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Elon Musk’s Starlink and Taiwan’s Distrust

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Taiwan, an island nation with a heavy reliance on undersea cables for internet connectivity, finds itself vulnerable to potential disruptions in the event of a conflict with China. As tensions escalate between Taiwan and its neighboring superpower, the Taiwanese government is actively exploring alternatives to bolster its communication infrastructure. One potential solution is the use of low-orbit satellite systems as a backup for terrestrial connections. However, the involvement of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and its Starlink network raises concerns due to China’s influence on the billionaire’s business ventures. This article delves into Taiwan’s quest for secure satellite communication options amidst geopolitical uncertainties.

Undersea Cables and Vulnerability:

Taiwan’s connectivity heavily relies on 14 undersea cables, which, in the event of a conflict, would be susceptible to sabotage or disruption. A recent incident involving severed subsea internet cables near Taiwan’s Matsu Islands highlighted the potential consequences of such disruptions, leaving thousands of residents with painfully slow internet for over 50 days. Recognizing the need for a more comprehensive and resilient communication infrastructure, Taiwan’s government has embarked on a search for reliable alternatives.

Taiwan’s Distrust of Elon Musk:

Elon Musk’s Starlink network, operated by SpaceX, emerges as a clear contender to provide Taiwan with a low-orbit satellite system. However, Taiwan’s skepticism arises from Musk’s business ties with China and his pro-Beijing comments. Discussions between SpaceX and Taiwanese government officials initially appeared promising, but tensions arose when SpaceX insisted on owning 100% of any telecommunications joint venture. SpaceX’s lobbying efforts to change Taiwan’s ownership rules, combined with their ultimatum, deepened Taiwan’s concerns and ultimately led to the breakdown of talks.

The Significance of Satellite Communication in Warfare:

Taiwan’s vulnerability in the face of potential conflict with China underscores the critical importance of satellite communication for military operations. Military historian David Silbey emphasizes the necessity of reliable satellite communications for effective troop coordination during a conventional war. Recognizing this, Taiwan’s Space Agency (TASA) plans to launch its own low-Earth orbit communication satellite by 2026, followed by additional satellites. However, the scale of the satellite constellation required would necessitate collaboration with global companies or Taiwan’s private sector.

Exploring Collaborative Options:

Given the limitations of solely relying on local resources, Taiwan’s government has sought alternative partnerships. SpaceX’s extensive satellite network, with over 4,300 satellites already in orbit and regulatory approval for up to 12,000, presents an attractive proposition. Starlink’s successful deployment in Ukraine during Russia’s internet disruption crisis garnered attention from China’s military analysts, highlighting its capabilities. Nevertheless, concerns persist regarding potential control and influence by external entities in critical situations.

Seeking Alternatives and Hedge Strategies:

With the Starlink deal in limbo, Taiwan continues to explore other options to ensure secure satellite communication. The Ministry of Digital Affairs introduced a proof-of-concept program allowing satellite providers to operate in Taiwan on an emergency basis without being bound by local ownership requirements. Discussions have taken place with companies like Project Kuiper by Amazon and OneWeb Ltd., both of which have expressed interest. Local companies, such as Foxconn Technology Group, are also entering the satellite communication space, further diversifying Taiwan’s options.

Challenges and Future Prospects:

Despite Taiwan’s commitment to developing its space industry and launching more satellites, obstacles remain. The significant number of satellites required for uninterrupted coverage poses a challenge, and the shortage of rockets capable of deploying them further complicates the situation. While Taiwan seeks to achieve self-reliance in space technology, experts highlight the need to balance local efforts with collaborations to expedite progress.

Conclusion:

Taiwan’s pursuit of secure satellite communication is driven by its vulnerability to potential disruptions in undersea cables during times of conflict. As tensions rise with China, the search for alternatives becomes crucial. Although Elon Musk’s Starlink network seems like an ideal solution, Taiwan’s concerns over his ties to China have hampered negotiations. Taiwan is actively exploring partnerships with various satellite providers and aims to build a resilient and diverse communication infrastructure to safeguard its digital lifelines.

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