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Taiwan’s Achilles’ Heel in a Conflict with China Is Not What You Think

Since September 2016, China Telecom has replaced satellite stations on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands with 4G fibre-optic cable stations. Fibre-optic cables are much faster and much more stable than satellite systems. Installation began just two months after an arbitral tribunal in the Hague unanimously found against Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. The stations significantly strengthen China’s command and control capabilities in the South China Sea. Over the longer term, China’s cable strategy holds serious security implications for the US, Taiwan and the Asia–Pacific community.

Undersea fibre-optic cable is the backbone of data transmission and intercontinental communications. A cable can transmit the equivalent of the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress in about 20 seconds. In 2014, roughly 98% of emails, telephone calls and internet traffic travelled through underwater cables.

The Chinese military, along with the Ministry of Information Industry, has concentrated on developing its submarine cable technology since the 1990s. In 2002, the PLA used a self-developed undersea cable-laying system for the first time. It deployed its first optical cable-laying ship in 2015. And last year, the PLA Naval University of Engineering, Hengton Optic-Electric, Zhongtian Technology Submarine Cables and Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications co-established the Joint Lab of Underwater Optical Networks, a science and engineering research facility.

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Although undersea cables are the most critical infrastructure supporting today’s global data and voice communications, they’re surprisingly vulnerable. In general, cables have only a thin rubber sheath. Shipping and fishing activities are the most common sources of damage. China has taken steps to protect its submarine cables and conducts regular patrols. It has also imposed special submarine cable protection measures during major international events, such as the Expo Shanghai in 2010 and the Belt and Road Summit in May 2017, to prevent propaganda channels, live streams and international calls from being disrupted.

China’s cable industry has rapidly transformed itself. It used to rely heavily on imports, but today it competes strongly in international markets. In 2011, for example, Huawei Marine Networks constructed a 1,200 kilometre ultralong non-repeater cable system that connects five islands of Indonesia’s eastern archipelago. Between 2012 and 2015, Chinese companies’ market share of global cable projects was only 7%; that figure is projected to increase to 20% by 2019. Chinese companies currently lag behind only France’s Alcatel-Lucent and Switzerland’s TE Connectivity in the sector.