Is Taiwan’s Power Infrastructure Ready for a Possible Cross-Strait Conflict?”

Taipei Skyline
Image credit: Timo Volz / Pixabay

The past months proved to be challenging for Taiwan. Amidst the surging numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the island has also succumbed to drought, infrastructural hindrance and power supply problems. After the drought in April, the island suffered another small-scale power suspension in Taipei City and encountered temporary power generator malfunctions at two coal-fired power plants in May. These do not simply imply the island’s infrastructural risk, but also highlight its possible vulnerability to sustained pressure from Beijing.

First, Taiwan is experiencing its worst drought in five decades, with two major dams in Taichung around just 5% capacity. This drought has slowed down Taiwan’s water-intensive semiconductor device production, which in turn, aggravated the global chip shortage. Taiwan has been a home for semiconductor supply chain and is where Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC), the world’s largest contract chipmaker, located. About 90% of the most advanced chips are manufactured in Taiwan that power iPhone, automobile and computers. Yet due to the drought, TSMC has since been transporting water from reservoirs in other parts of Taiwan. Yet, truckloads of reservoir water (20 tons of water each time) are simply not enough to satisfy TSMC’s massive need (nearly 200,000 tonnes each day). As the world is heavily dependent on these Taiwanese chips, such drought hampered global automotive production.

Frequent power outages in Taiwan can be worrying as this can discourage the manufacturers from retaining factories there. It is also a security issue because one of the reasons why China is reluctant to raid Taiwan is because Taiwan’s semiconductor production is valuable to Beijing. In 2020, Taiwan’s exports of electronic components, including integrated circuits and chips, became the largest export volume to mainland China with an increase of about 20%. A fatal military conflict would likely risk eliminating Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, thus reducing the perceived economic or technological benefits. However, if these companies decide to leave Taiwan due to constant power outages, this may wipe out China’s dependence on Taiwan’s supply chain as a condition to resist Chinese invasion. It is, hence, in Taiwan’s interest to grasp most of its production on the island and guarantee a constant power supply.

The drought has also aggravated problems with electricity management, which have generated two major blackouts in less than a week. Taiwan’s electric power is highly susceptible to sabotage, due to an inherent system imbalance in which central and northern Taiwan hangs on the electricity in the south. Any mishap in the south can trigger power outages throughout the island. Second, the island is currently facing a relatively severe energy insufficiency. According to Taiwan’s Ministry of Economic Affairs, Taiwan’s power reserves were around 15pc of its installed capacity in March, which is lower than Singapore’s 30pc and below the average of 20pc for other countries.

These infrastructural weaknesses reflect Taiwan’s low level of readiness if it is under a direct threat, for instance, any armed conflict with China. It makes Taiwan highly vulnerable as it struggles with critical infrastructure, every single one crucial to its resilience against Beijing’s intimidation. The prolonged drought also brings alarm to Taiwan’s food security. Taiwan has closed irrigation to thousands of acres of farmland, affecting crops production.  Even without the drought, the food self-sufficiency of Taiwan was just 35%. If war breaks out, Beijing might prevent Taiwan’s sea lines of communication through an air and sea blockade. As an island nation, Taiwan’s energy supplies, food and economy depend much on imports from other nations. Without sufficient energy and food supply, Taiwan, likely, does not have enough capabilities to defend against China.

The blackout of last month also prompted people to doubt the practicability of ruling nuclear out by 2025, which is a long-standing goal for President Tsai due to the safety concern. As Taiwan imports nearly 98 per cent of its energy resources (almost all from the Middle East), nuclear has long been perceived as necessary for national security and make invasion more costly in case of Beijing’s military actions.  Due to Taiwan’s geographical location, its ports, including Keelung and Kaohsiung, could easily be China’s military targets. For instance, China could easily block the port in Kaohsiung by taking its 240-hectare Pratas Island off the coast of Hong Kong.

As Taiwan is busily solving its power infrastructure problems, there are signs of increasing Chinese intrusions in the Taiwan Strait. In early April, China dispatched 25 warplanes into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), the largest reported incursion to date. Beijing has also released videos illustrating military drills in May that appeared to simulate a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Later in the month, Liaoning, first China’s aircraft carrier, was exercising near Taiwan intending to “safeguard China’s national sovereignty, safety and development interest. It all becomes apparent that Beijing is launching a “grey zone” strategy to subdue or intimidate Taiwan through exhaustion, as manifested in its regular military exercise.

Therefore, it is not surprising that China’s increasing military capabilities, and the deterioration of the Cross-Strait relations, could trigger a conflict. The Chinese Communist Party has repeatedly stressed the priority of the Taiwan issue. In a 2020 report by the U.S. Department of Defense, China’s military is “likely preparing for a contingency to unify Taiwan with the mainland by force”, and would “resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China” in a 2019 defense white paper.  Some commented that China is biding its time for the sake of its economic and military growth, and waiting for a more favourable balance of power with Washington. Unifying Taiwan could happen more than a decade later when the People’s Liberation Army is modernized enough to fight and win a regional war against another advanced military by 2035. Or it could be by 2049 as it will the centennial anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China to achieve national rejuvenation.

Regardless of the timing and possibility of the Cross-Strait stand-off, Taiwan must confront the reality that its core weaknesses fall to the island’s unstable energy grid and its infrastructural limitations. How Taiwan tackles this quandary and issues a development plan will determine the extent of its resilience and basic security as a whole. This will be a pressing test for Tsai’s administration.

Esther M. Sit holds a Master’s degree in International Politics and East Asia from the University of Warwick. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.