Cross Strait, Talking Point

Troubled waters

A drought and a wastewater plan add to cross-Strait tensions


Drought conditions: low water levels seen in the Touqian River in Hsinchu

Some of the world’s biggest battles over the last century have been fought over oil. But Kamala Harris, the American vice-president, thinks that more of the conflicts of the future will be waged over another commodity. “I would suggest to you in a short matter of time, wars will be fought over water,” she warned this month.

The remark – coming as part of efforts to drum up support for Joe Biden’s plans for a $111 billion investment in water infrastructure – didn’t merit much of a mention in the American media. But the warning did lead to a wider discussion on Chinese social media at a time when water shortages across the Taiwan Strait are making headlines.

Coincidentally, Taiwan’s worst drought in decades has come at a time when Japan seems to have moved away from a longstanding convention in its diplomatic policy towards the island, alarming the Chinese.

And complicating matters further is a plan in Tokyo to dump more than a million tonnes of nuclear wastewater into the Pacific, which has done little to improve the mood in Beijing.

How bad is Taiwan’s drought?

With a tropical climate in its south, the island of Taiwan gets annual rainfall about 2.6 times the global average. Monsoons and typhoons are common.

Blame global warming, perhaps, but something unusual happened last year. The island’s weather bureau issued just one tropical storm warning and little rain has fallen since, resulting in what local media is describing as the worst drought in 56 years.

Many of Taiwan’s reservoirs are drying up fast, with water levels dropping to less than 15% of capacity. Take Sun Moon Lake, one of the biggest sources of fresh water supply. Water levels at the tourist spot have plunged by 12 metres since last year to record lows and locals have been flocking to the lake to gawp at the dramatic cracks in parts of the lakebed.

As a result water restrictions have been imposed across the island, with supplies suspended two days a week in some districts, affecting about a million people.

If the drought persists, Taiwan’s freshwater resources may run out within two more months, United Daily News has cautioned.

In a series of increasingly desperate measures, officials from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are trying new tactics to source new water supplies ­– from cloud seeding to drilling emergency wells. The agriculture ministry even organised a three-hour ceremony last month in which it begged for help from Mazu, a sea goddess.

There are more than 500 temples dedicated to the same deity in Taiwan and Terry Gou, the high-profile founder of Foxconn, began his presidential bid at one of them in 2019, telling a crowd that the goddess had told him in a dream that he could help to keep the peace in the Taiwan Strait (see WiC449).

Gou’s failure to win high office has not shaken public faith in Mazu, it seems. In fact, large numbers of senior politicians – including the island’s leader Tsai Ing-wen – have paid their respects to Mazu and prayed for rain.

One area less affected by the drought has been Jinmen, Taiwan’s northernmost outlying islet and the closest point to mainland China. It reports some of the lowest levels of rainfall historically but a pipeline was built in 2018 to transport potable water from Fujian province across the Strait.

Since December, Fujian has been pumping even more water to jinmen, supplying nearly 70% of the county’s resource.

China’s media has made much of the situation, suggesting that other parts of Taiwan should seek the same help from the Chinese mainland.

But that hasn’t been happening the China Daily says as Taiwan’s DPP leadership won’t ask for help because of “political factors”.

Why is the drought so bad?

Taiwan’s opposition party, the KMT, is claiming that the drought is more than a natural disaster, and has been made far worse by the DPP’s incompetence in running Taiwan’s economy.

Assisted by the island’s mountainous topography, reservoirs have been built as the main sources of freshwater supply but many of them have been suffering from sliting up or leakage.

The agricultural sector consumes around 70% of Taiwan’s total water supply – much of it delivered through irrigation channels built during the Japanese colonial era between 1895 and 1945. This outdated infrastructure is being blamed for wastage of water: only about a quarter of the flow reaches the fields, according to some estimates.

Taiwan’s United Daily News notes how specialists have been calling for heavy investment in the island’s water infrastructure for some time. However, the government has not laid out long-term plans to address the deficiencies.

On the other side of the Taiwan Strait, newspapers have been giving the debate much more of a political dimension.

A WeChat account operated by the People’s Daily was a case in point in slamming Tsai Ing-wen for getting her priorities wrong.

Her administration has been spending too much of its time “plotting Taiwan’s independence with the US”, it admonished, with insufficient focus on the Taiwanese public’s daily concerns.

