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24 Feb 2024

Agroup of U.S. lawmakers are calling on Elon Musk to make SpaceX’s Starshield military-specific satellite communications network available to American defense forces in Taiwan after years of refusing to do business in the country.

In a letter to Musk obtained by Forbes, Rep. Mike Gallagher (R-WI) reminded the billionaire of SpaceX’s contractual obligation to provide the U.S. Department of Defense with “global access” to its satellite internet services. He noted that the Pentagon is committing “tens of millions of dollars” over the next year to StarShield, which uses low-Earth orbit satellites to provide communications and observational imagery to the military. “I understand that SpaceX is possibly withholding broadband internet services in and around Taiwan — possibly in breach of SpaceX’s contractual obligations with the U.S. government,” Gallagher, who is chair of the Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, wrote in the letter dated February 24.

“A robust communication network for U.S. military personnel on and around Taiwan is paramount for safeguarding U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific region,” Gallagher said, adding that in the event of Chinese aggression against Taiwan, “American service members in the Western Pacific would be put at severe risk.” The letter asks that Musk provide the Select Committee with a briefing about Starshield availability in and around Taiwan by March 8.

For Musk, the request is certain to discomfit. He has close ties with China, where Tesla has a major manufacturing plant, and has very publicly waded into the tensions the country has with self-governed Taiwan, which it views as part of its territory. In 2022, Musk suggested that tensions between Taipei and Beijing could be resolved if some control of Taiwan was handed over to China.

The letter also highlights the uncomfortable reliance the U.S. government and military have developed on SpaceX’s satellites. The Texas-based company has launched more than 5,000 satellites since 2019, and is the top vendor of satellite communications in the world. It is often the only way to get internet access in remote areas, places destroyed by natural disasters and war zones. The service has been crucial to Ukrainian forces battling a Russian invasion headed into its second year. But here too things are fraught: Ukraine military-intelligence officials recently claimed Russian forces in the country are also using Starlink satellite internet terminals, undercutting a major battlefield advantage. Musk has denied selling Starlink service to Russia.

“American service members in the Western Pacific would be put at severe risk.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher

Gallagher was in Taiwan this week with a delegation of Congress members meeting with officials, including President Tsai Ing-wen, and has discussed the country’s need for a system like Starshield, which could back up its communications were China to cut the undersea cables that connect it to the rest of the world. Gallagher wrote in the letter that “multiple sources” had disclosed to the CCP Committee that StarShield is currently inactive in and around Taiwan.

Jason Hsu, a former member of Taiwan’s legislature who is now a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School, told Forbes that he has also been discussing the matter with U.S. Congress members. “We are in the process of petitioning the U.S. DoD through Congress to make this a priority in the upcoming session,” he said. “Taiwan needs to prioritize satellite capability because our undersea cable infrastructure has been compromised.”

SpaceX did not respond to a comment request by the time of publication.

The issue has become more pressing as the Pentagon has focused on the future of Taiwan, and the growing threat of a potential invasion of the island by China. Last February, Taiwan’s National Communications Commission blamed Chinese ships for cutting two undersea internet cables. The same month, CIA director William Burns said President Xi Xingping had ordered the People’s Liberation Army to be prepared for an invasion of Taiwan by 2027. And since incoming President Lai Ching-te, who ran on a platform of pro-independence, was elected last month, China has ramped up military demonstrations and experts warn of more cyber attacks.

When Taiwan first started discussions with SpaceX about StarLink in 2019, officials had hoped to secure communications that weren’t reliant on its undersea cables. But talks quickly fell apart over a requirement that the government own a majority share of any telecommunications companies doing business in the country. Musk was adamant that he retain full ownership of Starlink operations in Taiwan and demanded the requirement be waived or changed. Talks have remained stalled ever since and Taiwan has begun developing a satellite system of its own.

“One of the things we can't allow is for this continued slowness from the U.S. government and people in industry.”

Former Rep. Will Hurd

While Starlink is an obvious answer to Taiwan’s communication vulnerabilities, some feel it shouldn’t be the only one. “Starlink and Starshield could play a crucial role, but I don’t want there to be a specific point of failure for satellite communications,” former Congress member Will Hurd told Forbes. “I was on the island nine months ago. The Taiwanese have a clear understanding of the threat, and one of the things we can't allow is for this continued slowness from the U.S. government and people in industry.”

Taiwan continues to be wary of Musk’s deep business ties with China and irked by his pro-Beijing comments. About 20% of Tesla’s revenue comes from China, and more than half of its vehicles were built at its Shanghai gigafactory in 2022. When Musk said last September that Taiwan was an “integral part of China”, Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu publicly rebuked him , saying, “Listen up…Taiwan is not part of the PRC & certainly not for sale!”

It’s unlikely the mercurial Musk can be cowed into activating StarShield in Taiwan by lawmaker pressure. And he has limited Starlink access in disputed parts of Ukraine in the past because he said he does not want to be “explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.” But given the importance of SpaceX’s military contracts with the U.S. government, in Taiwan he may have a choice to make.

“I think [China’s] goals are clear, that's reunification of Taiwan with the mainland by force, if necessary,” Gallagher told reporters on a call Friday. “That story also should make us even more concerned about certain reports...about Space X and Star Shield not providing services to Taiwan.”