A diagram shows landing locations of Taiwan's submarine cables. Photo: TeleGeography
A diagram shows landing locations of Taiwan's submarine cables. Photo: TeleGeography

Fragile but vital cables beneath the sea that are the backbone of Taiwan’s communications with the rest of the world may have long been targeted by the Chinese military, and are high on the list of priority targets to be destroyed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) should cross-strait relations deteriorate into belligerence again.

That alarm was sounded by Eli Huang, special assistant to former Taiwan deputy defense minister Lin Chong-pin, in an op-ed in the November-December issue of The National Interest magazine. The article calls the submarine fiber-optic cables Taiwan’s “Achilles’ heel.”

“Cutting [these cables] will cripple Taiwan’s international communications,” Huang said.

On Tuesday, Taiwan’s official Central News Agency carried a digest of Huang’s article, highlighting that the damage would not be confined to Taiwan in the event of a “digital blackout” in the island.

There are at least 10 international submarine cables between Taiwan and the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. Damaging Taiwan’s cables would disrupt international business and financial markets, wreaking havoc on neighboring countries including Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Australia that share close economic and military ties with the island.

Taiwan can’t rely solely on satellite communication in the event of a war, as by comparison cables transmit more data faster.

Earlier, a Pentagon file disclosed by WikiLeak contained a list of key infrastructure in Taiwan vital to US interests.

It has been revealed that the island has six key cable landing stations, and two of them, one in northeastern Taiwan’s Yilan county and another in the southern county of Pingtung, are of particular strategic significance.

The Yilan station channels Taiwan’s communications with virtually all North Pacific and North American countries including the US while Pingtung handles data exchange with Southeast Asia and Australia.

The US and its Asia-Pacific partners should also monitor the security of cable routes, using automatic identification system to pinpoint the location of faults, Huang urged.

The article also speculates on the PLA’s military use of its already extensive cable network through the South China Sea, especially after state-owned China Telecom finished linking Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands with ultra-fast fourth-generation fiber-optic cables.

Such a cable network creates a strategic advantage in anti-submarine warfare for the Chinese navy by forming an underwater observation system of subsurface sensors that transmits data to a central processing and monitoring facility in Shanghai.

“The system will function much like America’s SOSUS network, which employs fixed sensor arrays to detect Soviet submarines. A Chinese system could erode American undersea warfare advantages in the South China Sea,” Huang wrote.