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What Was a Chinese 'Fishing Boat' Doing Near the Kinmen Islands?

Suspicions abound concerning a Chinese "fishing boat" without papers or fishing gear in Taiwan's restricted waters. Could it have been a Chinese spy ship?



Taiwan Coast Guard officials gather at the site of a capsized fishing boat off the coast of Kinmen Island, on February 14. (Photo provided by Taiwan Coast Guard)

Two people died when a Chinese fishing boat capsized in the waters around the Kinmen Islands on February 14. Though located near the southeast Chinese city of Xiamen, Fujian Province, these waters are effectively governed by Taiwan. The incident occurred while the Taiwan Coast Guard was conducting a patrol in the area under its control. 

Beijing strongly condemned Taiwan's handling of the situation, describing it as a "malignant incident." In addition, China announced it would ramp up China Coast Guard (CCG) patrols to "maintain order" in the area. 

Following the incident, Chinese authorities boarded a Taiwanese tourist ship for an inspection in the same waters. Taiwan is increasingly alarmed that China may use the accident to unilaterally change the status quo. Some fear China may attempt to turn the Taiwan Strait into an inland sea.

An image released on February 25 by the China Coast Guard on its official WeChat account shows an exercise conducted around the Taiwanese Kinmen Island. The letters "China Coast Guard 2202" can be seen on the hull. (©Kyodo)

Taiwan Affairs Office Condemns Incident

According to the Taiwan Coast Guard, a patrol encountered a Chinese boat around 1:45 pm on February 14 (2:45 pm JST). The fishing vessel was operating illegally approximately one nautical mile off the east coast of Kinmen Island. Because they are restricted waters, Chinese ships cannot enter this area. 

When the Coast Guard approached the vessel, the fishing boat meandered to escape and capsized. All four crew members fell overboard, with two perishing. "There were no issues with how we engaged and pursued the suspects," the Taiwan Coast Guard stated. "Our actions were entirely in accordance with the law." 

Nevertheless, the People's Republic of China State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office, responsible for China's policy toward Taiwan, blasted the incident. Later the same day, the office issued a statement castigating Taiwan. Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian claimed that "the malignant incident deeply hurt the feelings of compatriots on both sides of the Strait." Furthermore, she added that "for years now, DPP authorities (Democratic Progressive Party) have been targeting fishermen from the mainland. They have been using various pretexts to treat them in a violent and dangerous manner." 

Taipei Responds

Kuan Bi-ling, minister of the Ocean Affairs Council (OAC), Taiwan's authority on maritime affairs, responded to the statement. At a press conference, she expressed "regret" over the deaths of the two Chinese crew members. She also pointed out that the Taiwan Coast Guard has saved the lives of many fishermen from the mainland. In the past three years, it has rescued 14 capsized Chinese fishing boats and a total of 20 Chinese fishermen. Therefore, she emphasized, Taiwan "bears no malice" towards Chinese fishermen. 

Taiwan had repatriated the two surviving crew members to China through the International Red Cross by February 20. Taipei hopes its efforts will help to alleviate the tense situation quickly.

A group of skyscrapers in Xiamen, China, is seen from Lienyu Island (Little Kinmen). Thereafter ,it is connected to Kinmen Island by a bridge. January 17, Taiwan (© Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

Chinese Agent Ship?

A subsequent investigation by the Taiwan Coast Guard revealed that the boat that capsized on February 14 had no ship number. Furthermore, they could not find any registration papers or confirm what port the ship belonged to. Vessels with no ship name, certificate, or registration number are known as "three nos" ships. Under Chinese law, such ships cannot be used as fishing vessels. This has led to suspicions that Chinese authorities were using it in operations against Taiwan. 

Also, no fishing gear was on board, and the two surviving crew members spoke Chinese with a Sichuan accent. Sichuan is an inland province far from China's southeast coast. 

