Ships from mainland China, called sand dredgers, have been appearing around Taiwanese islands, worrying Taiwan’s coast guard.
The ships have been entering waters near Taiwan’s Matsu Islands since June of 2020. They are pulling up sand from the sea bottom for building projects in China. But, the activity is interfering with marine life and underwater communication lines near the islands.
Some experts believe the activities show that mainland China has begun a campaign of gray-zone warfare against Taiwan. Gray-zone warfare means causing problems for an opponent without fighting them in battle. To stop the Chinese, Taiwan’s coast guard now patrols the islands 24 hours a day, every day.
The dredging is a “gray-zone strategy” said Su Tzu-yun. He is an associate researcher at Taiwan’s military research center, the Institute for National Defense and Security Research. “You dredge for sand on the one hand, but if you can also put pressure on Taiwan, then that’s great, too.” he added.
The Matsu islands are not the only places where the Chinese are dredging. Taiwan’s coast guard says China has also been dredging in waters that are not deep near the median line of the Taiwan Strait. The Taiwan Strait separates mainland China and Taiwan.
A grey-zone campaign
Last year, Taiwan forced nearly 4,000 Chinese dredgers and sand-transporting ships to leave their waters. That is a 560 percent increase in activity from 2019. Taiwan’s coast guard said most of the ships were close to the median line.
The fight over sand is just part of the campaign. China claims democratically-governed Taiwan as its own territory. It has been using other gray-zone actions to wear down the island of 23 million people, some officials say.
In recent months, China’s military has been sending warplanes toward the island. Almost every day, Taiwan has been forced to deploy military aircraft to meet the threat. The additional action is pushing its small air force beyond its normal ability.
Taiwanese military officials and Western experts say China’s gray-zone activities are meant to exhaust the will of the island’s military. The Chinese want the world to become used to their campaign against Taiwan, they believe. China’s dredging, said one Taiwanese security official, is “part of their psychological warfare against Taiwan.”
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office said in a statement to Reuters that Taiwan’s claims that mainland China is permitting sand-dredging boats near Matsu and the median line are untrue. The office said it has taken steps to stop illegal sand-dredging.
The office also said Taiwan is “an inseparable part of China.” It accused Taiwanese officials of using their claims of control over the waters to “detain mainland boats.”
The Matsu Islands are almost an hour by plane from Taipei, Taiwan’s capital. They are one of several island groups close to China’s coast that Taiwan has governed since 1949, when the Chinese civil war ended.
Some of the Matsu Islands are only nine kilometers from mainland China. They are protected by just nine coast guard ships. Taiwanese officials say that on some days the coast guard faces hundreds of Chinese ships in and around the island’s waters. Taiwan claims its waters extend six kilometers from the Matsu Islands. China does not recognize any claims of sovereignty by Taiwan.
At one time last year, more than 200 Chinese sand-dredging and sand moving ships were seen operating south of Nangan, the main Matsu island, three Taiwanese officials told Reuters.
Taiwan seized four Chinese ships and detained 37 crew members last year, the coast guard said. Ten of those arrested were given sentences of six to seven months in prison. Others are still on trial, the coast guard said.
Taiwan is in the process of building up its coast guard, partly because of the dredging threat from China. In December, President Tsai Ing-wen said more than 100 new coast guard ships will be built in the next 10 years. She promised to stop Chinese dredging in Taiwan’s waters.
Recently, larger patrol boats were sent to temporarily reinforce the Matsu coast guard, whose 117 members are now carrying out 24-hour patrols.
Economic cost to the islands
The dredging is also hurting the islands’ economy. The Matsu Islands are popular with vacationers and 13,300 people live on them.
Local people say China’s dredging is hurting their businesses. Chen Kuo-chiang has a seafood restaurant on Nangan. He says the dredging has led to a big decrease in the number of fish he catches off the island.
He also fears a Chinese invasion. “We don’t want to be ruled by mainland China,” he said. “We have freedom, which is limited over there.”
The coast guard said most of the Chinese ships that transport the sand go to the Chinese city of Wenzhou. There is a large land reclaiming project for a new 66 square kilometer economic zone.
Wang Chien-hua is head of economic development for the Matsu islands. Wang said Taiwan asked for a meeting with officials at the Chinese port city of Fuzhou to discuss the dredging, but it was “postponed indefinitely” by the officials without an explanation.
I’m Susan Shand.
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.
Words in This Story
dredge –v. to remove mud from the bottom of a river, lake or the sea to deepen a waterway or build up land
marine –adj. related to the sea
patrol –v. to go through an area to guard it and to make sure it is safe
median –n. the middle
strategy –n. a careful plan or method for reaching a goal over a long period of time
exhaust –v. to use up someone’s mental or physical energy
psychological –adj. of or related to the mind
indefinitely –adv. for a period that might not end
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