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Beyond Borders: The Urgent Case for Global Cooperation in Cyber Defence

Dr Cherian Samuel is Research Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 04, 2024

    Over the past year, the cyber conflict between Ukraine and Russia has captured much attention. Yet, a similarly critical situation has unfolded in the China–Taiwan theatre, where cyberattacks have significantly escalated. Reports from Google's threat analysis division and Microsoft security have confirmed this uptick, pinpointing that these incidents predominantly target critical sectors like energy systems, electrical grids, and communication networks. The semiconductor industry has not been spared either.

    A report by the cybersecurity company Fortinet reveals a staggering figure of 412 billion attack events detected in Asia-Pacific in the first half of 2023, with Taiwan bearing the brunt at 22.48 billion, marking an 80 per cent increase from the year prior. Alongside espionage efforts, Taiwan has faced Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) and ransomware attacks. Further intensifying the situation are the misinformation campaigns aimed at undermining public trust in Taiwan's government and stoking societal confusion.

    India has also been at the receiving end of misinformation aimed at Taiwan. A recent rumour claiming that the Taiwanese government was bringing in as many as 100,000 migrant workers from India went viral on social media in Taiwan. Though refuted by the Taiwan government, various social media pages operated by the Taiwan government were spammed with bot messages designed “to create social panic and spark tension between Taiwan and India”.1

    In defence, Taiwan has fortified its cyber capabilities by establishing its Information Communication Electronic Force Command in 2017, consolidating various military units into one formidable force of over 6,000 personnel. The latest National Cybersecurity program, the sixth of its kind since 2001 and running until 2024, reflects Taiwan's commitment to strengthening its cyber defences—protecting crucial infrastructure, enhancing cyber skills, increasing information security, and supporting the private sector in safeguarding its operations. A key goal is to position Taiwan as a hub for cyber research and development.2

    Taiwan's role in global cyber stability is underscored by its critical position in the electronics supply chain. Taiwan is the sixth-largest electronics exporter globally, with electronics exports valued at US$ 94.8 billion in 2021, representing a 3.9 per cent  share of the global electronics market. Taiwan is known for its semiconductor manufacturing capabilities, with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) alone having a 56 per cent global market share.

    Taiwan has had a long-standing relationship with the United States, which has acted as a security guarantor for the island nation through the Taiwan Relations Act passed by the US Congress in 1979. Its security has acquired further salience as it became a technological powerhouse over the years, making it more vulnerable to cyber attacks from China that considers reunification of Taiwan with the mainland as a major goal and has used cyber, first as a means of espionage, and now increasingly, for destructive attacks on the networks of countries it is hostile to.

    In its 2023 annual report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China, the US Department of Defense noted that China could potentially use its cyber capabilities as part of a range of campaigns designed to coerce ​Taiwan. These campaigns may include cyberspace operations, blockade, and kinetic actions with the goal of compelling Taiwan to unify with China or to bring Taiwan's leadership to the negotiation table on terms favourable to the ​People's Republic of China (PRC). Cyber attacks had notably increased after Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a congressional delegation to Taiwan in August 2022 and are up 80 per cent from the same period in 2022.3

    In April 2023, US lawmakers introduced the Taiwan Cybersecurity Resiliency Act, which would require the US Department of Defense to expand cybersecurity cooperation with Taiwan, calling for cybersecurity training exercises with Taiwan, joint efforts to defend Taiwan’s military networks, infrastructure, and systems, and leveraging US cybersecurity technologies to help defend Taiwan. The proposed legislation currently awaits further discussion in the Committee on Foreign Relations.

    Taiwan has also sought to share expertise it has acquired from responding to these attacks but is constrained by the limits of its participation in international organisations. It is however a member of the Asia Pacific Computer Emergency Response Team (APCERT) where it has been a part of the Steering Committee and the convenor of Training Working Group. Taiwan and the US have also established a Global Cooperation and Training Framework (GCTF) platform to capitalise on Taiwan’s expertise and experience to address global issues of mutual concern and assist other countries in their capacity building efforts. The other countries partnering in the framework are Japan and Australia.

    The GCTF has facilitated more than 63 workshops, engaging over 7,000 attendees from 126 countries, demonstrating Taiwan's commitment to sharing its cyber defence expertise and aiding in international capacity building. Most recently, the GCTF, with support from the US Embassy, held a workshop in New Delhi on 11 December 2023 with the aim of improving co-ordination and enhancing crisis response capabilities.4 The other aspects discussed, including AI, cyber crime prevention and critical information infrastructure protection, are also of utmost priority since the threats in these areas are moving faster than governments can respond individually.  

    The growing instability in the international system which is manifested most in cyberspace underscores the urgency for robust defence mechanisms and international cooperation in cybersecurity with all like-minded countries to shield critical infrastructure and prevent systemic disruptions.