All Eyes on SpaceX in Taiwan

Ciara Morris | China Fellow

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has China watchers anxious over a similar fate in Taiwan. But Xi Jinping is unlikely to repeat Russia’s mistakes.


Linda Jakobson, founder of the policy institute China Matters, argues that Beijing will instead use “all means short of war” to attempt to force Taiwanese leaders to negotiate unification. A key part of this strategy would be a barrage of cyberattacks and the destruction of internet infrastructure and telecommunications, causing public panic and the spread of disinformation. To buttress its ground invasion, Russia is attempting this exact strategy in Ukraine.


In March 2022, Elon Musk’s aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX sent thousands of satellite-connected internet terminals to Ukraine. Part of an ambitious project called Starlink, these terminals connect to low-Earth orbit satellites, providing internet access to anyone nearby. Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov said Starlink has proven “very effective” in keeping Ukranians online. A top US Pentagon official also praised Starlink for its resilience to hacking and jamming efforts by Russia.


If there is a blackout in Kyiv, technology like Starlink ensures the military can continue operations unimpeded; aid workers can stay updated on where they are needed most; journalists can spread news in real time; and people can maintain access to online banking and financial markets, continuing to trade and receive donations. These factors combined could very well further tip the balance of conflict in Ukraine’s favour.


Taiwan, like Ukraine, has a similar strategic interest in avoiding ever going offline – but is Starlink the answer?


With over 2,000 satellites in orbit, SpaceX plans to have 30,000 satellites in Earth orbit over the next few decades, providing, in theory, grid-free internet access to the entire world. Starlink will require significant expansion of its telecom equipment to sustain such an ambitious plan. As it happens, Taiwan excels in the production of satellites and related technologies, and at a significant cost advantage. Currently, a long line of Taiwanese suppliers make Starlink’s operations possible.


According to Musk, the People's Republic of China (PRC) have “sought assurances” he would not offer Starlink to Taiwan. However, last year, Taiwanese company Chunghwa Telecom announced a partnership with Starlink to launch internet coverage via satellite systems beyond 5G broadband technology in Taiwan.


The Taiwanese Government has also pledged nearly AUD$2 billion between 2021 - 2024 to its own Beyond 5G program, which aims to help local companies make inroads into the low-orbit satellite communications industry.


It is safer to have multiple internet providers than one single provider. So, on the one hand, Starlink can add an extra layer of resilience to Taiwan’s internet capability, on top of the government’s independent program.


On the other hand, Starlink is a divisive project and Elon Musk an even more divisive public figure. Musk’s philanthropy is not unconditional. Despite initially supporting Ukraine, he has since recommended the permanent cessation of Crimea to Russia, drawing sharp criticism from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Musk’s most recent, jarring suggestion is for Taiwan to avoid war by becoming a special administrative zone of the PRC.


Musk’s constant involvement in influential security areas worryingly speaks to the increasing power of transnational private actors in global governance.


More than half of all active satellites orbiting Earth are SpaceX satellites. Apart from significant concerns of light pollution and the risk of collision, there are also geopolitical consequences to Starlink’s global expansion. As mentioned, multiple internet providers are better for national security. However, corporations, as self-regulating private entities, are primarily driven by profit maximization, not the public good. Even if we assume the argument that corporate social responsibility—like SpaceX providing Starlink satellites to conflict areas—is logically tied to profit maximization, corporations cannot always be relied on to act responsibly.


If we treat corporations as governing institutions and rely on them to provide solutions to global issues, we diminish the importance of states and their duty to regulate the actions of corporations in the public interest.


In Taiwan, the government is elected by and accountable to its citizens. SpaceX is accountable to its owner, Elon Musk.


Instead of provoking a bloody war over Taiwan, Australia and its allies should focus resources on understanding what an “all means short of war” scenario would look like in the region. This means ensuring Taiwan can stay online while maintaining sovereignty and strategic control of its internet and telecommunications infrastructure.


Ciara Morris is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.