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Should Taiwan Worry About Subsea Cable Security?

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October 27, 2022

By Philip Heijmans (Bloomberg) Surging tensions with China have prompted Taiwan to boost its military defenses. Now it’s heeding the lessons of the war in Ukraine to address one of its bigger weaknesses: the fragile undersea infrastructure that connects the island to the internet.

Taiwan has 14 subsea cables — many little wider than a garden hose — stretching thousands of miles and directly linking Asian nations including China to the US and other parts of the world. That’s a vulnerability the island’s government, seeing any interruption as potentially destabilizing, wants to minimize. A disruption in a conflict with China could result in Taiwan getting cut off from the world, similar to what happened to the Pacific Island nation of Tonga earlier this year when a volcanic eruption left it without internet access for more than a month.

“Undersea cables are a serious Achilles’ Heel to Taiwan,” said Kenny Huang, chief executive officer at the Taiwan Network Information Center, a non-profit partially owned by Taiwan’s government.

It’s not just a concern in Taipei: With US-China ties under strain, defense strategists around the world are looking carefully at the risks facing the estimated 1.3 million kilometers (810,000 miles) of subsea cables that nearly all internet traffic passes through and planning contingencies for how to deal with the risk of lost access. 

Taiwan’s government knows those risks well: an earthquake off the island in 2006 cut eight cables, took weeks to repair and caused disruptions to the internet, banking services and cross-border trading that was felt as far away as Singapore. 

For Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, the China threat is rising: President Xi Jinping said at the opening of the Communist party congress this month that “reunification” with Taiwan “must be realized and it can without a doubt be realized.” And the Chinese general who led the military command responsible for Taiwan was rewarded by Xi with the post of vice chair of the Central Military Commission. 

In response to the increasing threat, starting this year Taiwan will incorporate communication breakdowns into its frequent war drills. In the short term it will also spend NT$550 million ($17 million) on a plan to bolster existing mobile infrastructure, including submarine cables, and accelerate the deployment of fifth-generation mobile network base stations through 2024. 

“False information can easily flow and cause social chaos,” Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s minister of digital affairs, told Bloomberg. “We realize that whether Taiwan is under military aggression or encounters emergencies such as natural disasters, it is very important to maintain high-quality, instant communication.”

Longer term, Tang said Taiwan wants to improve access to communications satellites and has put together a proposal to tap high-speed satellite systems in an emergency.

That plan was partly inspired by Ukraine’s response to Russia’s invasion. Within days of Russia’s attacks, Elon Musk’s orbiting broadband provider Starlink activated services in Ukraine, extending a communications lifeline in occupied areas and impressing even US military officials who noted such capabilities were difficult to defeat.

“If you asked me about using satellites last year, I’d say it’s impossible,” said Huang. “But after we learned from the lesson of Ukraine war, I’d say we need to make the impossible possible.”

It’s not clear if the world’s richest man would come to Taiwan’s aid, however, after he voiced support for Taiwan to become a “special administrative zone” under Chinese rule, comments that were quickly criticized in Taipei and applauded in Beijing. 

Officials at SpaceX, which operates Starlink, didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. 

Tang, a 41-year-old former hacker and self-described “conservative anarchist,” was tapped to lead the new digital affairs ministry just two days after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August. Her trip triggered a wave of cyberattacks 23 times stronger than anything Taiwan had seen in a single day as Chinese warships prepared for drills off its shores.

The disruptions from those cyber attacks were minor, but a move to sever the island’s subsea fiber cables, which cross disputed waters claimed by China, could be catastrophic. Sustained damage to Taiwan’s cables could crush a digital economy set to reach NT$6.5 trillion ($204 billion) by 2025, along with any ambition to become a high-tech hub. 

Tonga, a Pacific island nation of about 106,000 people, was left almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world for over a month when its single international cable was damaged in a volcanic eruption earlier this year. Residents of the Shetland Islands, the northernmost region of the UK, lost access to mobile and broadband for a few days last week after cuts to a cable connecting them to the mainland. Police boosted patrols to reassure residents during the outage, which cable operator Faroese Telecom said was likely the result of a fishing accident, the BBC reported. 

TeleGeography, a market research and consulting firm that produces an updated map of the world’s subsea cables, said the data lines can be prone to damage or breaks for reasons ranging from anchor drag to underwater landslides. They’ve even been seen, on rare occasions, to be the target of shark bites

In developed nations with multiple systems, consumers wouldn’t notice the impact of a single cut as data can be quickly rerouted. But while acts of malice are rare, defense officials are increasingly acknowledging the threat. 

As Vladimir Putin massed troops along Ukraine’s border earlier this year, the head of the UK’s armed forces told The Times that a “phenomenal” build-up of Russian submarine activity threatened underwater cables, and warned an attack on them was an act of war. France rolled out a strategy this year to defend against “seabed warfare” with deep-sea capabilities including underwater drones and robots.

Beijing considers Taiwan part of its territory, and the island has become the biggest source of tension with the US in recent months. But China’s ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, said in August that “people are over-nervous”’ about the risk of attack.

Nevertheless, Taiwan’s rush for new capacity underscores another geopolitical tension: of the more than 500 subsea cables globally, according to a Bloomberg analysis, US companies own all or part of 22% of them, while China has a small but growing stake at 4%. 

One method of ensuring internet resilience is to build more cables. Between 2017 and 2019, international bandwidth used by global networks more than doubled, according to TeleGeography. Google, for example, spent over $2 billion on its network infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific over a decade since 2010. 

But that’s getting harder as regulations become more cumbersome and the US-China standoff worsens. 

Amid a global campaign to block Huawei Technologies Co. from supplying 5G wireless networks, the Trump administration pushed so-called “clean cables” to ensure China couldn’t subvert the global internet for intelligence gathering. 

Since then, at least four projects directly linking the US with Hong Kong were forced to withdraw licensing bids amid American national security concerns, though one backed by Meta Platforms Inc. later won approval after agreeing to route the system through Taiwan.

“You build as much diversity as you can and this is partly why you see us investing into all the submarine cables, because ultimately the best way of getting reliability is redundancy in the cable system, so you build as much as you can,” said Bikash Koley, Google’s vice president and head of global networking.

But the possibility of severed cables is a threat many nations still need to address. 

As the host of about 40 undersea cables, Singapore is setting up a cyber military force to meet threats in the digital domain, including to physical infrastructure.

Could bad actors try to cause a “digital blackout so that the target country is literally cast into darkness. I think, yes,” Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in June. “It’s not just the stuff of good novels.”

By Philip Heijmans, Cindy Wang and Samson Ellis, with assistance from Sarah Zheng, Yasufumi Saito and Adrian Leung © 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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