Taiwan, looking to Ukraine, pursues internet backup

Taiwan, taking its cue from Ukraine, is set to begin accepting proposals to build a backup satellite internet network as soon as this month, the country’s digital minister, Audrey Tang, told The Washington Post.

Ukraine has used Starlink, a satellite broadband service created by Elon Musk’s company SpaceX, to ensure internet connectivity in the face of Russian shelling and cyberattacks.

The war in Ukraine has stoked fears of military conflict in Taiwan, amid mounting tensions with China, which has long claimed the island, although the ruling Chinese Communist Party has never controlled the territory.

Tang did not cite China by name but said that Taiwan needed a plan to maintain internet infrastructure in the event of “intense military aggression,” or other threats, such as natural disasters or problems with undersea cables.

The government is set to review applications for satellite internet and would be open to discussions with “any qualified service provider.” Tang said Taiwan’s Ministry of Digital Affairs would devote roughly $18 million to securing internet backup over the next two years. The Washington Post asked SpaceX if the company intends to make a bid and did not immediately receive a response.

Non-geostationary satellites such as those used by Starlink circle the earth at relatively low orbits and are faster than traditional geostationary satellites. The technology has become increasingly popular in areas where broadband signals are weak or nonexistent.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s minister of digital transformation, tweeted a plea to Musk for broadband assistance, amid concerns that shelling could disrupt internet access or send the country offline. The SpaceX founder, along with European allies, donated thousands of antennas to Kyiv – many now on rooftops across Ukraine.

Taiwan took notice.

In recent months, Beijing has increased its presence on the Taiwan Strait, menacing the island with military aircraft and encircling it with warships during extensive exercises. In August this year, days before U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island, an apparent cyberattack knocked offline the website of Taiwan’s presidential office.

Although the attack “did not cause substantial harm, it made us more vigilant about communication and information security,” Tang said.

In an interview on Taiwanese radio station BaoDao, where Tang first announced the plans, the minister said that as long as people could “see the sky” they would be able to access the internet via low-orbit satellites.

The move makes sense for Taiwan, according to some experts.

Taiwan is already vulnerable to cyberespionage, with its neighbors eager to “look through its mail,” said John Hultquist, the head of intelligence analysis at U.S. cybersecurity firm Mandiant. The island’s geography, compared to that of Ukraine, puts it at risk of a total internet blackout, he said.

“Given the geopolitical situation and Taiwan’s history of natural disasters, they may have to consider the possibility of becoming completely isolated – if they don’t have a redundant system,” Hultquist said. “And we see this used outside the context of war – we’ve seen plenty of serious attacks in Ukraine, before the actual invasion.”

That logic has gained traction in Taiwan and parts of the region concerned about conflict with China.

During the Shangri-La Dialogues, an annual security forum that took place in Singapore in June, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida warned: “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow,” repeating a refrain that emerged in Taiwan in the early days of the war in Ukraine.

While Taiwanese officials have stressed the massive geopolitical differences between the situations, the push for backup internet suggests an acknowledgment of parallels worth considering.

The backup internet plan faces an obstacle: Some potential investors, perhaps including Musk, could see cooperating with Taiwan as a risk to business in China.

“Musk’s broader set of business interests are definitely much more exposed in China than in Russia,” said Bec Shrimpton, director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “So the decision to even have discussions [with Taiwan], especially if that were to be made public, would be more complicated than it was in the case of Ukraine.”