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Taiwan's energy and communication systems

27 September, 2023

Taiwan's digital communications and energy systems are vulnerable to both natural and man-made disruptions. Is enough being done to prepare for disasters?


By Paul Shelton

The recent cutting of two submarine cables providing communication services between Taiwan and the outlying Matsu Islands gave new impetus to Taiwan’s quest for alternative communication solutions able to boost its communication resilience against natural and man-made disruptions of its communications grid.


Taiwan’s undersea cables are notoriously exposed to damages caused by natural events, like earthquakes, and undersea eruptions, as well as by man-made events, accidental or deliberate.


The incidents highlighted Taiwan’s exposure to potential communications disruptions, prompting the government to embark on a quest for workable solutions to increase the resilience of its digital communication networks. 


According to Dr Enrico Cau, Associate Researcher at the Taiwan Center for International Strategic Studies (TCISS) Taiwan’s faces two major types of challenges, military, and non-military. While the military aspect will be tackled or at least mitigated through domestic and internationally assisted solutions, the digital resilience of systems serving the broader needs of business, government and society pose totally different challenges with important effects for the population and subsequent fallouts for government and the military.


Cau pointed to the in-depth analysis of Taiwan’s challenges from institutions like Air University and Rand. These institutions have published analyses of Taiwan’s challenges, and potential solutions for both military and non-military digital communication resilience.


To mitigate the risk of service disruptions caused by man-made damage or disruption of submarine cables, Taiwan has so far been exploring three paths: partnerships with private providers, such as Elon Musk’s controversial Starlink, using third countries or government partners’ existing constellations, like Europe's new IRIS2-system and implementing its own indigenous system.


Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang said in a recent interview that Taiwan is racing to complete a backup satellite network of 700 satellite transmission sites both in Taiwan and abroad before the end of the year. Taiwan has reportedly signed a contract with the UK satellite network provider One Web to help with the project and is considering partnerships with Meta and Google, as well as Starlink. Tang has said that Taiwan is forging partnerships with multiple satellite providers in many countries, both for redundancy reasons and because it is very difficult to deliberately jam or disrupt multiple providers at the same time. 


Similar challenges afflict Taiwan’s energy supply, storage, and distribution ecosystem. Although Taiwan has been working in recent years to develop and deploy renewable energy capacity, the island still relies on imports to meet approximately 90% of its energy needs while there is limited storage capacity (especially for natural gas). Meanwhile, the physical grid infrastructure is exposed to the same natural and man-made events that affect the communication systems. Cau observes that despite Taiwan’s best efforts, its energy grid remains acutely vulnerable to the risk of supply and service disruptions produced by natural events such as droughts, human errors, structural issues, for example, subpar storage capacity and, last but not least, the lingering risk of Chinese attempts to pressure Taiwan and its citizens to cave into Beijing’s demands.


At least three key aspects emerge from this analysis according to Cau. First, while satellites can help mitigate digital communications disruptions caused by natural events, man-made disruptions caused by conflict, sabotage, and cyberattacks, expose satellite connections to similar risks of disruption. Second, with the close nexus between digital communications and energy grids, there are potential chain effects stemming from a near-simultaneous disruption of both digital inbound and outbound communications of Taiwan’s communication and energy grid. These disruptions may be the result of cyber or physical attacks to domestic communications network and infrastructure. Thirdly, any conjoined events may have psychological effects on the ability of Taiwan’s civilian population to withstand isolation and degradation of communications and energy grids.


As an example, Cau poses a scenario in which China successfully imposes a blockade on Taiwan while also disrupting outbound and domestic communications and energy grids. This disruption would affect key services such as payment systems, hospital administration, technical systems, supply chain management, banking, energy grid, water, gas, and electricity. Cau believes this scenario would, if of sufficient duration and scope, potentially cripple Taiwan’s society’s capability to operate properly, with substantial consequences for the economic, political, and social dimensions.


A blockade’s effects would be further amplified by Taiwan’s widespread digitalised administration infrastructure. As the population becomes isolated from the outer world, with large swathes experiencing ongoing disruptions of key services, pressure on the government to end a conflict would undoubtedly mount.


