Committee Sends Letter to Elon Musk Asking for Clarification About Starshield

Letter to CEO

On February 24th, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), sent a letter to SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. The letter asked Elon Musk for clarification regarding why the company does not provide access to StarShield to the U.S. military members in and around Taiwan. Specifically, it said “multiple sources have disclosed to the Committee that Starshield is inactive in and around Taiwan.” The letter also highlighted how the importance of the system and how the Department of Defense is committed to invest “tens of millions of dollars over the next year to the program.”

CCP Select Committee’s letter to Starlink CEO Elon Musk asking for clarification and briefing about Starshield’s availability to U.S. personnel in and around Taiwan (Photo: CNBC/Rebecca Picciotto)

Starshield’s Importance

The letter also highlighted the system’s critical role in any conflict between China and the United States over Taiwan. Specifically, it outlined that “ensuring robust communication networks for U.S. military personnel on and around Taiwan is paramount for safeguarding U.S. interests” in the region. Gallagher gave various examples to highlight this point. The most significant point is that Taiwan is critical for the United States’ ability to defend its treaty allies, such as Japan and the Philippines. However, if China successfully invaded and conquered Taiwan, it would cause its allies in the Indo-Pacific and other regions to question the United States’ security commitments. The letter quoted a passage from a book used by PLA field-grade equivalent officers regarding how Japan’s sea line of communications would be vulnerable to China’s aircraft.

Another point the letter highlighted is Taiwan’s importance to the United States regional defense planning and the global economy. Gallagher said that Taiwan is a democracy that is a vital partner to the United States and a “centerpiece of the first island chain, which represents an essential line of defense” against China. Furthermore, he also said that China still maintains a “historical claim” to Taiwan and threatens to “reunify it” with the mainland by any means possible. The letter also pointed out how China increased its violations of the island’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ).

Analysis

The letter comes after Gallagher’s trip to Taiwan to meet with Taiwanese officials. Military personnel deployed to the island and American Institute of Taiwan (AIT) employees likely told him and others in the delegation about their inability to access Starshield. While there is likely a valid reason for Starshield’s unavailability around Taiwan, it does illustrate the balancing act that U.S. companies must do when they have products that are used by militaries.

For example, Elon may think that China finding out that the company allows the U.S. military to use Starshield may increase tensions between China, Taiwan, and the United States. This potential would also extend to Starlink allowing AIT, the de facto U.S. Embassy on the island, to use the system. This rationale was his reason for limiting Ukraine’s use of Starlink terminals after he determined it could potentially cause Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons in the ongoing Ukraine conflict.

However, this line of thinking that Elon likely has is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, China likely would not increase tensions over the U.S. military’s or AIT’s use of Starshield because there is no incentive for them to do so. The country would gain nothing from increasing tensions with either Elon’s companies or the United States due to Starshield’s use in Taiwan.

China is currently trying to increase the amount of investment foreign companies make in China, and raising the issue of Starshield use in Taiwan would do exactly the opposite. Furthermore, the increased tensions would likely push Taiwan and the United States to invest in a similar system that both could use without any outside interference. While China could enact sanctions against Tesla, which Elon also owns but has significant operations in China, this would not serve its larger interests of attracting foreign investment.

The second reason is that China has more ways than Russia to respond to the news that Starshield is used in Taiwan than anything that could increase tensions. For example, China could increase its use of influence operations, ranging from Taiwanese politicians that are pro-Beijing to Chinese associations on the island, to pressure Elon by protesting against the system’s use. These operations not only allow China to increase pressure on Elon but do so in a way that prevents tensions from increasing between the three countries. The operations also align with China’s past actions regarding showing its disapproval or anger regarding actions the United States has undertaken in Taiwan.

Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin Camarena
Joaquin the panda began Sino Talk in 2022 primarily to give an objective, unbiased view on China related topics as well as other issues related to the Indo-Pacific region. He spent several years studying and traveling throughout China and many countries in the Indo-Pacific region. In another life, the panda was also a U.S. Marine intelligence analyst who enjoyed bamboo MREs and drinking bourbon and soju. Indo-Pacific Division Desk Chief for Atlas News.

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