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Cut sea cables said to be China's dry run to end Taiwan's internet

Think tank analyst says cut cables rehearsal for creating 'invisible blockade'

Map of submarine cables leading to and surrounding Taiwan. (Submarine Cable Map screenshot)

Map of submarine cables leading to and surrounding Taiwan. (Submarine Cable Map screenshot)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A think tank analyst and columnist for Foreign Policy believes the cutting of two undersea cables tying Taiwan to the outlying Matsu Islands is a dress rehearsal for the complete severing of Taiwan's internet.

Chunghwa Telecom's two Taiwan-Matsu submarine cables suffered catastrophic outages on the evening of Feb. 2 and at noon on Feb. 8, drastically affecting customer communication services in the Matsu area. National Communications Commission (NCC) deputy chairman and spokesperson Wong Po-tsung (翁柏宗) said on Feb.17 that according to Chunghwa Telecom, the Taima No. 2 submarine cable was cut by a Chinese fishing boat, and the Taima No. 3 submarine cable was damaged by a Chinese cargo ship.

There are suspicions in Taiwan the cables were deliberately cut by the Chinese ships and industry insiders point to two factors that raise concerns. First, it is unprecedented for two submarine cables between Taiwan and Matsu to be cut within just six days.

Secondly, the damage occurred close to Matsu. However, telecom executives said that it is difficult to present irrefutable evidence of malicious intent.

On Tuesday (Feb. 21), Foreign Police published an analysis of the incidents by Elisabeth Braw, a national security expert at the American Enterprise Institute. She wrote that it is not unusual for undersea cables to suffer damage, "but losing two in a row is either really unfortunate or quite possibly not a coincidence."

Braw wrote that while the U.S. was paying attention to the sky after the spy balloon incident, China may have been conducting operations at sea. She said Beijing is now watching how the inhabitants of Matsu cope and how they will manage to reconnect with Taiwan proper.

She said the location of 380 submarine cables around the world is not a secret, and there are maps detailing their locations to ensure that fishing boat nets do not accidentally damage the cables. The International Cable Protection Committee reports 100 to 200 instances of damaged cables per year.

Of these incidents, only 50 to 100 involved fishing boats, while the rest were caused by construction or other activities. Braw reasoned the incidence of damage to the cables linking Matsu was "disproportionately frequent."

Braw said that so far the cable breaking incidents have mainly involved Chinese sand dredgers and such activity is an example of gray-zone tactics. In addition to requiring the dispatch of Taiwanese patrol ships to drive these dredgers away, it also harms the ecology and seabed, as well as Matsu's operations and communications.

She warned that the sabotage of undersea cables could be "our era's blockade" and unlike in previous generations, it can be carried out surreptitiously. Braw said other telecoms are looking at Chunghwa's Telecom's backup operations, such as burying them beneath the seabed.

She warned that the sabotage of undersea cables could pose a diplomatic challenge for Western governments. "Responding to a devastating but invisible blockade could become one of the thorniest diplomatic challenges facing Western governments."