Chinese ships cut off the internet on Taiwan’s remote islands

NANGAN, Taiwan — Last month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yu-lin had to tell his guests he couldn’t give them internet.

Some who live in Matsu, one of Taiwan’s islands closer to neighboring China, must struggle to pay electricity bills, make a doctor’s appointment or receive a package.

To connect with the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two submarine internet cables leading to the main island of Taiwan. The first cable was cut by a Chinese fishing vessel about 50 kilometers (31 miles) offshore. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship cut the second, according to Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the cables.

The islanders are currently forced to hook up to a limited internet through microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as backup. This means that a person can wait hours to send a text. Calls will disappear, and videos will not appear.

“Many tourists cancel their booking because there is no internet. Nowadays, the internet plays a big role in people’s lives,” said Chen, who lives in Beigan, one of the main inhabited islands of Matsu.

Besides disrupting life, the loss of internet cables, which may seem harmless, has major implications for national security.

As demonstrated by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has made the acquisition of internet infrastructure a key part of its strategy. Some experts suspect that China may have deliberately cut the cables as part of its harassment of the self-ruled island it considers part of its territory, to be reunified by force if necessary.

China regularly sends warplanes and navy ships to Taiwan as part of its intimidation tactics against the island’s democratic government. Concerns about Chinese aggression, and Taiwan’s readiness to counter it, have increased since the war in Ukraine.

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

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

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

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

Internet cables, which can be anywhere between 20 millimeters to 30 millimeters (0.79 inches to 1.18 inches) wide, are wrapped in steel armor in shallow waters where they are more likely to run into ships. . Despite the protection, the cables are easily cut by ships and their anchors, or fishing boats using steel nets.

However, “this level of damage is very unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Geoff Huston, chief scientist of the Asia Pacific Network Information Center, a non-profit that manages and distributes Internet resources such as. IP addresses for the region.

Without stable internet, coffee shop owner Chiu Sih-chi said it was a hassle to see a doctor for her little son’s cold because they had to visit the hospital first just to get an appointment.

A breakfast shop owner said he’s lost thousands of dollars in the past few weeks because he mostly orders online. Customers come to his stall expecting the food to be ready when he hasn’t seen their messages.

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

A couple plans to deal with the upcoming peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and pass the information to the other via text messages. Wife Lin Hsian-wen extended her vacation in Taiwan during the off-season when she heard that the internet at home was no longer working and returned to Matsu later in the week.

Some enterprising residents cross the other coast to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecoms, although it works well in areas closer to the Chinese coast, which is 10 kilometers (6.21 miles) away- on to its closest point.

Others, like bed and breakfast owner Tsao Li-yu, go to Chunghwa Telecom’s office to use a Wi-Fi hot spot the company has set up for locals to use in the meantime.

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

Chunghwa set up microwave transmission as a backup for residents. Broadcast from Yangmingshan, a mountain just outside Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, the relay transmits signals about 200 kilometers (124 miles) across Matsu. Since Sunday, the speeds have been faster, residents said.

Wang Chung Ming, the head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu islands are officially called, said he and a lawmaker from Matsu went to Taipei shortly after the internet went down to ask for help, and were told to get a priority in any future internet backup plans.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has publicly asked for bids from low-Earth orbit satellite operators to provide the internet with a backup plan, after seeing Russian cyberattacks in the invasion of Ukraine, the head of the ministry , Audrey Tang, told The Washington Post last fall. However, the plan remains on hold because a law in Taiwan requires that providers be at least 51% owned by a domestic shareholder.

A spokesperson for the Digital Ministry referred questions about the progress of backup plans to the National Communications Commission. The NCC said it will install a surveillance system for undersea cables, while relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.

Many Pacific islands, before they started using internet cables, relied on satellites – and some still do – as backup, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecommunications consultant from New Zealand who works for throughout Asia and the Pacific.

There is also the question of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with early estimates of $30 million New Taiwan Dollars ($1 million) for work on the ships alone.

“The Chinese ships that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for more expensive repairs,” said Wen Lii, the head of the Matsu chapter of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

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

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

For now, all residents can do is wait. The earliest cable-laying ships can arrive is April 20, because there are a limited number of ships that can do the job.

A month without functional internet has its upsides too. Chen Yu-lin, the owner of the bed and breakfast, felt more at peace.

It was difficult the first week, but Chen got used to it quickly. “From a life perspective, I think it’s more comfortable because you get less calls,” he said, adding that he spends more time with his son, who mostly plays online.

In a web cafe where unemployed soldiers play offline games, the effect is the same.

“Our relations have become closer,” said a soldier who gave only his name, Samuel. “Because usually when there is internet, everyone hides to themselves, and now we are more connected.”


Associated Press video journalist Taijing Wu in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.


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