China’s Dispute With Taiwan Is Playing Out Near This Frontline Island


A small island controlled by Taiwan a few miles off China’s coast lived for decades in constant readiness for war. At one point in 1958, troops there hunkered in bunkers as Communist forces rained hundreds of thousands of shells on them.

These days, the island, Kinmen, has become a hub of Taiwan’s commerce with China and its abandoned, weatherworn fortifications are tourist sites. Eight ferries a day take Taiwanese businesspeople and visitors from Kinmen to mainland China.

But the sea around Kinmen has again turned tense after two Chinese men onboard a speedboat died in the area last month while trying to flee a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel.

China has said the patrols are to protect Chinese fishing boats. But the patrols also fit more broadly with China’s strategy of squeezing Taiwan, an island-democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, while stopping short of setting off a major confrontation that would draw in the United States.

Beijing has been stepping up such “gray zone” tactics to warn Taiwan’s president-elect, Lai Ching-te — a politician deeply disliked by Chinese leaders — as he prepares to take office in two months, experts, politicians and officials in Taiwan said in interviews and briefings.

“With Lai Ching-te’s inauguration on May 20, mainland China is definitely going to steadily, consistently raise the pressure,” said Chen Yu-jen, a member of Taiwan’s legislature from the opposition Nationalist Party who represents an electorate on Kinmen, in an interview with The New York Times.

Beijing asserts that Taiwan must accept unification, preferably peacefully, but under armed force if Chinese leaders decide that is necessary. Mr. Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party rejects China’s claim to Taiwan, and argues that the island-democracy will chart its own course — self-ruling in practice, even if most governments do not recognize Taiwan as a separate state.

Some pushback from China over the deaths of the two Chinese men on Feb. 14 near Kinmen was foreseeable, especially given that Taiwan is always kindling for nationalist ire. Chinese officials are now waiting for a report from Taiwanese investigators into the incident; tensions could climb if Beijing disputes their conclusions.

Taiwanese officials have said that the unlicensed Chinese speedboat entered Taiwanese waters near Kinmen, ignored demands from a Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel to stop, and tried to race away. Taiwanese officials have said the two men who died had drowned. Two Chinese survivors told Chinese media that the Taiwanese vessel collided with them, while the Taiwanese Coast Guard said the two boats “made contact” at times during the chase.

The Chinese government has made demands on behalf of the dead men’s families, including for an apology and compensation. Chinese officials have complained that the Taiwanese Coast Guard vessel did not take video of the encounter, and accused Taiwan of dragging its feet in its investigation.

Incursions of Chinese fishing boats and smugglers around Kinmen have long been a source of friction. Chinese fishing boats are supposed to stay out of Taiwan’s zone around Kinmen and smaller nearby islands, but for years some flouted the restrictions, said Tung Sen-pao, a local councilor on the island.

“They came over here to fish with explosives, electric lines, gill nets, a lot of that kind of thing,” he said. Chinese dredgers, he added, also often stole sand, which can be sold to make concrete.

More recently, tougher enforcement by the Taiwanese Coast Guard, which has seized and impounded intruding Chinese vessels, helped reduce the violations, Taiwanese officials said.

In less tense times, local representatives on Kinmen and in the Chinese province of Fujian, on the other side of the strait, might have been able to quickly settle disputes such as that of the recent deaths. But mutual distrust between China and Taiwan is running high, and Beijing is especially touchy ahead of Mr. Lai’s inauguration.

Chinese officials have also sought to use the incident for political points and to undermine Taiwan’s boundaries. They have denied that Taiwan has a right to restrict access to waters off Kinmen, despite longstanding arrangements on that point. And Chinese Communist Party officials and news outlets have tied the deaths to Mr. Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party’s resistance to China.

The Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused Democratic Progressive Party politicians of callousness and of “trying to shirk responsibility,” in a statement justifying the latest Chinese Coast Guard patrols off Kinmen. It warned that China reserved the right to respond further.

The Chinese Coast Guard service is under military control, and its ships can carry cannons and other weapons. Beijing has also been deploying them in territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. Chinese media publicized last week that the coast guard had also recently participated in training with naval ships under the Eastern Theater Command — the military area that encompasses Taiwan.

Lee Wen-chi, a Kinmen fisherman who had returned to shore on a recent day with two buckets of sea bass, said that he and other fisherman kept well away from the Chinese Coast Guard ships, moving on if they spotted one in the distance.

“If you get too close to them, they’ll think that you’re up to no good,” he said. “I avoid them as much as I can.”

These days, Taiwan stations only a few thousand troops on Kinmen, giving Kinmen little immediate protection if China ever decided to invade. Taiwan’s fisheries agency announced that troops would hold live-fire drills in the waters off Kinmen, next month. Such drills happen every year, but China may regard the latest ones as a provocation.

Before the Kinmen incident, the Chinese government had already signaled that it would pounce on perceived missteps or provocations by Mr. Lai, who also goes by the name William Lai. Beijing had hoped that he would lose Taiwan’s election in January, ending the Democratic Progressive Party’s eight-year hold on power under the current president, Tsai Ing-wen.

China has warned that it could suspend tariff concessions for some products from Taiwan, including auto parts. Two days after Mr. Lai’s victory, China arranged for Nauru — a tiny Pacific island-state that was one of the dozen or so countries that retain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan — to shift ties to Beijing. Then China unilaterally altered a commercial air flight route over the Taiwan Strait, a step that officials in Taipei said could make flying in the area more risky.

China has also continued to deploy fighter jets and other military planes near Taiwan almost daily. Larger, more menacing military actions are possible, especially after Mr. Lai’s inauguration.

“They are probing here and there to push the boundaries and create a new normal,” said I-Chung Lai, the president of the Prospect Foundation, a Taiwanese think thank aligned with the Democratic Progressive Party. Any conciliatory messages in Mr. Lai’s inauguration speech were unlikely to shift China’s strategy, he added: “The gray zone operations against Taiwan will become more intense, regardless of what William Lai says.”

Still, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, may not want to push those actions to the point of setting off a full-blown crisis.

Beijing has other ways of politically undermining Mr. Lai, and has pointed to his share of votes — 40 percent — to assert that he does not represent Taiwan’s mainstream views. Mr. Xi also has his eye on the United States’ presidential election in November, and probably won’t make any big decisions over Taiwan before then, several experts say. And with China’s economy in such poor shape, Mr. Xi would likely rather avoid a major confrontation that could unnerve investors.

“President Xi has a lot of problems that he’s dealing with at home, and if you look back to other episodes when China has dealt with a lot of domestic challenges, they typically have sought to calm their external environment,” said Ryan Hass, the director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

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