Taiwan suspects that Chinese ships are cutting the islands’ internet cables.

Last month, bed and breakfast owner Chen Yu Lin had to tell his guests that he could not provide them with internet.

Others living on Matsu, one of the islands near Taiwan’s neighbor China, struggled to pay electricity bills, make doctor’s appointments or receive packages.

To connect to the outside world, Matsu’s 14,000 residents rely on two submarine internet cables leading to the main island of Taiwan. The National Communications Commission blamed two Chinese ships for cutting the wires, citing the island’s telecom service. It said a Chinese fishing vessel was suspected of cutting the first cable 50 kilometers (31 miles) out to sea. Six days later, on February 8, a Chinese cargo ship clipped another, the NCC said.

The Taiwanese government stopped short of calling it a deliberate act by Beijing, and there was no direct evidence that Chinese ships were responsible.

Islanders meanwhile were forced to rely on limited internet access via microwave radio transmission, a more mature technology, as a backup. This means one can wait for hours to send a text. Calls would drop, and videos were unwatchable.

“A lot of tourists will cancel their bookings because there is no internet. Nowadays, the internet plays a huge role in people’s lives,” said Chin, who lives in Bagan, one of Mitsu’s main residential islands. .

In addition to disrupting lives, the loss of Internet cables, seemingly innocuous, has far-reaching implications for national security.

As the full-scale attack on Ukraine has shown, Russia has made Internet infrastructure a key part of its strategy. Some experts suspect that China may have deliberately cut the cables as part of its harassment of an island it claims is part of its territory, reconnecting them by force if necessary. To be given.

China regularly sends warplanes and naval vessels to Taiwan as part of an intimidation strategy against the island’s democratic government. Concerns about China’s aggression, and Taiwan’s readiness to withstand it, have grown since the war in Ukraine.

The cables were cut a total of 27 times in the past five years, but it was not clear which country the ships belonged to, based on Qinghua Telecom’s data.

Taiwan’s coast guard chased the fishing vessel that cut the first cable on Feb. 2, but it returned to Chinese waters, according to an official who was briefed on the incident and said it publicly. But there was no authority to discuss this matter. Authorities found two Chinese ships in the area where the cables were cut, based on data from automatic identification systems, such as GPS, that show the ship’s location.

“We cannot rule out that China deliberately destroyed them,” Su Zhouyun, a defense expert at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a government think tank, said, citing a study. citing that only China and Russia had the technological capabilities. to do so. “Taiwan needs to invest more resources in repairing and protecting cables.”

Internet cables, which can be anywhere from 20 mm to 30 mm (0.79 in to 1.18 in) wide, are encased in steel armor in shallow waters where they are more likely to run into ships. Despite protection, cables can be cut quite easily by ships and their anchors, or by fishing boats using steel nets.

Still, “this level of breakage is extremely unusual for a cable, even in the shallow waters of the Taiwan Strait,” said Geoff Huston, chief scientist at the Asia-Pacific Network Information Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the Internet. Manages and allocates resources. IP addresses for the region.

Without stable internet, coffee shop owner Chew Sieh Chee said seeing a doctor for his young son’s cold became a hassle as he previously had to go to the hospital just to make an appointment.

A breakfast shop owner said she lost thousands of dollars in the past few weeks because she usually takes orders online. Customers would come to his stall hoping that the food would be ready when he didn’t even see their messages.

Faced with extraordinary hardships, the people of Matsu came up with all sorts of ways to organize their lives.

One couple planned to deal with the upcoming peak season by having one person stay in Taiwan and another via text messages to access their reservation system. Wife Lin Hsien-Wen extended her vacation in Taiwan during the off-season when she heard the Internet wasn’t working at home and was returning to Matsu for the weekend.

Some businessmen went to the other side to buy SIM cards from China Telecom, although it only works in places near the Chinese coast, which is only 10 kilometers (6.21 mi) away from its nearest point.

Others, like Tsao Li Yu, the owner of the bed and breakfast, would go to the Qinghua Telecom office to use a Wi-Fi hotspot the company had set up for locals to use in the meantime.

“I was going to work at (Tsinghua Telecom),” Tsao joked.

Chingwa had set up a microwave transmission as a backup for residents. A relay broadcast from Yangmingshan, a mountain just outside Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, transmits a signal about 200 kilometers (124 mi) to Mitsu. Since Sunday, the pace was noticeably faster, residents said.

Wang Qingming, head of Lanchiang County, as the Matsu Islands are officially called, said he and lawmakers from Matsu went to Taipei shortly after the internet went down to ask for help, and were told that They will gain priority in any future Internet. Backup plan.

Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs has publicly solicited bids from low-Earth satellite operators to provide Internet as a backup plan, after witnessing Russian cyberattacks in the attack on Ukraine, the ministry’s chief, Audrey Tang, said last week. told The Washington Post in the fall. . Even so, the plan is stalled because a law in Taiwan requires suppliers to be owned by at least 51% domestic shareholders.

A spokesman for the digital ministry directed questions about the progress of the backup plans to the National Communications Commission. The NCC said it would install a monitoring system for undersea cables, relying on microwave transmission as a backup option.

Many Pacific island nations, before they started using Internet cables, relied on satellites — and some still do — as backups, says Jonathan Brewer, a New Zealand-based telecommunications consultant who works across Asia and the Pacific. Hain said.

There is also the question of cost. Repairing the cables is expensive, with an initial estimate of $30 million New Taiwan dollars ($1 million) for the ships’ work alone.

“The Chinese boats that damaged the cables should be held accountable and pay for the very expensive repairs,” said Wen Li, head of the Matsu chapter of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party.

Wang, head of Lancheng County, said he mentioned the cables during a recent visit to China, where he met with a China Mobile executive. They offered to send technicians to help. But he said compensation would require providing hard evidence as to who did it.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

For now, the only thing residents can do is wait. The first cable-laying ships may arrive on April 20, as there is a limited number of ships that can do the job.

Even a month without functional internet has ramifications. Chen Yu Lin, owner of the bed and breakfast, has felt more at ease.

It was difficult the first week, but Chen soon got used to it. “From a life perspective, I think it’s a lot more comfortable because you get less calls,” he said, adding that he’s spending more time with his son, who usually Plays online games.

At a web cafe where off-duty soldiers were playing offline games, the effect was similar.

“Our relationship has become a little closer,” said a soldier who gave only his first name, Samuel. “Because usually when there’s the Internet, everybody keeps to themselves, and now we’re more connected.”

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