This type of event, according to Cau would create feelings of insecurity and distrust towards Taiwan’s elites and Taiwan’s capacity to defend its residents, instilling a widespread sense of defeatist resignation within its civil society and subsequent effects on political and military decisions.


This brings the emergence of a direct nexus between the risks associated with disruptions of key utilities and communications and the relevance of the human factor in gauging the capacity of Taiwan to withstand such coercive disruptions in times of crisis.

No easy solutions

In terms of the physical communications infrastructure, Taiwan appears to be on the right track by working to build a robust network with multiple redundancies. In terms of the electricity infrastructure, Taiwan still relies too much on large coal and gas power plants and has too few transmission lines. More renewables (especially solar, wind and geothermal), grid infrastructure and renewable storage facilities would provide a greater variety of power sources and make the power supply more resilient. Once again, Taiwan is on the right track but it will need to speed up the renewable energy roll-out and invest much more in grid capacity and energy storage. 


On the psychological level, building psychological resilience at-scale through a “whole-of-society” approach rooted in complex systems is not an easy task.


Cau believes, Taiwan seems at least partially aware of the fact that its population needs to be prepared for a crisis and for this reason, the government is trying to deploy a model of civil defence that entails outsourcing training to several different NGOs to offer courses to citizens on a voluntary basis.


For the broader population, Cau notes that Taiwan has also issued a civil defence handbook that, in principle, should enable a degree of DYI preparation for individual citizens. However, while these efforts contribute to strengthening civil society resilience to an extent, there are shortcomings.


These shortcomings include the lack of a structured, organic programme for civil defence, with numerous activities being reportedly unrelated to the potential contingencies of a real-world scenario.


Second, participation in civil defence programs is on a voluntary basis. This is understandable for a democratic country where participation is left up to the individual. However, Cau is concerned that this may result in many of Taiwan’s population being removed from any form of participation in civil defence programmes, with the risk of turning passive citizens into liabilities, citizens without even a minimal capacity to contribute to society in times of crisis.


Third, various activities that are part of civil defence programmes often overlook entirely the necessity to build psychological resilience to isolation, shocks and traumas induced by conflict and disruptions of key services. The risk in this case would be to have civilians physically trained to face contingencies but unable to cope with the pressure in times of crisis.


Cau believes that any model of civil defence should revolve around at least four important goals. First, build individual and collective psychological resilience. Second, foster collective community cohesion at a local level. Third, turn most able citizens from passive liabilities into active resources. Fourth, teach practical skills to face foreseeable catastrophic events.


A simple example of a viable course of action for collective involvement could be the organisation of standardised training sessions, including targeted content imparted at a local level within local communities at the neighbourhood or individual building level. These courses should include exposure of citizens to simulated, controlled-trauma situations, such as cell phone, power, water, gas, or TV disruptions for specific periods of time.


A whole of society approach

Cau is also of the opinion this training should be implemented across the whole civil society (a whole of society approach) as a form of collective “passive-resistance building for active resilience”. This whole-of-society approach would, in Cau’s opinion, create four fundamental benefits.


First, they would create a mental “fingerprint” of potential real situations to boost citizens’ psychological preparedness and resilience to catastrophic events. Second, they would leverage the existing sense of collectiveness and social cohesion that often is a defining feature of Taiwan’s local communities to form an esprit de corps among local communities. Third, in so doing, they would turn citizens that have so far eschewed any activity in the field of civil defence from potential liabilities into assets in a time of crisis, while seamlessly increasing the participative stakes of the broader citizenry in the complex defence framework for an efficient defence of Taiwan in a time of crisis. Fourth, they would provide standardised, ad hoc training to broad swathes of the population, thereby relieving the strain on some of the efforts of military, law enforcement and other stakeholders engaged in ensuring service continuity at a local level and allowing them to devote that time to other, more valuable aspects of Taiwan’s defence.


Paul Shelton is a consultant with 30 years of experience in the international financial services and related industries with skills in all aspects of legal and financial crime compliance and regulatory relationship advisory and management.

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