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Chinese Coast Guard’s Routine Patrols Near Kinmen Islands Challenges Taiwan’s Boundaries

TIN NETWORK
TIN NETWORK

Chinese Coast Guard’s Routine Patrols Near Kinmen Islands Challenges Taiwan’s Boundaries

China Maritime Surveillance Administration vessel sailing in Kinmen’s waters (Photo: Screenshot/Taiwan Coast Guard Administration)

On May 9th, the Taiwan Coast Guard (TCG) released a statement saying that 14 Chinese vessels entered restricted and prohibited waters surrounding Kinmen Island. The TCG deployed ships to intercept and monitor the Chinese vessels as they sailed inside Kinmen’s waters. The deployment occurred after the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the China’s National Defense Ministry (MND) announced they had “normalized law enforcement” patrols in the waters surrounding Kinmen Island.

April 29th Statements from China Coast Guard (Left) and China’s National Defense Ministry (Right) announcing the “normalization” of law enforcement patrols around Kinmen

May 9th Incident

The incident began at 12:00 pm local time when the Kinmen-Matsu-Penghu (Kinmapeng) Branch detected five CCG vessels and seven Chinese ships gathered in separate groups in the waters south of Kinmen Island. The TCG deployed six vessels to monitor and broadcast warnings to the vessels that they were intruding in the restricted and prohibited waters. They also collected evidence, such as photos and videos, to document the intrusion.

Map of restricted and prohibited boundaries surrounding Kinmen Islands (Photo: Mainland Affairs Council)

However, at 3:00 pm local time, seven China maritime and fishery department vessels entered Taiwan’s restricted waters at 4 nautical miles (7.4 km) southwest of Kinmen Island. Three Chinese fishing vessels also joined the Chinese vessels and conducted a suspected maritime exercise in the restricted waters. The TCG deployed three vessels from the Kinmapeng Branch to monitor the suspected exercise and broadcast warnings to the ships to leave the area.

The other group of four CCG vessels sailed south of Kinmen into the restricted and prohibited waters surrounding the island, while a fifth CCG vessel monitored the group from outside the waters. The branch also deployed three other patrol boats to monitor the group and broadcast warnings to leave the waters. The TCG vessels also collected visual evidence of the CCG vessels entering the waters. All 14 Chinese vessels then left the restricted and prohibited waters surrounding the island by 4:30 pm local time.

China Coast Guard vessel sailing in Kinmen’s waters (Photo: Taiwan Coast Guard Administration)

The TCG said that this is the fourth formation of Chinese vessels the branch detected sailing into Kinmen’s waters in May and is the first time that CCG and maritime and fishery department vessels sailed into the island’s restricted and prohibited waters “at the same time.” The statement said that the formations of Chinese vessels repeatedly sailed into Kinmen’s waters “at high speeds.” The actions of the Chinese vessels seriously undermined cross-strait peace, navigation safety, and stability, and disrupted peaceful cross-strait exchanges “between both sides of the Taiwan Strait.” The branch also said they will work with Taiwan’s NDM to “use joint intelligence, surveillance, and investigation methods to closely understand the situation in the waters around Kinmen.” Furthermore, the TCG will also adopt response plans to ensure the navigational safety, rights, and interests of fishermen that operate in the island’s waters.

Taiwan Coast Guard personnel onboard vessel monitoring Chinese vessels sailing in Kinmen’s waters (Photo: Screenshot/Taiwan Coast Guard Administration)

Previous China Coast Guard Activities

The various exercises that the Chinese vessels have conducted since April 29th were not only the latest activities they have conducted since the February 14th incident that resulted in the deaths of two Chinese fishermen. For example, four CCG vessels entered the restricted waters near Kinmen to conduct “law enforcement inspections” on March 15th and 16th. On March 15th, the CCG released a statement that confirmed the four CCG vessels conducted the inspections surrounding Kinmen. The statement also said the vessels conducted the inspections to safeguard the lawful and legitimate rights and interests “of Chinese fishermen, including those in Taiwan.” The inspections were also done to protect the lives and properties of the fishermen that operate in the waters. However, the CCG did not confirm that the four vessels also conducted inspections on March 16th.

China Coast Guard map showing where the four vessels conducted law enforcement inspections March 15th

Several CCG vessels patrolled the waters surrounding Kinmen as China and Taiwan negotiated over the dispute stemming from the deaths of the Chinese fishermen from February 26th to February 28th. At least two CCG ships entered the prohibited or restricted waters around Kinmen Island while nine other CCG vessels stayed out of the waters. The TCG sent one patrol boat to monitor the ships and broadcast warnings to leave the area. The CCG conducted a “comprehensive law enforcement exercise” in the waters near Xiamen and Kinmen to “test the rapid response and emergency response capability of law enforcement vessels.” The Fujian Maritime Bureau of the CCG also conducted law enforcement inspections off the coast of Kinmen on February 25th. The inspections included formation sailing, identification and verification of civilian vessels, guarding and escorting fishermen, and aimed to maintain orderly operations in the area and safeguard the fishermen’s safety, lives, and properties.

