Taiwanese Lawmakers Urge Increased Protection of Taiwan-Matsu Underwater Cables

A Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislator, Hung Sun-han, urged additional protection for the underwater internet cables that run from Taiwan to the Matsu Islands at a National Security Bureau (NSB) meeting on Wednesday, May 1st.

Hung noted that the underwater cables should be considered “critical infrastructure,” given their importance to the population and businesses of the Matsu Islands. The underwater cables are damaged frequently, as pointed out by Hung.

During the same meeting, NSB Director-General Tsai Ming-yen mentioned the need for upgrades as well. 

Matsu Islands 

The Matsu Islands, officially known as Leinchiang County, are a chain of 36 islands and islets, with the notable islands being Nangan, Dongju, Xuji, Beigan, and Dongyin. Nangan is the largest and most-inhabited island in the chain of islands.

The total population is around 12,700, living in an area of 11.43 square miles (29.60 square km). The chain of islands sits around 11 miles (19 km) from mainland China and 284 km (176 miles) from Taiwan.

Map of the Matsu Islands with map inlay of Taiwanese and Chinese coastlines Photo: Google Earth

As a result of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forced the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT) out of mainland China. The KMT mostly settled in Taiwan; however, they claimed other islands off mainland China’s coast, such as the Matsu Island chain. 

The Matsu Island Cables

The Matsu underwater internet cables stretch 310 miles (500 km) from Taiwan and have a diameter of around 66–.82 inches (17–21 mm), similar to most undersea cables found around the world. Chunghwa Telecom, a large service provider in Taiwan, reported that since 2017–2023, the cables have been damaged or severed around 27 times. 

A construction vessel pulls an underwater cable to shore. Source: Chunghwa Telecom

Although underwater cable damage is not uncommon, some have noted how frequently the cables around Matsu Islands are damaged. Global estimates suggest around 100 to 200 undersea cables are damaged each year. The damages are done mostly by fishing vessels and commercial cargo ships, unintentionally.

In February 2023, a vessel severed a portion of the cables, leaving the population, businesses, and government reliant on the much slower and less reliable satellite internet, costing the local government time and millions of dollars. Services were not fully back up until late April, and the responsible ship was said to have been Chinese. 

Analysis 

Taiwanese officials have blamed China for damaging the cables as a form of grey zone tactics against Taiwan.

Grey zone tactics are defined as various economic and geopolitical actions that China conducts against other countries that are not considered military actions.

Matsu Islands are remote; they only have a few forms of communication with the rest of the world. The undersea cables are the fastest and most reliable; other alternatives, such as satellite, are much slower and less reliable.

China is most likely responsible for damaging the cables due to Chinese cargo vessels and fishing ships sailing near the locations where the incidents occurred. China uses the vessels to provide the country with a degree of plausible deniability while forcing the Taiwanese government to expend resources on repairing the cables.

Another reason China may do this is to force Taiwan to spend large amounts of money repairing and protecting the undersea cables. Taiwan is also forced to use resources to build additional communication systems so the islands can have redundant systems.

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