Ukraine War Stokes Concerns In Taiwan Over Its Fragile Internet Links | Mint

2022-05-28 06:11:31 By : Ms. Tinnie Lau

Kyiv’s successful use of internet to counter Moscow highlights Taiwan’s reliance on undersea internet cables that China could cut

Ukraine War Stokes Concerns in Taiwan Over Its Fragile Internet Links

BY ALASTAIR GALE | UPDATED 4月 18, 2022 08:39 午前 EDT

Kyiv’s successful use of internet to counter Moscow highlights Taiwan’s reliance on undersea internet cables that China could cut

The war in Ukraine is reviving concerns in Taiwan and some Asia-Pacific nations about the fragility of their internet connections because they rely on undersea cables that could be severed in a Chinese attack.

Ukrainians have used the internet to rally resistance to Russia’s invasion, counter Moscow’s propaganda and win international support, including through President Volodymyr Zelensky’s appeals for weapons. Ukraine has extensive internet connections across its land borders and most of the country has remained online despite Russian attacks on internet infrastructure.

In contrast, Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims, receives and sends about 95% of its data-and-voice traffic via cables that lie on the seabed. Currently officials say about 14 cables—bundles of fiber-optic lines about the thickness of a garden hose—are in operation, and they reach land at four locations on Taiwan’s coast.

If the cables were to be cut at sea by submarines or divers, or if military strikes were to destroy the lightly protected landing stations, most of the island would be thrown offline.

“We’re very vulnerable," said Kenny Huang, chief executive of Taiwan Network Information Center, a government-affiliated cybersecurity and internet-domain-registration organization.

There are no clear signs that China plans to invade Taiwan, but Beijing says it hasn’t ruled out the use of military force to take control of the island. China’s military doctrine indicates it would seek to achieve air, maritime and information superiority before attempting an amphibious assault on Taiwan, said Ivan Kanapathy, who was director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia on the White House’s National Security Council staff from 2018 to 2021.

“Observing Ukraine’s highly effective use of media, Beijing likely judges that disconnecting Taiwan from the world would greatly improve China’s chances of success" if it invades, Mr. Kanapathy said.

China hasn’t threatened to attack seabed cables. Western government officials have expressed concerns about threats to seabed cables from Russian ships and submarines in recent years, but security analysts say China also has the means to sever them. The Chinese foreign ministry didn’t respond to a question about seabed cables but said tension in the Taiwan Strait shouldn’t be exaggerated.

In December, the U.S. said companies owned by China’s Hengtong Group that lay and manage seabed cables have links to the Chinese military. Washington restricted their access to U.S. investment and technology. Hengtong didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Wong Po-tsung, the deputy head of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission, said the government closely monitors internet connectivity and would be alerted within an hour if an outage occurs. By law, landing stations are protected by the police, coast guard and the military if necessary.

Japan also relies heavily on seabed cables and worries about being drawn into a conflict with China over Taiwan or some other islands controlled by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing. Most of Japan’s seabed cables arrive at two landing stations, including one near Tokyo.

“If you go there, all the optical fiber cables are gathered in one space that’s two meters by two meters. If it’s bombed, everything is lost," said Nobukatsu Kanehara, deputy secretary-general of Japan’s National Security Secretariat from 2013 to 2019.

An extreme example of internet vulnerability came earlier this year when an undersea volcanic eruption severed the single cable connecting Tonga to the internet, creating a near blackout of information about the extent of damage on the tiny Pacific archipelago for days.

In a war game conducted by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, participants simulated Russian and Chinese attacks on seabed cables. In nearly every case, the attackers were able to “disrupt and degrade U.S., allied, and partner communications, and contributed to confusion and distraction at the strategic level," the think tank said in a report last year.

Seabed cables are essential plumbing for the global economy. One recent report estimated the contribution of seabed cables to the U.S. economy at nearly $649 billion, or about 3% of U.S. gross domestic product.

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the highest concentrations of the roughly 436 active seabed cables that extend more than 800,000 miles around the world. The cables, most of which are privately owned by internet companies, are also a security risk because they might be tapped to intercept data.

Even if all its sea cables were severed, Taiwan would still retain some connection to the internet via satellites, with priority given to the government and military. Data capacity from satellite connections is a tiny fraction of that from seabed cables, however, and specialist terminals are needed to receive connections from satellites.

Taiwan is encouraging the construction of new cables to provide more sources of internet connection and it will likely add one or two more landing stations in the next five years, said Mr. Huang, the CEO of Taiwan Network Information Center.

In December, the U.S. gave approval to Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. for a new cable that would link Taiwan with the U.S. and the Philippines as early as this year. The companies are also teaming up to build a new cable linking Taiwan with Japan and other countries in Asia that is expected to be ready to operate in 2024.

Alexander Huang, a former deputy minister in the government council handling relations with China and a security adviser to successive Taiwan governments, said an early-warning system might be developed to guard the cables from interference at sea, but there are no easy solutions.

“We have known about this vulnerability for a long time but it is very costly to deal with," Mr. Huang said.

—Joyu Wang contributed to this article.

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