Cyber War: China and Taiwan

The United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan made headlines in the region before and after the landing on 2 August.

A few days before her trip, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned U.S. President Joe Biden over the phone, saying, “Whoever plays with fire will get burnt”. Within an hour of Pelosi’s arrival, China announced to conduct of military drills in the air and the waters around Taiwan. The exercises were supposed to end by 7 August, but China continued them until the day after. 

Beijing sees Taipei as a part of its territory and wants to “peacefully unify” it with its mainland. However, the Taiwanese government favours independence, as it has its constitution and leaders elected through democratic systems. 

To reporters asking about the purpose of the visit, Pelosi responded that her meeting with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen was to “preserve democracy”. 

Security Experts

The U.S. has been abiding by the “One China Principle”, which argues there is only one government in China, and that is Beijing. Still, Taiwan has been seen as a part of the “first island chain”, territories that have friendly stances toward the U.S. Also, reports saying that China may be able to assert its power in the Pacific region once it incorporates Taiwan into its mainland, which can threaten American military bases in Guam and Hawaii, may have worried U.S. security experts.

China’s disapproval of Pelosi’s visit was apparent in the physical environment and the cyber world. During Pelosi’s trip, Taiwanese government websites and a popular convenience store brand were under cyber-attacks from China. 

Recent Cyber-Attacks on Taiwan

Audrey Tang, Taiwan’s digital minister, said that the number of cyber-attacks on government websites had surpassed 15,000 gigabits before and after Pelosi’s arrival, 23 times bigger than the average volume.

Before the arrival, several government websites in Taiwan were under distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. The websites of the Defence Ministry, Office of the President and more significant government agencies or bodies were temporarily out of service. In September, the Taiwan defence ministry, presidential office, and other government websites again experienced disruptions in their service due to cyber-attacks. 

Cyber war China Taiwan
Joshua Fernandez S unsplash

Although Taiwan authorities could not identify the criminals in detail, they said the attacks originated from overseas — China and Russia. It’s not confirmed if the Chinese government has been directly involved in these attacks. Experts of SANS Technology Institute, a cybersecurity research organisation, said that the attacks are likely to be the work of Chinese hackers based on their “uncoordinated, random, moral-less” behaviours.

On 3 August, a day after Pelosi’s arrival, some branches of 7-11 convenience stores, the biggest convenience store brand in Taiwan, also experienced cyber-attacks. The television screens behind the cashiers at some stores showed the message: “Warmonger Pelosi, get out of Taiwan!” 

The authorities again did not accuse China of the attacks. Still, they said that the attacked stores had used Chinese software that perhaps had security holes or contained critical viruses, such as Trojan malware.

Chinese Influences in Taiwan

Cyber-attack on Taiwan is not news. Every month, Taiwan suffers from 20 to 40 million cyber-attacks, many of which are allegedly launched in China, according to the Cyber Security Department of Taiwan. The department said there were 360 successful attacks on government systems in 2017 alone, and 288 were from China.

Dr Crystal D. Pryor, Vice President of the Pacific Forum, pointed out that Taiwan’s cybersecurity landscape is different from other countries for several reasons in his paper “Taiwan’s Cybersecurity Landscape and Opportunities for Regional Partnership”.

Dr Pryor first mentioned Taiwan and China use the same language: Chinese. Not only that, Taiwan shares many cultural elements and economic aspects with the mainland, which makes it more “susceptible” to Chinese influence. China’s view of Taiwan – a “renegade province” – is another factor that makes Taiwan a more vulnerable target of Chinese cyber-attacks.

Also, as mentioned earlier, China’s cyber-attack on Taiwan has not recently started. The first documented cyber war between the two countries dates to August 1999, dubbed the “Taiwan-China Hacker War”.

It started when Lee Teng-hui, then-President of Taiwan, called the relationship between Taiwan and China “state-to-state relations”, which is against the One China Principle. Chinese hackers then tried to either slow down or shut off the websites of Taiwanese government bodies, universities, companies, and the American Institute in Taiwan. According to a report, Taiwan’s national computer networkers then experienced more than 160 infiltrations.

Although Taiwan has been trying to bolster its cyber defence capabilities against Chinese hackers by asking for outside help, there have been challenges and limitations due to their political status. The global police agency forced Taiwan to leave as China joined as a member in 1984. As of today, only 15 nations acknowledge Taiwan as an independent country. What’s worse, Taiwan is not allowed to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations, “thus limiting the country’s ability to coordinate with cyber investigators in other countries”, Dr Pryor wrote.

Lastly, Dr Pryor added that cyber-attacks had been one of China’s most common alternative operations to deter Taiwan, as China avoids conducting any military actions against it.

Taiwan Plans to Level Up Its Cyber Defence

Dr Pryor said that the previous attacks from China encouraged Taiwan to become more aware of “good cybersecurity practices”, however. Taiwan invests in promoting cybersecurity businesses and training programmes for aspiring cybersecurity specialists.

The cybersecurity market in Taiwan is now growing at an unprecedented rate. A report expected the compound annual growth rate of Taiwan’s cybersecurity market to be 9.1 per cent on average from 2016 to 2022, outperforming the global average of 8.1 per cent. The market volume of Taiwan’s cybersecurity was $1.6 billion in 2020.

There are 350 cybersecurity companies in Taiwan, with over 9,000 employees directly working in the industry. IT Home’s cybersecurity investment survey in 2021 also shows that six out of 10 companies in Taiwan invested in cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity Capabilities

The government is also committed to strengthening Taiwan’s cybersecurity capabilities. 

Shortly after the websites were down before and after Pelosi’s visit, the authorities told the reporters that the government is now working with cybersecurity professionals to enhance their capabilities.

Lo Ping-cheng, Spokesman of the Taiwan Cabinet, said that the government also strengthened the security of key infrastructures, such as power plants and airports. It also increased cybersecurity alertness across government bodies in preparation for foreign attacks.

There has been a change in Taiwan’s budget for next year. Taiwan is raising the defence budget by 15 per cent in 2023. Reports say that Taiwan will focus on deterring China’s cyber operations against Taiwan, including data leakage, misinformation, and espionage. The government is also establishing an agency dedicated to cybersecurity under the Ministry of Digital Affairs.

Taking a step further, Taiwan is looking for satellite internet service solutions to keep the internet up and running in the worst-case scenarios, like China’s invasion of Taiwan, according to the reports. 

Taiwan currently relies on undersea data cables to be connected to international internet traffic; if these cables are cut off, they will be disconnected from the internet. Digital minister Tang said that Taiwan plans to invest almost $25 million in a satellite programme to maintain Taiwan’s networks even if the conventional internet cables get disconnected. 

Sunny Um is a Seoul-based journalist working with 4i Magazine. She writes and talks about policies, business updates, and social issues around the Korean tech industry. She is best known for in-depth explanations of local issues for readers who need a better understanding of the Korean context. Sunny’s works appeared in prominent Korean news outlets, such as the Korea Times and Wired Korea. She currently makes regular writing contributions to newsrooms worldwide, such as Maritime Fairtrade, a non-profit media organization based in Singapore. She also works as a content strategist at 1021 Creative. A person who holds a Master’s degree in Political Economy from King’s College London, she loves to follow up on news of Korean politics and economy when she’s not writing.