As China practices cutting the 14 undersea cables that connect Taiwan to the world’s internet, Taiwan builds a network of small base stations that would link to internet satellites in space
Taiwan’s Minister of Digital Development Audrey Tang told reporters last Friday that the U.K.’s government-funded OneWeb corporation is working to expand its satellite network to cover all of Taiwan by the end of the year. Similar to SpaceX’s Starlink system, OneWeb owns hundreds of small communication satellites that move around the planet in low-Earth orbit. Tang made the announcement in London, where she was meeting with British government officials and IT industry leaders to discuss strengthening Taiwan’s ability to communicate with the world if China severed Taiwan’s 14 undersea data cables.
Such a “data blockade” by China is seen as a very real possibility, as the Chinese military recently practiced cutting Taiwan’s undersea internet cables. During China’s latest aggressive military drills around Taiwan, which happened in early April, China’s chief of military research, Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo (趙小卓), explained how the first stage of the exercises illustrated the first key concept of China’s invasion plan, which is the “rapid deployment of forces.” Zhao then explained the second key concept, which he called “joint seizure of domain control” — saying that this includes seizing control of the air, sea and information. To control Taiwan’s information links to the world, the first day of the exercise also saw the PLA practicing how to cut Taiwan’s 14 undersea internet cables and other connections to the outside world.
Colonel Zhao explained that the PLA’s plan is to not only blockade Taiwan to cut off its resource imports in order to undermine its military, but also to break its information links to the international community. “Foreign forces want to send in not only weapons and equipment, but also intelligence and information. This link must also be broken so that they cannot get in,” said Zhao. An analysis of Colonel Zhao’s presentation says the way in which Ukraine received battlefield intelligence from NATO countries has illustrated how important it would be for Taiwan’s allies to provide similar support for Taiwan’s armed forces in the case of any invasion scenario.
A few weeks before the April drills, two Chinese commercial vessels severed the only two undersea internet cables that connect Taiwan to its Matsu island chain. Seen in conjunction with the April exercises, the report states that these incidents hint at the possibility that China would use cable-cutting as part of an information blockade that would either be a prelude to invasion or part of the first step of an invasion. Colonel Zhao’s explanation of this stage of the April drills illustrates that the PLA sees control of the flow of information as a critical part of its new warfare plans.
To sidestep such a theoretical data blockade, Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Development has started a project to install more than 700 satellite transmitter-receiver stations in Taiwan. The plan is to test how effective such a network would be to connect Taiwan to satellites in low-Earth orbit (LEO). Taiwan is also in discussions with companies that own LEO satellite networks — of which SpaceX’s Starlink constellation of around 4,000 satellites is the biggest — to iron out agreements on the use of such networks.
The ministry said that it aims to build a network that is very resilient, meaning that if one system goes offline, it would be possible to sidestep the problem by linking to other systems. To that end, Taiwan is also building six satellites that would form the foundation of its own independent space-based communications network.
OneWeb owns a network of 634 satellites that operate in LEO. Minister Tang said the network currently covers only the northern part of Taiwan, but OneWeb indicated that it aims to have the whole of Taiwan covered by the end of this year. Taiwan is currently testing the OneWeb network’s ability to send and transmit different types of data, and Tang said that the company, which is partly funded by the UK government, is “more than willing” to participate in Taiwan’s program to build a system that can sidestep any data blockages.
If China decides to invade Taiwan, it would probably cut Taiwan’s undersea internet cables within the first few hours of the invasion. It is also expected that China would target Taiwan’s communications infrastructure — things like large satellite dishes and radio towers — with guided missiles in the first few hours of a conflict. By setting up hundreds of small and portable ground stations all over Taiwan, the ministry would make it very hard for China to completely destroy Taiwan’s access to communications satellites. In theory, these small and portable base stations would act like wireless internet routers where people can go to upload videos and perform basic online actions, even after China has destroyed the country’s communications network. The big difference is that these “internet routers” would connect directly to an internet network in space, rather than to a ground-based internet that relies on radio towers and undersea cables.