Water isn’t the only underinvested utility, it added, with another prime example being the severe power outages in 2017 that saw nearly seven million homes go without any electricity for long periods.

Democracies often suffer from short-term thinking from their politicians, People’s Daily offered in explanation, adding that massive infrastructure plans risk running into stiff resistance from conflicting interest groups.

Where else are the water shortages being felt?

Semiconductor manufacturers are major consumers of both power and water, and the drought has forced Taiwan’s chipmakers to make adjustments to their production schedules.

Hsinchu City, home to the likes of TSMC and MediaTek, received just half the rain in 2020 that it did the year before and the foundries have been trucking in water to keep production firing.

Even so, complaints are growing from the farming sector that the government has prioritised giving the scarce water supply to the chipmakers. TSMC’s corporate social responsibility report, published last June, outlined that it consumed 156,000 metric tonnes of water a day across the three industrial parks in which it operated in 2019 – which is enough to fill more than 60 Olympic-size swimming pools.

All of this is highlighting the tech world’s overreliance on the island’s chipmakers (and on TSMC in particular). Since the second half of last year, availability of semiconductor supplies has been strained by surging demand and disruption brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. But if the drought goes on in Taiwan, the worst chip shortage in recent memory is set to worsen, the Wall Street Journal predicts.

Another editorial in the China Daily tried to make more political capital out of the situation, skewering the DPP for bolstering the semiconductor sector at the expense of agricultural areas.

Why? To help out the United States, “which is facing an acute shortage of semiconductors, so as to leverage more support from it”, the newspaper reckoned.

Why else are tempers rising in the Taiwan Strait?

There were hopes in some quarters that Joe Biden’s new administration would walk back from the confrontational approach of his predecessor Donald Trump, whose chief diplomat Mike Pompeo pushed the Taiwan Strait ever closer to conflict with a series of actions that enraged Beijing (see WiC512).

Biden has reinforced Washington’s commitment to the ‘One China Policy’ – a central tenet of Sino-US foreign affairs since the 1970s, and one which Beijing views as inviolate (i.e. its stance that the ‘renegade province’ is an indivisible part of China).

However, his administration has followed a similar tack to Trump’s team in much of its Taiwan policy, with more supportive noises for Taipei.

The result: military activities in the Strait have picked up again, with China sending war planes into Taiwanese airspace with increasing frequency. Earlier this month a record 25 aircraft crossed into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone, bringing the total number of incursions to 239 this year (as of April 15), the Taipei Times noted.

China and the US have also deployed aircraft carrier strike groups to the East and South China Seas – a rare situation. The stand-off has escalated to a point where, according to a photo said to be taken on April 4, an American warship monitoring the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning came close enough for the sailors to get a look at one another.

An unusual photo, released by the US Department of Defense, shows the commander of the USS Mustin, a destroyer, watching on as the Liaoning sails nearby. The captain, who has been joined by his deputy, has his feet up in a nonchalant pose.

The image quickly made waves across Chinese social media, with military buffs suggesting that standard protocols should prevent both senior officers from appearing on deck at the same time. From this it was deduced that the photo had been published as a form of ‘cognitive warfare’, i.e. a mind game that conveys the message that the US navy doesn’t regard its Chinese counterpart as a particularly terrifying opponent.

Back on dry land Washington has continued to send representatives on trips to Taiwan, although not quite as confrontationally as during the final days of Pompeo’s tenure. An unofficial delegation led by former US senator Chris Dodd, whom Joe Biden has referred to as his “single best friend”, visited last week. The visit, albeit relatively low-key, was a “personal sign” of the American president’s commitment to the island’s security and democracy, the Taipei Times proclaimed.

The US State Department has also been talking tough on the American relationship with Taipei, with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken taking aim at “increasingly aggressive” actions by China of “real concern” to Washington.

In comments that seem to have triggered the PLA’s 25-plane incursion into Taiwanese airspace shortly afterwards, Blinken told NBC that the Biden administration was committed to making sure Taiwan has the ability to “defend itself” and warned that it would be a “serious mistake for anyone to try to change the existing status quo by force”.

Trouble in the East China Sea too?

At the northern gateway to the Taiwan Strait are a group of small islands known as the Diaoyus by the Chinese but claimed by Japan as the Senkakus. Tensions have been increasing in these waters as well – long-time readers will recall we reported on earlier escalations over the disputed islands back in 2012 (see WiC161). However, the latest flare-up adds another variable to the equation: Japan’s potential intervention in the dangerous political manouevring across the Taiwan Strait.

