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Taiwan finds concerns grow and options shrink as mainland China increases patrols around Taipei-controlled Quemoy

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Since late February, the mainland coastguard has deployed several dozen ships in at least nine missions to patrol the waters surrounding Quemoy and Matsu, another of Taiwan’s defence outposts.

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Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

These patrols, which were previously rare, were prompted by an incident on February 14 in which two mainland Chinese fishermen died during a pursuit by the Taiwanese coastguard after their boat entered the prohibited waters of the Quemoy archipelago. Beijing and Taipei exchanged accusations over who was responsible for the fishermen’s deaths.

In the past week alone, the Fujian branch of the mainland coastguard has conducted five missions in waters near Quemoy as part of its “regular law enforcement patrols”. This includes five coastguard ships, which on Thursday took part in an exercise alongside seven official mainland vessels, and three fishing boats within the restricted waters of Quemoy, according to Taiwan’s coastguard.

A further four Fujian coastguard boats were observed patrolling the area at the same time as the exercise on Thursday, as reported by the Taiwanese coastguard, which later sent ships to shadow and warn them off.

The increased frequency of patrols has raised concern among lawmakers in Taiwan, particularly following reports of Fujian coastguard ships entering the restricted and prohibited waters of Quemoy where they stayed for more than an hour before being warned off by Taiwan’s coastguard.

“The actions of the Chinese coastguard are not only provocative but also disregard international norms and undermine the cross-strait status quo,” remarked Wang Ting-yu, a lawmaker from the ruling, independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Hsu Chiao-hsin, a lawmaker from the main opposition Kuomintang (KMT), cautioned that Beijing may make changes to the boundaries of Taiwan’s restricted and prohibited waters in future because of the frequent “routine patrols” by the mainland coastguard near Quemoy.

In a written inquiry to the island’s cabinet on Wednesday, KMT lawmaker Lo Chih-chiang asked the DPP government to “effectively address these missions, as they risk becoming the ‘new normal’, which could undermine our sovereignty and dignity”.

“We demand a clear explanation from the government regarding the mechanisms that our coastguard and defence ministry can implement to safeguard our sovereignty and protect our people from shocks and disturbances,” he said.

In response, the defence ministry said Taiwan controlled those waters, stating that any mainland vessels sailing into those waters were considered in breach of Taiwan’s authority.

“The current enforcement tasks in those waters are managed by [Taiwan’s] Coast Guard Administration, with the military providing support for it,” the ministry said in a statement.

It added that the two departments “monitor military and non-military activities of mainland vessels around Taiwan … share information, assess potential subsequent actions and coordinate responses”.

In the past, Beijing tacitly respected the restricted and prohibited waters unilaterally drawn by the island as the unofficial boundaries between Quemoy and the mainland coastal city of Xiamen, which are just 6km (3.7 miles) apart, and between Matsu and the mainland coastal city of Fuzhou, which are 9km apart at their nearest points.

Following the cross-strait dispute over the fishermen’s deaths, Beijing declared there was “no such thing as prohibited and restricted waters” as the entire waterways in the Taiwan Strait belonged to the mainland.

Analysts said the issue created a dilemma for the DPP government, which has vowed to resort to its first strike engagement measure to target mainland vessels and aircraft that defy warnings by entering Taiwanese space.

“It could lead to a cross-strait conflict if the Taiwanese side opens fire on the encroaching mainland coastguard or military vessels,” cautioned Max Lo, executive director of the Taiwan International Strategic Study Society think tank in Taipei.

“Considering that these patrols were conducted by the mainland coastguard rather than the PLA, despite their provocative nature the governing authorities can only exercise caution, apart from issuing warnings, even if it means compromising Taiwan’s dignity,” he said.

James Yifan Chen, a professor of diplomacy and international relations at Tamkang University in New Taipei said the island’s defence ministry would “simply observe rather than take action”.

“Also, sending Taiwan’s naval ships to respond to Chinese coastguard ships may further escalate the tension; either the outgoing Tsai [Ing-wen] administration or the incoming Lai administration will be very cautious without getting Washington’s [nod],” he said.

President-elect William Lai Ching-te will succeed his DPP colleague Tsai on May 20. Shortly after the fishing boat incident, the US called for Beijing and Taipei to be restrained and settle their dispute peacefully to “reduce the risk of miscalculation”.

Beijing sees Taiwan as its territory and has not renounced the use of force to take it back. The United States – Taipei’s biggest arms supplier – in common with most countries, does not recognise Taiwan as independent but it is opposed to any attempt to take the island by force.

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War scarred bunkers on Quemoy reflect the islands’ frontline role in Taiwan Strait tension

War scarred bunkers on Quemoy reflect the islands’ frontline role in Taiwan Strait tension

Chen said the People’s Liberation Army had seized the opportunity to turn its war games into real exercises around Taiwan since then-US House speaker Nancy Pelosi defied Beijing’s repeated warnings by visiting Taipei in August 2022. The PLA staged mega live-fire war games surrounding the island a day after her visit, a trip Beijing called a breach of its sovereignty and the US one-China policy.

“People in Taiwan do not really see the Tsai administration’s tough stance against the real threat,” he said. He pointed out that with more PLA sorties approaching Taiwan’s north – some as close as 30 nautical miles off the island – Taiwan’s response was viewed as “too weak”, limited to “simply monitoring and [issuing] daily tracking press releases”.

“Sometimes, you have to do something to show your determination to protect Taiwan. The DPP cannot just defend Taiwan with their lip service,” he said.

Chen urged Lai to “try hard to restore basic routine communication channels” by extending goodwill to Beijing in his inaugural speech. Even though the mainland might not have expectations of the incoming leader, Lai could “surprise Beijing and make a good start which Washington will be glad to see,” he said.

Beijing has labelled Lai a “separatist” who could bring war to Taiwan. Late last month, Lai called for party-to-party talks with Beijing as long as there was “parity and dignity”. Cross-strait exchanges were suspended by the mainland in 2016 after Tsai took office and refused to accept the one-China principle.

Meanwhile, Chieh Chung, a security analyst at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank affiliated with the KMT, said Beijing aimed to “overturn the previous tacit understanding that its official vessels would not enter the restricted waters of Quemoy”.

“After fully establishing a new-reality enforcement authority and jurisdiction in those waters, the mainland will not cease its law enforcement patrols there,” Chieh said, adding that Beijing, however, would “exercise relative restraint as it is aware that any serious provocation could escalate into cross-strait conflict”.

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