Nearly 100 civilian vessels from mainland China including sand dredgers have converged on waters close to Taiwan’s Matsu archipelago, in what observers say is the latest effort to intimidate the self-ruled island.
According to Taiwan’s coastguard, the boats were seen in waters off Renai on Nangan Island on Sunday night. It said patrol ships were sent to disperse four sand carriers and one dredger that had crossed into Taiwanese waters.
“We managed to drive away the five vessels last night,” a coastguard spokesman said, adding that it was in contact with mainland authorities about the incident via a mechanism to jointly fight cross-strait crime.
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He said most of the Chinese vessels had stayed out of Taiwanese waters, which are off limits to mainland ships, so the coastguard could not take action to disperse or seize them.
Tensions have been escalating between Taipei and Beijing, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory, to be brought under its control by force if necessary.
Nangan is the largest island in the Matsu archipelago, controlled by Taipei but strategically located close to the mainland in the East China Sea. It is about 211km (114 nautical miles) from Taiwan but just 18km (10 nautical miles) from the mainland province of Fujian. Although it was largely demilitarised about two decades ago, Taiwan still has a military command stationed there to safeguard the islands.
A number of Chinese dredgers have crossed into Taiwanese waters to extract sand from areas near the Matsu Islands this year, according to Taiwan’s coastguard.
As of September, at least six mainland sand dredgers had been confiscated and the coastguard had either fined the operators before returning their vessels, or they sold the ships.
The coastguard has also sent patrol boats to repel mainland ships illegally mining for sand in waters close to the Taipei-controlled Penghu archipelago in the Taiwan Strait.
An observer said the activities were part of the People’s Liberation Army’s “grey zone” tactics below a threshold that could prompt a conventional military response designed to intimidate the self-ruled island and exhaust its defences.
“By either quietly encouraging or deliberately turning a blind eye to the sand dredgers and fishing boats making incursions into Taiwanese waters, the PLA can test the reactions of Taiwanese forces in dealing with intruders and it can also tire these forces, which have to keep sending out patrol boats,” said Wang Kung-yi, head of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society, an independent think tank in Taipei.
He compared it to the PLA’s recent tactic of repeatedly sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone and having them cross the median line, the unofficial airspace boundary between Taiwan and mainland China.
Wang said this type of action would become more frequent in the future, as Beijing stepped up efforts to intimidate the island.
Relations have deteriorated across the Taiwan Strait since Tsai Ing-wen, of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party, became president in 2016 and refused to accept the one-China principle. Beijing has ramped up pressure on the democratic island by suspending official exchanges with Taipei, poaching seven of its diplomatic allies, and staging war games nearby. The PLA has sent warplanes near the island 22 times since September 16, prompting Taiwan’s air force to scramble fighter jets to ward them off.