The war in Ukraine makes Taiwan fear that Beijing will cut off the Internet

In Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific countries whose Internet connection is fragile, because provided by submarine cables that China could cut in the event of an attack, the war in Ukraine is raising fears.

In fact, whether to rally the resistance, counter Russian propaganda, gain the support of the international community, or call for arms, Ukraine and its President Volodymyr Zelensky are all very present on the net. Connected to the Internet by numerous terrestrial connections, Ukraine is still online despite Russian attacks on its infrastructure.

In Taiwan, on the other hand, 95% of connections go through about 14 submarine cables, a garden-sized pipe full of fiber-optic rods that end at four points on Beijing’s autonomous island, say the officials.

“Given the effectiveness with which Ukraine uses the media, Beijing is likely to judge that cutting Taiwan from the world will greatly increase its chances of success” in the event of an invasion.

If these cables were cut by submarines or divers or if military attacks damaged grounding stations, Taiwan would be virtually cut off from the network.

“We are very vulnerable,” said Kenny Huang, general manager of the Taiwan Network Information Center, a state-owned domain name and cybersecurity management company.

While there is no indication that Beijing is considering invading Taiwan, China has said in the past that it does not rule out using force to take control of the island. According to Chinese military doctrine, the goal would be, if necessary, to gain air, sea and information superiority before attempting a landing in Taiwan, says Ivan Kanapathy, head of the 2018-2021 White House National Security Council. from China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

“Given the effectiveness with which Ukraine uses the media, Beijing is likely to judge that cutting Taiwan from the world will clearly increase its chances of success” in the event of an invasion, he added.

China has never threatened to attack submarine cables. While Western countries have long feared that Russian ships and submarines will cut submarine cables, analysts warn that Beijing has many resources to damage them. Contacted, the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not answer the question about the cables, simply stressing that tensions in the Taiwan Strait should not be overstated.

Last December, the United States indicated that Hengtong Group’s subsidiaries in charge of installing and operating submarine cables were linked to the Chinese military. Washington has restricted its access to American technology and investment. Hengtong did not respond to requests for comment.

Wong Po-tsung, deputy director of the Taiwan Communications Commission, said the government is closely monitoring the Internet connection and will be notified within an hour if there is a problem. By law, docking stations are protected by the police, the coast guard and the army when necessary.

Japan is also heavily dependent on submarine cables and is concerned about being involved in a Taiwan-linked conflict or islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. Most submarine cables reach Japan via two ground stations, including one near Tokyo.

“All the optical cables are grouped in a square of two meters by two meters, so if the area is bombed, everything will fall apart,” said Nobukatsu Kanehara, deputy secretary general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat. 2013 to 2019.

Last December, the United States authorized Google and Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, to install a new cable connecting Taiwan, the United States, and the Philippines in 2022.

Earlier this year, a weather phenomenon illustrated the vulnerability of the web connection: Tonga’s only cable was destroyed by an underground volcanic eruption, causing an almost total shutdown. For several days it was impossible to know the extent of the damage to the small oceanic archipelago.

In a simulation organized by the Center for New American Security, participants launched fake Russian and Chinese attacks on cables. Almost every time, the attackers managed to “disrupt and degrade the communications of the United States, its allies and its partners, and sow confusion at the strategic level,” the think tank concluded last year.

However, these cables are an essential gear in the global economy. Thus, a recent report estimated the contribution of submarine cables to the US economy at about $ 649 billion, or about 3% of gross domestic product.

It is in Asia-Pacific where these systems are most concentrated; there are a total of about 436 at the bottom of the seas and oceans, for a distance of more than 1.2 million kilometers. Generally owned by private internet service providers, these cables are also a major security issue as they can be used for espionage purposes.

To return to Taiwan, even if all the cables were cut, the island would not lose all its links with the outside world, as it has satellite links (then the government and the army would be given priority), still that the capacities of these connections are much more limited and special terminals are needed to receive the data transmitted by satellite.

Taiwan is encouraging the construction of new cables to diversify its Internet connection sources and should also build one or two additional ground terminations in the next five years, according to Kenny Huang.

Last December, the United States authorized Google and Meta Platforms, Facebook’s parent company, to install a new cable connecting Taiwan, the United States and the Philippines in 2022. The two groups have also joined forces to build a new link between Taiwan, Japan and other Asian countries; should be inaugurated in 2024.

Alexander Huang, a former deputy minister in charge of relations with China and a former adviser to several Taiwanese governments, explained that an early warning system could also be developed to prevent any interference at sea, but that no solution is easy to implement.

“We’ve known this weakness for a long time, but it’s very expensive to deal with,” sighs Kenny Huang.

– Joyu Wang contributed to this article

(Translated from the original English version by Marion Issard)

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