The frequent cutting of undersea internet cables connecting Taiwan-controlled Matsu islands off the Chinese coast and the island of Taiwan hints at Chinese handiwork.
The alleged sabotage is seen as a larger cyber and electronic attack on Taiwan to disconnect its civilian-military decision-making infrastructure before an invasion.
Meanwhile, the roughly 13,000 Matsu Island residents are being serviced with emergency services like a backup microwave system for communications by the telecom service Chungwha Telecom (CHT).
The cables have been damaged 20 times over the past five years, and reports point the finger of suspicion towards China’s civilian maritime militia.
China has long been assessed to prefer non-kinetic means of attack that confuse enemy militaries. This aids in the minimal use of force to achieve geographic and strategic goals in a non-escalatory manner. These ‘grey zone’ tactics in the western Pacific have also been observed to be employed with India too.
Tensions in the Taiwan Straits have been persistently high following the visit of former US Speaker Nancy Pelosi when China conducted unprecedented live-fire drills around the island.
Part Of Chinese Attack Plans?
The nature of the drills and flights into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) has grown more specific and targeted, which suggests China is readying its secondary option of a military recourse on Taiwan if its peaceful reunification policy fails.
Therefore, the persistent nature of cable damage cannot be delinked from China’s possible mobilization towards Taiwan, where its military movements cannot be communicated to the military leadership in Taipei.
Even more intriguing is the administrative and logistical strain on the Taiwanese administration of repairing the underwater cables that rest on the seabed every time they are damaged or severed by Chinese dredgers or fishing vessels.
Its resultant impact on the citizen morale and commercial fallouts of business and finance add to the overall coercive pressure on the government that can be leveraged to extract favorable policies – in this case accepting Chinese rule.
A substantial proportion of the Taiwanese citizenry has been wary of a war with China, owing to business or familial ties (or both). A section of the leadership in the Communist Party of China (CPC), therefore, hopes these groups to pressure the hawkish Democratic Peoples’ Party (DPP) to reconcile with the mainland.
Fostering such public demands through covert means also becomes an electoral issue in the Taiwanese political landscape, where neither the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP) nor its opposing Kuomintang (KMT) can afford to let down and risk votes.
Cable Cutting Harrows Citizens
This year’s first instance happened on February 2, when a Chinese fishing vessel sailing close to the Matsu island severed one of the two cables connecting the island with Taiwan. Again on February 8, a Chinese freighter cut the second cable.
Speaking to local media after cutting the second cable, Wong Po-Tsung, the vice chair of Taiwan’s National Communications Commission, said that the incidents “do not appear to be intentional.”
But international observers have their doubts. An article in Foreign Policy by Elizabeth Braw said, “losing two in a row is either really unfortunate or quite possibly not a coincidence.”
When one considers that repair vessels take time to arrive – in this case, until April 20, when such a boat will be available – it can be reasoned that China has anticipated the lack of resources.
The repairs themselves will cost anywhere between $660,000 to $1.3 million. Such recurring and risky expenditures can force companies like CHP to finally back out of providing services, pressuring the citizens and the government. It is not uncommon for businesses to opt out of high-risk environments.
China Might Seize Taiwanese Islands
And as far as Taiwan’s islands (Matsu, Penghu, Kinmen) are concerned, strategists have long speculated where China would first take the small, poorly defended pieces of land just off China’s coast and use them as staging bases for a strike on Taiwan.
The military balance in the Taiwan Straits is skewed heavily in Beijing’s favor, and China has the means to transfer troops and heavy war equipment across the 180 kilometers.
It is unlikely that an invasion would begin with capturing the smaller islands as a first phase. This allows the US and allies like Japan even greater time to intervene. Any attack on Taiwan would be sudden, fluid, and simultaneous.
Possible plans to take the islands would happen alongside a massive combined arms operation on Taiwan, including electronic attacks and cutting off the internet between the islands and Taiwan, to overwhelm the leadership in Taipei.