by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Indian Navy/WikiCommons/GODL-India

OUTLYING ISLANDS of Taiwan continue to be potential flashpoints between Taiwan and China. A number of recent events point to this.

According to the Taiwanese Coast Guard, eleven Chinese vessels entered into restricted waters around Kinmen on May 9th. This occurred in two waves. These included not only seven Chinese Coast Guard ships, but four ships from maritime law enforcement agencies. Seven of these vessels claimed that they were there to carry out maritime exercises.

There have been four incursions by Chinese Coast Guard vessels into restricted waters near Kinmen. China has stepped up grey zone activity directed at Kinmen after an incident in February, when two Chinese fishermen died after refusing to submit to a search by the Taiwanese Coast Guard and attempting to flee. When their vessel collided with a Taiwanese Coast Guard boat that was pursuing them, the four men in the boat fell into the water, but when they were recovered, two were without vital signs.

The Chinese government waited before stepping up reactions, initially claiming that harassment of Chinese fishing boats has taken place since the Tsai administration took office. China then claimed that it would step up maritime patrols around Kinmen, searching a Taiwanese ferry later. A Taiwanese fishermen that accidentally drifted into Chinese waters after the incident is also being held, as a result of being an active duty member of the military.

Indeed, this points to a larger pattern–that apart from stepping up grey zone tactics, China has increasingly taken to acting as though the outlying islands of Taiwan are already administered by it.

On May 8th, in a verbal exchange detected by aviation enthusiasts, a US military airplane passing near Orchid Island was ordered by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force to identify itself. The PLA would have been seeking to project power by acting as though it already administers and has control of airspace around Orchid Island.

Analogously, the Chinese government has announced a new “Fuzhou-Matsu City Pass,” which residents of Matsu can apply for. The city pass would act similarly to an EasyCard or other MRT card in Taiwan, in that the card can be loaded with money and would provide discounts to Matsu residents that apply for it. However, residents of Matsu who apply would have to turn over details of their ROC National ID and Mainland Travel Permit, perhaps an attempt by China to gather personal details.

The plan for the “Fuzhou-Matsu City Pass” has been halted on the Taiwanese side after the Mainland Affairs Council stressed that this was illegal. Nevertheless, the city pass was proposed as a measure after the trip to China by a delegation of 17 KMT lawmakers led by KMT legislative caucus convener Fu Kun-chi late last month.

After the trip, China announced that it would be allowing group tourism to resume for only Matsu, though only residents of Fujian would be allowed to apply. As such, it may be that the Chinese government seeks to conduct outreach to outlying islands of Taiwan as a way to bait the rest of Taiwan into also wishing for further economic and political exchanges with China in a way that would lead to a rejection of the DPP. But as with Chinese incursions into Kinmen territorial waters or the PLA Air Force behaving as though it controlled Orchid Island, more broadly, China seeks to come off as though it already legally and juridically administers Matsu.

It is possible that China will further take actions aimed at eroding away at Taiwan’s sovereignty by way of outlying islands. This could, for example, take the form of arbitrarily and unilaterally changing existing legal norms. Such has occurred in recent memory with China announcing that it would shift the M503 flight route in a manner that would take civilian flights close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, particularly in the event of inclement weather. The move will place greater pressure on Taiwan to identify Chinese civilian planes as civilian rather than military, at a time in which China conducts daily or near-daily air incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defense Identification Zone–the airspace in which planes identify themselves for security purposes–as a means of placing pressure on the ROC Air Force, probing points of weakness, and as a form of training.

Either way, it is clear that outlying islands of Taiwan seem to have taken on new importance for China when it comes to attempts to influence Taiwan. This takes place with regard to economic incentives directed at outlying islands that seem aimed at attracting interest from Taiwan as a whole, as well as pertaining to military threats. It is to be seen how an upcoming trip to Itu Aba/Taiping Island by 20 KMT lawmakers will figure into this. To this extent, it is worth noting that China expressed anger over a transit by a US warship through the Taiwan Straits on Wednesday, while the Taiwanese government stressed that the situation is under control.

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