China has been accused of cutting the internet to one of Taiwan‘s outlying islands as part of its latest intimidation tactic to force reunification.
Some living on Matsu, close to neighbouring China, were struggling to pay electricity bills, make a doctor’s appointment or receive a package.
Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two submarine internet cables leading to Taiwan’s main island.
The National Communications Commission (NCC), citing the island’s telecom service, blamed two Chinese ships for cutting the cables.
It said a Chinese fishing vessel is suspected of severing the first cable some 50 kilometres (31 miles) out at sea. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship cut the second, NCC said.
A woman walks in front of the Lienchiang County government’s office in Matsu Island, Taiwan on March 6, 2023
Telecom equipment are seen on top of a hill in Beigan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan on March 5, 2023
Taiwan’s government stopped short of calling it a deliberate act on the part of Beijing, and there was no direct evidence to show the Chinese ships were responsible.
As the full-scale invasion of Ukraine has shown, Russia has made taking out internet infrastructure one of the key parts of its strategy.
Some experts suspect China may have cut the cables deliberately as part of its harassment of the self-ruled island it considers part of its territory, to be reunited by force if necessary.
China regularly sends warplanes and navy ships toward Taiwan as part of tactics to intimidate the island’s democratic government. Concerns about China’s invasion, and Taiwan’s preparedness to withstand it, have increased since the war in Ukraine.
The islanders were forced to hook up to a limited internet service via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as backup.
This meant sometimes waiting hours to send a text, calls dropping and videos becoming unwatchable.
‘A lot of tourists would cancel their booking because there’s no internet. Nowadays, the internet plays a very large role in people’s lives,’ said Chen, who lives in Beigan, one of Matsu’s main residential islands.
The loss of the internet cables has also had huge implications for national security.
The cables had been cut 27 times in the past five years, but it was unclear which country the vessels hailed from, based on data from Chunghwa Telecom.
Taiwan’s coast guard gave chase to the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on February 2, but it went back to Chinese waters, according to an official who was briefed on the incident and was not authorised to discuss the matter publicly.
Authorities found two Chinese ships in the area where the cables were cut, based on automated identification system data, similar to GPS, which shows a vessel’s location.
‘We can’t rule out that China destroyed these on purpose,’ said Su Tzu-yun, a defense expert at the government think tank, Institute for National Defense and Security Research, citing research that only China and Russia had the technical capabilities to do this.
Tourists were seen walking on the street in the shopping district on Nangan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan on March 7, 2023
Closed ticket machines are seen at a ferry station on Beigan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan on March 5, 2023. The signs read: ‘Due to Internet signal cut, machine temporary suspends service’
Off-duty Taiwanese soldiers use their phones at the Chunghwa Telecom office in Nangan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan on March 5, 2023
Tzu-yun added: ‘Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting the cables.’
Internet cables, which can be anywhere between 20 millimetres to 30 millimetres (0.79 inches to 1.18 inches) wide, are encased in steel armour in shallow waters where they are more likely to run into ships.
Despite the protection, cables can get cut quite easily by ships and their anchors, or fishing boats using steel nets.
Even so, ‘this level of breakage is highly unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,’ said Geoff Huston, chief scientist at Asia Pacific Network Information Centre, a non-profit that manages and distributes internet resources like IP addresses for the region.
Without a stable internet service, coffee shop owner Chiu Sih-chi said seeing the doctor for his toddler son’s cold became a hassle because they first had to visit the hospital to just get an appointment.
A breakfast shop owner said she lost thousands of dollars in the past few weeks because she usually takes online orders. Customers would come to her stall expecting the food to be ready when she had not even seen their messages.
Faced with unusual difficulties, Matsu residents came up with all sorts of ways to organise their lives.
One couple planned to deal with the coming peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan to access their reservation system and passing the information on to the other via text messages.
Some enterprising residents went across to the other shore to buy SIM cards from Chinese telecoms, though those only work well in the spots closer to the Chinese coast, which is only 10 kilometres (6.21 miles) away at its closest point.
Others, like the bed and breakfast owner Tsao Li-yu, would go to Chunghwa Telecom’s office to use a Wi-Fi hot spot the company had set up for locals to use in the meantime.
Wang Chung Ming, the head of Lienchiang County, as the Matsu islands are officially called, said he and the legislator from Matsu went to Taipei shortly after the internet broke down to ask for help, and was told they would get priority in any future internet backup plans.
Wang Chung Ming, the head of Lienchiang County, speaks during an interview on Nangan, part of Matsu Islands, Taiwan on March 6, 2023
Local B&B owner Tsao Li-yu works at the lobby of his establishment, which currently has no customers, in Nangan, part of Matsu Islands
Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs publicly asked for bids from low-Earth orbit satellite operators to provide the internet in a backup plan, after seeing Russia’s cyberattacks in the invasion of Ukraine, the head of the ministry, Audrey Tang, told The Washington Post last autumn. However, the plan remains stalled as a law in Taiwan requires the providers to be at least 51 per cent owned by a domestic shareholder.
A spokesperson for the Digital Ministry directed questions about the progress of backup plans to the National Communications Commission (NCC).
The NCC said it will install a surveillance system for the undersea cables, while relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.
Many Pacific island nations, before they started using internet cables, depended on satellites – and some still do – as backup, said Jonathan Brewer, a telecommunications consultant from New Zealand who works across Asia and the Pacific.
There is also the question of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with an early estimate of $30 million New Taiwan Dollars ($1 million) for the work of the ships alone.
‘The Chinese boats that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay compensation for the highly 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 had mentioned the cables on a recent visit to China, where he had met an executive from China Mobile. They offered to send technicians to help. But compensation, he said, will require providing hard proof on who did it.
For now, the only thing residents can do is wait. The earliest cable-laying ships can come is April 20, because there are a limited number of vessels that can do the job.
A month without functional internet has its upsides too. Chen Yu-lin, the bed and breakfast owner, has felt more at peace.
It was hard in the first week, but Chen quickly got used to it.
‘From a life perspective, I think it’s much more comfortable because you get fewer calls,’ he said, adding he was spending more time with his son, who usually is playing games online.
At a web cafe where off-duty soldiers were playing offline games, the effect was the same.
‘Our relationships have become a bit closer,’ said one soldier who only gave his first name, Samuel. ‘Because normally when there’s internet, everyone keeps to themselves, and now we’re more connected.’