Taiwan blamed two Chinese ships for cutting Internet cables on its islands

An old 40mm anti-aircraft gun is pointed out to sea at an observation post in Beigan, part of the Matsu Islands, Taiwan, Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

Last month, the owner of a bed and breakfast, Chen Yulinhe had to tell his guests that he could not provide them Internet.

other inhabitants of Matsuone of Taiwan’s closest outlying islands to neighboring Chinathey had to make an extra effort to pay electricity bills, make an appointment with the doctor or receive a package.

To connect to the outside world, the 14,000 inhabitants of Matsu depend on two submarine internet cables that lead to the main island of Taiwan. The National Communications Commissionciting the island’s telecommunications service, blamed two Chinese ships to cut the wires. It is suspected that a Chinese fishing boat cut the first cable some 50 kilometers from the coast. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese freighter cut off the second.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Cables
Chunghwa Telecom, Taiwan’s largest service provider and owner of the two undersea cables, says Chinese ships cut the cables serving the Matsu Islands.

The government of taiwan did not go so far as to describe the fact as a deliberate act on the part of Beijingand there was no direct evidence to prove the responsibility of the Chinese ships.

Meanwhile, the islanders were forced to connect to a limited internet using microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as backup. That meant you could wait hours to send a text. Calls were dropped and videos could not be viewed.

“Many tourists canceled their reservations because there was no Internet. Today, the Internet plays a very important role in people’s lives,” says Chen, who lives on Beigan, one of Matsu’s main residential islands.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Cables
Telecommunications equipment on top of a hill in Beigan, part of the Matsu Islands. After the cables were broken, the service was resumed via microwave (AP/Huizhong Wu) (Huizhong Wu/)

Aside from upending lives, the seemingly innocuous loss of Internet cables has enormous implications for the National security.

As the large-scale invasion of Ukraine has shown, Russia has made of the removal of internet infrastructure one of the key pieces of its strategy. Some experts suspect that China may have deliberately cut the cords as part of its harassment of the self-governing island it considers part of its territory, which must be forcibly reunified if necessary.

China send regularly war planes and ships of war on Taiwan as part of its tactics to intimidate the island’s democratic government. Concern about the Chinese invasion, and Taiwan’s readiness to resist it, have grown since the Ukraine war.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
A couple take photos near an outdated 240mm howitzer on the observation deck of a base-turned-museum on Nangan Island. (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

The cables had been cut a total of 27 times in the last five years, but it was not clear which country the vessels came from, according to data from Chunghwa Telecom.

Taiwanese coast guards chased the fishing that cut the first cable on February 2, but it returned to Chinese waters, according to an official who was informed 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 a GPS-like automatic identification system that shows a ship’s location.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
View of the Matsu Islands from an observation deck in Nangan. (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

“We cannot rule out that China destroyed them on purpose.“, said Su Tzu-yundefense expert for the government think tank, National Security and Defense Research Instituteciting research according to which only China and Russia They had the technical ability to do it. “Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting the cables.”

The internet cables, which can be 20 to 30 millimeters wide, are encased in steel armor in shallow water, where they are more likely to collide with ships. Despite the protection cables can be cut quite easily by ships and their anchorsor by fishing vessels that use steel nets.

Even so, “This level of breakage is very rare on a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” he says. Geoff HustonChief Scientist at the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, a non-profit organization that manages and distributes Internet resources such as IP addresses for the region.

Without a stable Internet, Chiu Sih-chia coffee shop owner, said going to the doctor for his young son’s cold became a hassle because they had to go to the hospital first to get an appointment.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
Chiu Sih-chi and his wife use the Wi-Fi at the Chunghwa Telecom office while their son rests in a chair. (AP/Huizhong Wu) (Huizhong Wu/)

The owner of a breakfast shop said that there was lost thousands of dollars in recent weeks because I used to accept internet orders. Customers flocked to her booth expecting their food to be ready when she hadn’t even seen her messages.

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

A couple planned to cope with the peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and relaying the information to the other via text messages. Wife, Lin Hsian-wenextended her vacation in Taiwan during the off-season after learning that the Internet was down in her country, and will return to Matsu this week.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
Tourists were seen walking down the street in the Nangan shopping district. (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

Some enterprising residents crossed over to the other shore to buy Chinese telecom SIM cardsalthough they only work well at points closest to the Chinese coast, which is only 10 kilometers away at its closest.

Others, such as the owner of the bed and breakfast Tsao Li Yuthey were going to the Chunghwa Telecom office to use a Wi-Fi hotspot that the company had set up for the locals to use in the meantime.

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

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
A local B&B owner, Tsao Li-yu, works in the lobby of his establishment, which has no customers in Nangan. (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

Chunghwa had established a microwave transmission as a reserve for residents. Broadcast from Yangmingshan, a mountain outside Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, the repeater sends signals some 200 kilometers (124 miles) through Matsu. Since Sunday, speeds have been noticeably faster, according to residents.

wang chung mingchief of Lienchiang county, official name of the matsu islandsHe said he and the Matsu legislator went to Taipei shortly after the internet crash for help, and were told they would take priority in any future internet backup plans.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
Wang Chung Ming, head of Lienchiang county, speaks during an interview in Nangan (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

He Ministry of Digital Affairs of Taiwan publicly solicited offers to low earth orbit satellite operators to supply internet in a reserve plan, after seeing the Russian cyberattacks in the invasion of Ukraine, according to the head of the ministry, Audrey Tangto The Washington Post last fall. However, the plan is still stalledas a Taiwan law requires that suppliers be at least 51% owned by a domestic shareholder.

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

Many Pacific Island countries, before they started using Internet cables, relied on satellites – and some still do – as backup, he said jonathan brewera New Zealand telecommunications consultant working throughout Asia and the Pacific.

There is also the question of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with an initial estimate of NT$30 million ($1 million) for the labor of the boats alone.

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
A tourist poses for photos near a mural depicting a howitzer aimed at mainland China’s Fujian province at a museum base in Nanga. (AP/Johnson Lai) (Johnson Lai/)

“The Chinese ships that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for the very expensive repairs,” he declared. wen liihead of the Matsu branch of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Wang, the head of Lienchiang county, said he had mentioned the cables on a recent visit to China, where he met an executive from china mobile. They offered to send technicians to help. But compensation, she said, will require hard evidence of who did it.

The Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

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

China - Taiwan - Internet - Submarine cables
Oriental Minnan-style buildings reflect architecture from across the Strait in Fuzhou, mainland China, in the Qinbi village of Beigan. Without internet, all residents can do is wait (AP/Huizhong Wu) (Huizhong Wu/)

A month without Internet also has its advantages. Chen Yulinthe owner of a bed and breakfast, feels calmer.

The first week was tough, but Chen quickly got used to it. “From a life point of view, I think he is much more comfortable because you get fewer calls,” he said, adding that he was spending more time with his son, who is usually playing online.

In a cyber coffee where off-duty soldiers played offline, the effect was the same.

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

(© copyright 2023 Associated Press)

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