China seizes Taiwanese fishing boat in latest uptick in tensions

Taiwanese coast guard vessels that sailed toward the area to help the fishing boat were blocked by their Chinese counterparts.
Last Updated : 03 July 2024, 07:10 IST

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Taipei, Taiwan: China's coast guard seized a Taiwanese fishing boat and its crew of five and forced it to a port on the mainland Chinese coast, in the latest move by Beijing that is likely to increase pressure on President Lai Ching-te of Taiwan.

The fishing boat, Ta Chin Man 88, was in Chinese waters 27 miles northeast of Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island close to the Chinese coast, when two Chinese Coast Guard ships boarded and took control of it Tuesday night, Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration said.

Taiwanese coast guard vessels that sailed toward the area to help the fishing boat were blocked by their Chinese counterparts, the administration said.

The seas around Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as its own, have become more and more tense, with coast guard standoffs between the two sides seemingly on the rise.

The concern among officials and analysts is that if such encounters become frequent, it could raise the risk of a clash that could set off a broader crisis among world powers.

The Taiwanese coast guard vessels broadcast demands to the Chinese coast guard to free the fishing boat, but the Chinese responded only by "demanding no interference," the statement from Taiwan said.

The fishing boat had two crew members from Taiwan and three from Indonesia, officials said. Many workers on Taiwanese fishing boats come from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries.

Hsieh Ching-chin, a spokesperson for Taiwan's Coast Guard Administration, said the Ta Chin Man 88 had entered Chinese territorial waters.

The boat may have been seized because China has been more actively enforcing an annual moratorium on fishing in those waters since May 1, he said.

"This year, China is different from the past, with stronger law enforcement during the fishing moratorium," Hsieh said at a news conference Wednesday. Hsieh told reporters that China has seized 17 Taiwanese fishing boats since 2003 and that the last such incident was in 2007.

He called for China to release the boat and crew and said they should not become pawns in the tensions between China and Taiwan. "China should not use political factors to deal with this incident," he said.

The seizure -- and in particular the possibility that the boat's five crew members may be held in China for weeks or longer -- could intensify tensions between Taiwan and Beijing.

The Chinese government vehemently dislikes Lai, who took office in May and directly rejects Beijing's claims of sovereignty. In the months before and after his inauguration, China has stepped up efforts intended to warn and intimidate him and his Democratic Progressive Party administration.

"They want to demonstrate to Taiwan that it does not have control over air space and sea space. They certainly seem to be ratcheting up pressure," said Bonnie S. Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China's recent actions.

"I think they want to signal to Lai that he is very close to their red lines, and he had better not cross them."

The Chinese government last month issued expansive guidelines on punishments that it could mete out to people it deems to be supporters of Taiwanese independence, setting off alarm in Taiwan, especially because the rules raise the possibility of death sentences in extreme cases. In response, Taiwan warned its people not to travel to China.

China has also stepped-up military flights around Taiwan that appear designed, at least partly, to wear down the island's air force and other defenses.

Nearly 300 People's Liberation Army aircraft flew into airspace off the island in June, the second-highest monthly count since Taiwan's defense ministry began regularly issuing such data in 2020, according to PLATracker, a site that analyses data released by the ministry.

That heightened military activity does not mean that an attack on Taiwan is looming, experts and diplomats say. Instead, such operations are part of Beijing's expanding "gray zone" tactics to intimidate and wear down Taiwan, while stopping short of a major confrontation that could draw in the United States, the island's crucial security supporter. China's large and well-armed coast guard force is a pillar of that campaign.

In February, a Chinese speedboat capsized after being chased by the Taiwan coast guard, and two of its crew died. Since then, China has repeatedly sent its ships into waters off Kinmen that Taiwan calls a prohibited zone.

In June, China's coast guard imposed new rules spelling out its powers to board and hold vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, and to detain foreign nationals on those vessels.

China is using its coast guard "to put pressure on Taiwan's outlying islands and the main island," said Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, a think tank under Taiwan's Defense Ministry.

"This 'gray zone' harassment creates a nuisance for Taiwan, tiring it out by running around, because there are so many ships especially near the outlying islands, and Taiwan has no way to effectively counter them."

Published 03 July 2024, 07:10 IST

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