CCG vessels sailing in formation near Kinmen Island during recent law enforcement inspection

A Chinese Maritime Surveillance Administration (MSA) vessel entered the restricted waters off the western coast of Kinmen on February 20th. A Kuomintang (KMT) lawmaker said that the Chinese vessel entered the waters at 9:10 am local time, the TCG detected the vessel via radar, and one patrol boat sailed to monitor and warn the MSA vessel by loudspeaker and radio not to enter Kinmen’s restricted waters without permission. The vessel then exited the restricted waters and headed towards the port of Xiamen, while the TCG ship accompanied it as it left the area. On February 19th, two CCG vessels intercepted and boarded a Taiwanese tourist boat at 4:47 pm local time after it strayed near Chinese waters off the coast of Kinmen Island. The TCG detected the vessels next to the tourist vessel and sent one patrol boat to investigate and escort the tourist ship to Kinmen port. The CCG announced that the Fujian Maritime Bureau will begin “regular law enforcement patrol operations in the Xiamen-Kinmen area on February 18th. The aim of the patrols is to “maintain the order of the areas and safeguard the lives and properties of fishermen.”

Analysis

China normalizing law enforcement patrols around Kinmen Island indicates that the country decided to use the February 14th incident to further challenge the status quo surrounding Taiwan’s maritime boundaries using gray zone tactics. However, the CCG conducted training exercises and surveillance patrols in February and March to evaluate how Taiwan would respond and develop the necessary Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) to respond to any contingencies. China viewed extending its strategy to include Kinmen as beneficial since it would give China another front to contest Taiwan’s claims of being a self-governing entity. Furthermore, China also viewed the strategy as beneficial since Taiwan would face significant limitations in how it could effectively respond to China’s actions. For example, Taiwan would be extremely limited in terms of increasing its coast guard presence on the island due to its extremely close proximity to mainland China. Kinmen Island is approximately 6.34 nautical miles, or 12 km, from the city of Xiamen.

This means that China could surge its CCG presence in the waters surrounding Kinmen, while the TCG would need to deploy vessels from the Penghu Islands or from Taiwan. The CCG could conduct high-speed patrols or blockade the waters off Kinmen’s western coast to prevent the vessels from reaching the island, effectively isolating the island from Taiwan. Furthermore, the Taiwanese government would also be hesitant to send TCG vessels to reinforce its presence in Kinmen due to the potential for an incident to occur. The incident would likely give China cause to begin the deployment of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessels to patrol the waters surrounding Kinmen due to Taiwan’s aggressive actions.

China would also use the patrols as part of a disinformation campaign that claims Taiwan’s territorial boundaries have no official meaning because the island is a part of China. The campaign would also include the narrative that China never officially agreed to any prohibited or restricted boundaries surrounding Kinmen Island. Taiwan would have difficulty combating the narratives since the island occupies a gray area within international recognition. China could say that territorial boundaries surrounding Kinmen are not legal under international law since Taiwan is considered a part of China and most of the international community holds the same opinion. For example, the various statements that countries release reaffirming the One-China Principle during visits allow China to show that Taiwan is ‘rightfully apart from China.’ Furthermore, China can also point to the United Nations Charter to justify any actions, such as blockades, since Taiwan is not considered a country by its standards.

The CCG conducted the training exercises in the waters surrounding Kinmen before normalizing patrols to gather intelligence regarding how Taiwan would respond and develop SOPs. The CCG would use the SOPs to respond to any contingencies or incidents, so China could effectively control both the narrative and outcome. China wanted to probe how the TCG and Taiwanese military would react to the various patrols that enter Kinmen’s waters. For example, China wanted to determine the circumstances and the amount of support that the Taiwanese Navy would provide to the TCG stationed on the island.

Both the CCG and the PLAN would then use the intelligence gathered from the patrols and how Taiwan reacted to them to develop the necessary SOPs. Regarding PLAN involvement in the law enforcement patrols, it is likely that the PLAN has some degree of oversight over how the patrols are conducted. The most notable example is how China’s NDM released the same statement on its website and social media accounts one hour after the CCG made the same announcement. The NDM’s use of the same statement indicates a degree of coordination between the CCG and the PLAN, specifically the Eastern Theater Command, since it is responsible for operations involving Taiwan.

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