In a phone call in early April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his Japanese counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu that China hoped that Japan would look at China’s position “in an objective and rational way” rather than be “misled by some countries holding a biased view against China” (guess who).

Beijing was making its stance clear ahead of Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s visit to Washington last week, where it feared that the Biden administration would look for ways to foster Japanese support against Chinese ambitions in the region.

From the Chinese perspective, Wang’s concerns about the trip don’t seem to have been unwarranted. Following a meeting between Suga and Biden, the two men issued a joint statement in which China featured prominently and came in for criticism in areas including “economic and other forms of coercion”; activities “inconsistent with the international rules-based order”; and “unlawful maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea”.

There was also some unexpected language about Taiwan. “We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues,” the statement read.

None of that might seem too confrontational but the wording was soon being described as a watershed moment in bringing an end to decades of diplomatic protocol.

Nikkei Asia later claimed that Japanese negotiators had tempered the statement by toning down more provocative wording to “defend Taiwan”. But the reference to the island was more than enough to roil the Chinese, given it was the first mention of Taiwan in an official statement jointly issued by the US and Japan since the Japanese established formal diplomatic relations with China in 1972.

The last time that something similar happened, in 1969, then US leader Richard Nixon and Japanese Prime Minister Sato Eisaku were worried about the spread of the Soviet Union’s regional influence.

For Beijing the latest communique also constituted a breach of one of the principles forming the basis of American policy on China and Taiwan. Declassified documents have shown that when Nixon was negotiating the re-establishment of bilateral relations with China, Japan’s role in its former colony (i.e. Taiwan) was one of the leading concerns. In 1972 Nixon promised Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai: “We will, to the extent we are able, use our influence to discourage Japan from moving into Taiwan as our presence becomes less, and also discourage Japan from supporting a Taiwan independence movement.”

That’s why the latest move has some analysts talking about a break with a longstanding precedent in which – at the behest of the US – Tokyo has for decades stayed silent about Taiwan.

Reaction to the statement was immediate in parts of the Japanese press as well. In an editorial the Asahi Shimbun speculated that – should a “security emergency” ever be triggered over the island ­– Japan now risked being pulled into the conflict, speculating that it might be asked to provide logistical support to American forces.

The newspaper was distinctly uneasy about the recent turn of events, warning that Japan’s own security interests should take precedence over “simply serving as a part of Washington’s strategy for responding to the challenges posed by China”. Business leaders and political figures in Tokyo are also concerned “at being enlisted in a public confrontation with China,” the Wall Street Journal acknowledged.

Yielding to the pressure, Suga then sought to reassure his domestic critics this week that the US-Japan joint declaration “doesn’t presuppose military involvement at all”.

And don’t forget Fukushima’s wastewater plan. Is that another point of contention?

News of a Japanese plan to discharge over a million tonnes of radioactive wastewater from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea has further alienated the Chinese.

In part that’s because it provided further evidence of the warming Tokyo-Washington alliance, with the US government putting out a statement in support. Blinken even posted on Twitter praise of Japan’s “transparent efforts” in disposing of the contaminated water.

The Chinese have taken a different view, joining the South Koreans in protesting about the likely environmental damage. A foreign ministry spokesman made headlines by daring Japanese officials to drink the wastewater to prove it is safe, while Chinese newspapers have queued up to take potshots at Tokyo for failing to consult other countries in the region.

“More worrying is that Japan’s violation of its international obligations has won the support of the US government,” fumed Xinhua. “Washington’s decision to give the green light to such a reckless move based on perceived safety is ludicrous. It’s a classic textbook play of forgoing principles and adopting double standards.”

China’s government maintained its furious opposition this week, demanding that the United Nations and other international bodies should debate the wastewater dump, and describing the current plan as “illegal, irresponsible and amoral”.

Senior figures from each government will meet online at the climate summit this week, where the Fukushima wastewater issue could be a topic for sideline debate. If Biden does have private talks with Xi the Chinese president might well ask whether Washington would endorse the plan if the radioactive water was being released near Hawaii.

The China Daily reinforced this point, highlighting how countries geographically closer to Japan will bear the brunt of the contamination risk. But by its calculation the remnants of the wastewater are likely to wash up on American shores too, albeit after a delay of about three years.

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