Political commentator Huang Pengxiao is an expert on China's operations targeting Taiwan. Huang says Fujian fishermen do not go to sea immediately after the Chinese New Year. He argues that it was clearly not a fishing boat that capsized.

"It was either being used in Chinese maneuvers against Taiwan or for drug smuggling or trafficking," he suggests. "If it was a spy ship," he continues, "its purpose was to provoke Taiwan and analyze its subsequent reaction." 

Even if the ship was simply carrying contraband, the Chinese authorities may have intentionally allowed it to enter the Kinmen waters. "With a new Taiwanese president, China is now harboring uncertainties," Huang explains. "One of the things China wants to know is how Taiwan will react to suspicious vessels entering its restricted waters." 

Many battle sites on Kinmen Island have been turned into tourist spots with mannequin soldiers. They are also open to the public. Taiwan, January 16, 2024. (© Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

Close Attention for a Swift Solution

On February 18, China's CCG announced that it would "strengthen patrols" around the area where the incident occurred. However, CCG vessels conducting regular patrols in waters effectively controlled by Taiwan would constitute a unilateral change of the status quo. Such patrols would cause friction with patrolling Taiwan Coast Guard ships and put Taiwan on high alert.

According to Taiwanese media, the following afternoon, on February 19, several CCG officials boarded a Taiwanese tourist ship as it sailed through the waters near the Kinmen Islands. The officials claimed it was to conduct a maritime inspection. After a 30-minute inspection, which included checking the vessel's planned course, the CCG concluded its search. This was seen as China's aim to present the image domestically and internationally that it was already effectively controlling the area.

Once CCG personnel boarded the sightseeing boat, the Taiwan Coast Guard swiftly dispatched a patrol ship to the scene. This patrol ship then escorted the tourist ship back to Kinmen Port. Both sides refrained from instigating an altercation. 

Taiwanese Premier Chen Chien-jen spoke to reporters about the inspection on the morning of March 20. "We (China and Taiwan) must respond with composure and maintain the stability of the waters around Kinmen," he said. 

Minister of National Defense Chiu Kuo-Cheng also commented, saying, "This is strictly a matter for the Coast Guard. The military will not intervene." Authorities are taking great care to prevent tensions with China over the incident escalating further. 


Unilateral Changes to the Status Quo

China is manipulating the tragic death of the two fishermen to magnify the issue and attempt to change the status quo. In addition to maritime routes, China has also recently altered Taiwanese aerial routes.

Earlier, on January 30, Beijing announced it would change the M503 flight path, effective February 1. Chinese aircraft can now fly closer to the Taiwan Strait's median line, the military boundary between China and Taiwan. Taipei vehemently opposed the modification as contravening the 2015 China-Taiwan talks. 

Chinese civilian aircraft can now also navigate the median line, posing a significant security risk. Should China normalize this new aerial route, it would have a major impact on Taiwan's air defense capabilities. 

A cannon firing demonstration took place at Shishan Cannon Camp, Kinmen Island, Taiwan on January 17. (© Sankei by Kengo Matsumoto)

Taiwan's Challenges

To counter this, Taiwan immediately announced that it would suspend sales of group tours to China. Originally, Taipei had planned to resume sales of group tours in March. However, the impact Taiwan's countermeasure had on China was limited. Instead, Taipei intended to show the international community that it would not give in to Chinese intimidation. 

Systematic CCG patrols and on-site vessel inspections in the Taiwan Strait near Kinmen would threaten the region's safety. If this happens, Taiwan will have to devise countermeasures. 

Lai Ching-te, who was elected on January 13, will assume office as President of Taiwan on May 20. Considered a hardliner against China, Beijing is worried Lai will address Taiwanese independence and criticize China in his inaugural speech. Given this, China may employ various forms of harassment against Taiwan to pressure Lai. 

It is unlikely, however, that Taiwan will give in so easily to such coercion. As the presidential inauguration approaches, the thrust and parry between China and Taiwan will only intensify. 


Author: Akio Yaita, Taipei Bureau Chief, The Sankei Shimbun


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