Keeping Taiwan connected

Internet connectivity is a lifeline—albeit a fragile one—for Taiwan. A recent war game staged in Taipei with experts from the military, tech industries, academia and government suggested that, in the event of a Chinese blockade, the island would be particularly vulnerable to a communications cutoff.

The threat to Taiwan’s digital infrastructure was made plain in February, when Chinese maritime vessels severed two submarine cables connecting the island to Matsu, a tiny archipelago that belongs to Taiwan but is located just off the coast of China. The months-long outage deprived residents of internet access and left Matsu, which houses a strategic military base, open to attacks. The damaged cables also exposed the vulnerability of the US tech giant Google, which has a data centre on Taiwan’s western coast.

Currently, 15 submarine cables connect Taiwan to global telecommunications. A Chinese invasion or prolonged blockade could thus cut off the island from the world, with consequences for the global economy and financial markets. Such an outcome could also threaten the security of the United States and its regional allies, including Japan. As a result, the Taiwanese government must focus on strengthening communication capabilities and ensuring robust and reliable internet connectivity.

One potential solution is to engage the services of Starlink, the mobile satellite-internet system operated by Elon Musk’s rocket company, SpaceX. Some would argue that Musk, who also owns X (formerly Twitter), is the internet’s most powerful man; others would describe him as the most erratic. Starlink, a key part of Musk’s business empire, provides internet connectivity globally through its more than 4,500 low-earth-orbit satellites.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Musk allowed his satellites to broadcast in the country free of charge and donated thousands of Starlink terminals to the government in Kyiv, helping it circumvent Russia’s attack on Ukraine’s telecoms infrastructure. Since then, Starlink has become an essential tool of the Ukrainian military, allowing it to gather intelligence on Russia’s latest troop movements and to communicate securely with NATO partners.

But while Musk was touted as a hero early in the war, government leaders are increasingly beholden to his whims. Last year, Musk refused to activate Starlink coverage near the coast of Crimea when Ukraine was planning a drone attack on Russian ships, arguing in a text to the then deputy prime minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, that the country was ‘going too far and inviting strategic defeat’.

Using Musk’s Starlink to access the internet and connect with the outside world could prove to be problematic for Taiwan. First, relying solely on Starlink means that any systematic failure or data compromise could be irreversible. Second, Musk has explicitly identified as ‘pro-China’ and even suggested that Taiwan should become a ‘special administrative zone’ of the People’s Republic, similar to Hong Kong. Third, Musk has substantial business interests in China: Tesla, Musk’s electric-vehicle company, has its most productive manufacturing hub in the country, which is also the world’s largest EV market.

Given all this, in the event of a military conflict between China and Taiwan, there’s no guarantee that Musk would not accede to China’s demands. Without sovereign control of its data, including data flows and data storage, Taiwan’s national security would be at risk.

To protect itself, Taiwan—already a global leader in the semiconductor supply chain—must develop indigenous capabilities in satellite communications and technologies. By integrating and consolidating resources, the Taiwanese government could establish, and maintain control over, public–private partnerships that would be able to ramp up capacity rapidly in the event of a war. The government should also streamline the procurement process to make it easier for start-ups to work with defence contractors.

While Taiwan’s National Development Fund invests in satellite technologies and critical communications infrastructure, the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Digital Affairs should work with the Taiwan Space Agency to exchange intelligence and establish a defence-shield system with partners such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. Taiwan needs to launch 120 satellites to ensure uninterrupted backup coverage, but policymakers are racing against time and must leverage allies’ support.

The US government, for its part, should consider allocating some of the funds provided by the CHIPS Act and the National Defense Authorization Act to co-develop, with Taiwan, satellite communications technology and the relevant semiconductor chips. In addition, as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, the US should take the lead in establishing this alliance, by forming working groups, establishing technology standards and arranging high-level exchanges.

The situation in Taiwan is not entirely analogous to that in Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine, which shares a long land border with Russia, Taiwan is separated from China by the notoriously rough seas of the Taiwan Strait. Moreover, Taiwan imports more than 90% of its energy, which means that a blockade would swiftly bring the island’s economy to a halt, in addition to threatening the security of its neighbours and the Indo-Pacific region more generally.

A disruption of Taiwan’s internet connectivity could all too easily turn into a global crisis. As tensions across the Taiwan Strait rise, the island’s security is becoming a shared geopolitical concern. Defeating China may not be possible, but outsmarting it certainly is. Taiwan and its allies should start investing today to ensure that the island’s links to the outside world remain robust, even at the darkest hour.