Taiwan says Chinese vessels cut all the undersea internet cables that connect Taiwan’s Matsu island group to the Taiwanese mainland. The odds are extremely low that this could have happened by accident
Three recent incidents highlighted how vulnerable Taiwan’s remote islands are to Chinese aggression. The first incident happened on February 2, when a Chinese fishing boat cut one of the two undersea internet cables that connect Taiwan’s Matsu island group to Taiwan. The second incident happened six days later when a Chinese cargo ship cut the only remaining such cable, thereby completely cutting off Matsu’s undersea connection to the world for almost two months.
The third incident was when the Taiwan military announced last week that it will practice defending and attacking contested beaches from this week until April 13. These exercises will see Taiwan’s Amphibious 151st Fleet using its amphibious assault ships and armored vehicles to practice assaulting an enemy beach, while Taiwan’s defense force will practice countering the simulated assault.
These new exercises connect directly to the precarious position that Taiwan’s remote islands are in, as Taiwan’s amphibious-assault force is primarily designed to relieve defending forces on these remote islands during a theoretical conflict with China. Perhaps the most striking issue of this relief force is how many extreme challenges it would have to overcome to simply reach its destination. But more about that later.
Regarding the two incidents in which Chinese ships cut off the only two undersea cables linking Matsu to Taiwan and the world, the big question is whether the vessels cut these cables accidentally or intentionally. While it is not uncommon for ships to damage or break undersea internet cables with steel nets and anchors, the timing of these two incidents raise a lot of suspicion.
The International Cable Protection Committee reports that on average there are between 100 and 200 cases of damage to the world’s 380 undersea cables every year, and only 50 to 100 of those incidents are caused by fishing vessels, while the rest are caused by construction and other activity. The Taiwanese company that owns and operates the two cables, Chungwa Telecom, states that the two Matsu cables were damaged five times in 2021 and four times last year, but this is the first time that Matsu’s undersea connectivity has been cut completely.
Therefore it does seem highly suspicious that both Matsu’s cables were cut in the span of just six days, leaving the islands’ people and soldiers to make do with the very slow and limited internet connectivity provided by a microwave radio backup system. It is entirely possible, some would say “very likely,” that the Chinese vessels were part of a CCP plot to cut both cables as a type of “unprovable blockade,” or “unprovable attack” to damage Taiwan’s economy and study the reaction of an island fortress that has suddenly lost almost all its internet connection to the world.
If this was indeed an intentional act of sabotage, it would also be a dry run for China to practice cutting off the island group and Taiwan itself in the future. Taiwan has 15 undersea internet cables that link it with the worldwide web, and these could be cut with relative ease, although the cutting of so many cables at once would be an obvious act of aggression which could lead to a military confrontation between China, Taiwan and the U.S. and its allies.
Because of a global shortage of cable-fixing ships, Matsu’s residents will have to wait until April 20 before such a ship can arrive to start the long process of fixing the cables. When the repair ship arrives, fixing the two cables will cost between $660,000 and $1.3 million. Until then the islands’ people will have to get used to waiting more than ten minutes just for a text message to reach its recipient. Online services are also not functioning, so residents have to travel to the island group’s hospital just to make an appointment for another day. One couple that owns a hostel on Matsu said they plan to have one of them go stay on Taiwan’s main island to access online booking services and then texting the information back to the other.
To get back to Taiwan’s military practicing amphibious assaults this week, it is assumed that Taiwan’s navy will use this opportunity to test out its brand new Yushan amphibious-assault mothership, technically designated as a “landing platform dock.”
At a length of 153 meters and a standard displacement of 10,000 tons, the Yushan is designed to carry a small force of amphibious armored vehicles and infantry troops to faraway beaches. It is also a large ship, which makes it a big target anywhere it goes. As such, the Yushan represents the enormous difficulty of defending Taiwan’s frontline islands. Although it is armed with a large number of anti-air weapons, and although it would be escorted by numerous warships, one would have to be very optimistic to trust that the ship would be able to get to any frontline island during a conflict.
For the Yushan to get to the beaches it was designed to get to, one would have to assume that China is bluffing when it implies it will use the hundreds of radar installations and anti-ship missiles it has positioned to block such a transit. One would have to assume these massive numbers of missiles and radar installations are duds or would quickly be destroyed by a powerful ally.
With China’s increased military spending, it would be unrealistic to think that reinforcement ships like the Yushan would be able to reach frontline islands like Matsu and Kinmen during a conflict. Therefore it could be reasoned that the only real function of the Yushan and its still-under-construction sister ships would be to reinforce the islands before a conflict breaks out. Some would argue that such pre-conflict reinforcements could be handled by normal cargo ships, but the Yushan does have a well deck that can be submerged so that amphibious vehicles can quickly swim out of it without the need for cranes or harbor infrastructure.
In the end, it might be possible that the Yushan and its sister ships would only be used in their secondary role, that of humanitarian relief. It could be argued that each of these ships would be worth their $163 million-per-ship price tag by acting as big and impressive military vessels adorned with the national flag, attracting media attention as they bring much needed humanitarian relief after a terrible disaster.
The challenges facing the Yushan and the plan to bring reinforcements to Taiwan’s distant islands during a conflict are intertwined with the challenges of protecting the undersea cables that link those islands to Taiwan. These islands — especially Matsu and Kinmen, which are right next to China — are of immense strategic value to Taiwan, but they and their cables are very isolated from Taiwan’s main island, and very vulnerable to Chinese aggression.
China could use military force to attack these islands and prohibit reinforcements from reaching the islands, which would trigger political, economic and perhaps even military punishment from Taiwanese allies such as the U.S. Otherwise, China could simply cause millions of dollars of damage to Taiwan’s undersea cables by simply “accidentally” cutting such cables on purpose now and then.
In the end, it is primarily the fear of sparking an expensive and perhaps even bloody reaction from Taiwan’s allies that has been keeping China from attacking Taiwan’s distant islands. Going into the near future, it is primarily this risk of allied counter-blockades, sanctions and military action that is keeping China from blockading Taiwan, from attacking its frontline islands, and from invading Taiwan’s main island. We are now reminded that China also has the option to periodically cut Taiwan’s undersea cables “by accident,” each time causing millions of dollars in damage and leaving parts of Taiwan with extremely limited internet connectivity.
To dissuade China from engaging in this kind of cable-targeting “gray zone warfare,” it would be important for Taiwan to increase backup capacity in the form of radio-based internet infrastructure that can either connect via satellites or via terrestrial radio connections. It would also be important for Taiwan and its allies to escalate the issue of Taiwanese cables being damaged by Chinese ships. Each time it happens, the world needs to be made aware of it, and international political pressure needs to be applied.
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