on Tuesday March 7, 2023 in Nangan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan

Taiwan’s digital affairs ministry publicly solicited bids from low-Earth-orbiting satellite operators to provide the internet in a backup plan after seeing Russia’s cyberattacks in invading Ukraine, the ministry’s head, Audrey Tang, told the Washington Post im last fall. However, the plan has stalled because a law in Taiwan requires providers to be at least 51 percent owned by a domestic shareholder.

A spokesman for the Digital Ministry directed questions to the National Communications Commission on the progress of backup plans.

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NCC said it will install a monitoring system for the undersea cables, relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.

Many Pacific island nations relied on satellite — and some still do — for backup before they started using internet cable, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecoms consultant from New Zealand who works in Asia and the Pacific.

There is also the question of cost. The cables are expensive to repair, with an early estimate of $30 million (US$1 million) for the ships’ labor alone.

“The Chinese boats that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for the very expensive repairs,” said Wen Lii, chairman of the Matsu group of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

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

For now, residents can only wait and see. The earliest cable-laying ships may arrive on April 20th as there are only a limited number of ships that can do the job.

A month without a working internet also has its advantages. Chen Yu-lin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, feels more comfortable now.

It was tough the first week, but Chen quickly got used to it. “From a life perspective, I think it’s a lot more enjoyable because you get fewer calls,” he said, adding that he’s spending more time with his son, who usually plays online.

In a web cafe where off-duty soldiers were playing offline games, the effect was the same.

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


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