Blood Spills As China-Taiwan Tensions Escalate; PLA Expels Filipino Vessel From Contested Waters

The tensions between China and Taiwan continue unabated. The latest such incident off the coast of Kinmen resulted in the deaths of Chinese fishermen and brought to the fore official statements from both countries stating they took the right action. Taiwan apart, China has expelled a Filipino Coast Guard vessel from what it calls its waters.  

Two Chinese fishermen reportedly died while being chased by the Taiwanese Coast Guard on February 14 off the coast of Kinmen, where the fishermen were allegedly trespassing.

Four people were on board the Chinese fishing speedboat when it capsized, plunging everyone into the ocean, according to statements provided by Chinese and Taiwanese officials. The deaths are believed to be unusual and have sparked outrage among Chinese officials.

Chinese fishing boats and other vessels operating in Taiwan-controlled waters have regularly drawn criticism from Taiwan particularly in the area surrounding the Kinmen and Matsu islands, in proximity to the Chinese coast.

The Chinese speedboat near Kinmen’s Beijing islet, which is home to a military garrison, entered the forbidden seas on that fateful day, according to the Taiwan Coast Guard’s version. It said two of the four occupants perished when the boat overturned while attempting to escape a Taiwanese coast guard vessel.

The incident left the Chinese leadership fuming. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement that ”such a malicious event during the Spring Festival seriously hurts the feelings of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Strait”. The office strongly condemned the fatalities and called for an inquiry.

The statement went so far as to accuse the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in Taiwan of using “all sorts of excuses to forcefully inspect Chinese fishing vessels, and using violent and dangerous methods towards Chinese fishermen”. China has become more aggressive against Taiwan after the pro-democracy DPP candidate won the Presidential elections.

However, the Taiwanese Coast Guard hit back on February 15 defending its action in the face of China’s fury. Taiwan’s Chinese policy-making Mainland Affairs Council said that a preliminary investigation showed that the Coast Guard carried out its duties in compliance with the law and did nothing unlawful.

The council turned the responsibility for the deaths on to China by stating that the situation had not improved despite complaints and that China was to blame for Chinese ships engaging in illicit sand dredging, fishing, and rubbish disposal in Taiwanese waters by using explosives and poison.

“We deeply regret that the mainland crew members refused to cooperate with our law enforcement work this time and an unfortunate incident occurred,” it said in a statement. “We also hope that the relevant mainland authorities can restrain similar behavior by people on the other side” of the Taiwan Strait, the council added.

China claims the self-ruled Taiwanese island as its sovereign territory, with civilian and military vessels often intruding into several frontline islands including Kinmen, that officially belong to Taiwan. Kinmen Island is a distant territory lying some 200 kilometers from Taiwan across the Taiwan Strait.

On February 14, Taiwanese coast guard personnel examine a boat that overturned following a chase off the shore of the Kinmen archipelago. (AP via Taiwan Coast Guard Administration) ©

Kinmen became a frontline between China and Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, and martial law and artillery barrages completely changed the way of life for the locals. It does not help Taiwan that this island lies so close to the Chinese mainland.

Taiwan’s administration, which disputes Beijing’s claims to sovereignty, argues that China has been engaging in “grey-zone warfare”, which is a strategy of employing erratic tactics — such as sending civilian ships into or near Taiwanese waters — to wear out an adversary without actually engaging in open confrontation.

A similar incident happened several years ago in 2016 when a boat carrying Chinese fishermen that was chased and reprimanded by the South Korean Coast Guard caught fire killing three Chinese fishermen. Also, in a recent incident, Chinese fishermen were accused of illegal fishing in South Korean waters.

The latest incident might, however, leave China with a red face given that it has been intimidating Taiwan for several months now. It may also look ironic given that the Chinese Coast Guard regularly bullies and confronts fishermen from countries that cohabit the South China Sea.

Upholding its so-called nine-dash line, Beijing claims almost the entire South China Sea which has incrementally become the biggest source of tension in the region.

China Expelled Filipino Coast Guard

The China Coast Guard (CCG) said on February 11 that it had driven out a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that had repeatedly and illegally entered waters close to Huangyan Island in the South China Sea between February 2 and February 9.

Huangyan is China’s name for the Scarborough Shoal which is located within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines but is still nonetheless claimed by China. Together with the Second Thomas Shoal which has seen several confrontations between the two states in recent times, the Scarborough Shoal is among Asia’s most contested maritime territories.

The CCG emphasized that China’s responses were prompt and reaffirmed its unwavering commitment to protecting its national sovereignty, the state-owned Global Times reported.

Following the incident, Chinese experts told the publication that the Philippines had been purposefully provocative during the Chinese Lunar New Year while sending out a warning that the move would not only further erode confidence but also upset the political atmosphere and potentially alter how Chinese people view the Philippines.

Gan Yu, a CCG spokesperson told the media that the Philippine Coast Guard vessel 9701 repeatedly violated the law by entering the waters around Huangyan Island between February 2 and February 9, even after the CCG had issued warnings.

He further stated that the CCG handled the incident professionally by taking action to control the Philippine vessel’s path and forcibly driving it away. In a very assertive tone, the spokesperson said that China had sovereignty over the island and the CCG was committed to upholding China’s maritime rights and interests as well as its national sovereignty.

However, the Philippines’ Coast Guard (PCG) accused the CCG of engaging in “dangerous and blocking” maneuvers as its warship patrolled close to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea this month.

In a statement, the Coast Guard in Manila stated that four Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels had shadowed the BRP Teresa Magbanua, a 97-meter (318-foot) vessel, more than 40 times during a nine-day patrol near the shoal. According to the PCG, the purpose of the ship’s presence in the area was to shield local Filipino fisherman “from further harassment” in their preferred fishing area.

It stated that the Chinese vessels had “recklessly” disregarded international regulations on preventing collisions at sea. “The CCG vessels performed dangerous and blocking maneuvers at sea against BRP Teresa Magbanua four times, with the CCG vessels crossing the bow of the PCG vessel twice,” the statement read.

The Chinese Coast Guard not only claims what is considered a traditional and sovereign Filipino territory but also frequently intimidates Filipino fishing boats. There have been multiple incidents of assaults conducted by CCG, with some incidents resulting in the deaths of Filipino fishermen.

This blatant disregard for the fishermen’s safety has reportedly forced the PCG to protect them from the CCG. It is almost ironic, then, that Taiwan is chasing the Chinese fishermen.