War in Ukraine raises fears in Taiwan that Beijing will cut off its internet

In Taiwan and other Asia-Pacific countries whose Internet connection is fragile, because it is ensured by submarine cables that China could cut in the event of an attack, the war in Ukraine raises fears.

In fact, whether to rally the resistance, counter Russian propaganda, win the support of the international community or ask for arms, Ukraine and its President Volodymyr Zelensky are very present on the Web. Connected to the Internet by numerous terrestrial connections, Ukraine is still present online despite Russian attacks against its infrastructure.

Conversely, in Taiwan, some 95% of connections run through around 14 undersea cables, garden hose-sized tubes filled with fiber optic rods that terminate at four points on Beijing’s claimed self-governing island. , say officials.

“Seeing the effectiveness with which Ukraine uses the media, Beijing is likely to judge that cutting off Taiwan from the world will greatly increase its chances of success” in the event of an invasion

If these cables were cut by submarines or divers or military strikes damaged the ground connection stations, Taiwan would be virtually cut off from the web.

“We are very vulnerable,” said Kenny Huang, general manager of the Taiwan Network Information Center, a state-affiliated cybersecurity and domain name management company.

If there is no indication that Beijing is considering invading Taiwan, China has indicated in the past that it does not rule out using force to take control of the island. According to Chinese military doctrine, the objective would be, if necessary, to obtain air, maritime and information superiority before attempting a landing in Taiwan, explains Ivan Kanapathy, head of the National Security Council of the White House from 2018 to 2021 in charge of China, Taiwan and Mongolia.

“Seeing the effectiveness with which Ukraine uses the media, Beijing is likely to judge that cutting off Taiwan from the world will clearly increase its chances of success” in the event of an invasion, he adds.

China has never threatened to attack submarine cables. While Western countries have long feared that Russian ships and submarines will cut through undersea cables, analysts warn that Beijing has plenty of resources to damage them. Contacted, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not answer the question about the cables, simply stressing that the tensions in the Taiwan Strait should not be exaggerated.

Last December, the United States indicated that the subsidiaries of Hengtong Group responsible for installing and managing the submarine cables were linked to the Chinese military. Washington has since restricted their access to American technologies and investments. Hengtong did not respond to requests for comment.

Wong Po-tsung, deputy director of the Taiwanese Communications Commission, said the government closely monitors the Internet connection and will be notified within the hour if there is a problem. By law, connecting stations are protected by the police, coast guard and military when needed.

Japan is also very dependent on submarine cables and is worried about being involved in a conflict linked to Taiwan or to islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. Most submarine cables arrive in Japan via two land connection stations, including one near Tokyo.

“All the optical cables are grouped in a square of two meters by two meters, so if the area is bombarded, everything is ruined”, worries Nobukatsu Kanehara, deputy secretary general of the national security secretariat of Japan from 2013 to 2019.

Last December, the United States authorized Google and Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, to install a new cable connecting Taiwan, the United States and the Philippines in 2022

At the start of the year, a meteorological phenomenon illustrated the vulnerability of the Web connection: Tonga’s only cable was destroyed by an underground volcanic eruption, causing an almost total blackout. For several days, it was impossible to know the extent of the damage suffered by the small Oceanian archipelago.

In a simulation organized by the Center for a New American Security, participants launched fake Russian and Chinese attacks on the cables. Almost every time, the attackers succeeded “to disrupt and degrade the communications of the United States, their allies and their partners, and to sow confusion at the strategic level”, concluded the think tank last year.

Yet these cables are an essential cog in the global economy. A recent report thus estimated at nearly 649 billion dollars, or about 3% of the gross domestic product, the contribution of submarine cables to the American economy.

It is in Asia-Pacific that these systems are most concentrated; there are a total of around 436 of them at the bottom of the seas and oceans, for a distance of more than 1.2 million kilometres. Generally held by private Internet access providers, these cables are also a major security issue, since they can be used for espionage purposes.

To return to Taiwan, even if all the cables were severed, the island would not lose all links with the outside world, since it has satellite links (priority would then be given to the government and the army), even if the capabilities of these connections are much more limited and require special terminals to receive data transmitted by satellite.

Taiwan is encouraging the construction of new cables to diversify its Internet connection sources and should also build one or two additional ground termination stations in the next five years, according to Kenny Huang.

Last December, the United States has authorized Google and Meta Platforms, the parent company of Facebook, to install a new cable connecting Taiwan, the United States and the Philippines in 2022. The two groups have also joined forces to build a new link between Taiwan, Japan and other countries in Asia; it should be inaugurated in 2024.

Alexander Huang, former deputy minister in charge of relations with China and former adviser to several Taiwanese governments, explained that an early warning system could also be developed to prevent any interference at sea, but that no solution is simple. to implement.

“We have known about this weak point for a long time, but it is very expensive to treat,” sighs Kenny Huang.

– Joyu Wang contributed to this article

(Translated from the original English version by Marion Issard)

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War in Ukraine raises fears in Taiwan that Beijing will cut off its internet


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