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China-Taiwan Boat Collision Near Kinmen Continues to Reverberate in Taiwanese Politics

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China-Taiwan Boat Collision Near Kinmen Continues to Reverberate in Taiwanese Politics

It’s an early test case of the new dynamics of power between the KMT and the DPP, and the impact on cross-strait relations. 

China-Taiwan Boat Collision Near Kinmen Continues to Reverberate in Taiwanese Politics

Taiwanese coast guard officers board a Chinese speedboat after a chase and collision in the waters near Kinmen, Feb. 14, 2024. Two Chinese nationals died in the incident.

Credit: Coast Guard Administration, ROC (Taiwan)

An incident in mid-February that led to the deaths of two Chinese fishermen continues to be politically contested between the pan-Blue and pan-Green camps in Taiwan. Likewise, the Chinese government has sought to use the incident to escalate gray-zone activity around Kinmen, an outlying island of Taiwan at its closest 2 kilometers from Xiamen in China.

A Chinese speedboat intruding into the territorial waters of Kinmen refused to submit to a search by the Taiwanese coast guard on February 14. The Chinese speedboat then attempted to flee, but in the course of this collided with a Taiwanese coast guard vessel and capsized. When the four men in the speedboat were recovered, two were without vital signs. 

In its early response, the Chinese government took a comparatively low-key approach to the incident. China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) denounced the actions of the Taiwanese coast guard and accused the Tsai administration of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.” The TAO spokesperson also suggested that the incident was part of the regular harassment of Chinese fishing vessels by the Taiwanese coast guard. (It was initially not clear whether the speedboat was, in fact, a fishing vessel.)

It was only on February 18, several days after the incident, that the Chinese government announced that it would be increasing patrols in the waters around Kinmen. Later that day, for the first time, the China Coast Guard (CCG) boarded and searched a Taiwanese tourist vessel for 30 minutes before allowing it to return to Kinmen. 

We can expect to see more such CCG activity going forward around Kinmen, if not around other outlying islands of Taiwan. A number of experts have argued that China seeks to use the incident as an opportunity to escalate gray-zone activity. 

Notably, China waited several days after the incident before announcing the start of these patrols. It is possible that the Chinese government simply wished to wait until the initial wave of attention on the incident passed before making the announcement. But, as the speedboat was clearly intruding into Kinmen’s territorial waters, the Chinese government may not have wished for Chinese civilian fishermen to perceive themselves as having carte blanche to enjoy the government’s backing if they were to violate the territorial waters of other countries. 

The Chinese government may prefer escalation in gray-zone activity to be primarily state-directed, rather than in the hands of civilians. The incident – involving loss of life in a confrontation with a perceived enemy – is precisely the kind that could heighten regional tensions if it became a significant issue for Chinese nationalists, potentially forcing the Chinese government into stronger action in order to placate them. The Chinese government’s response, then, shows how it hopes to control the framing around potentially inflammatory incidents, even while using them for its own purposes.

China’s gray-zone activity around outlying islands of Taiwan in past years includes intrusion by fishing boats, sand-dredging by Chinese vessels, and the use of what are nominally research vessels for intelligence-gathering purposes. 

Two submarine cables to Matsu were cut by Chinese fishing vessels in April 2023. While this could have possibly been an accident, it led to the island being effectively cut off in terms of internet access, raising questions about the potential actions that apparent civilian vessels could take against Taiwan in the event of hostilities. Indeed, concerns about “military-civilian fusion” aimed at bolstering the capacities of the Chinese military have been on the rise in past years. 

For its part, the Taiwanese government has expressed condolences over the tragedy, while also stressing that the actions of the coast guard were in accordance with the law

In the interests of transparency, the Taiwanese coast guard announced that it would be ordering 3,061 recording devices in the next year, and 240 body cameras per year between 2026 and 2028. To avoid giving pretext to China for escalation, Taiwan places a priority on being perceived as comparatively more transparent, and not being the aggressor. 

Within Taiwan, some worry that China may use the incident to make outlying islands of Taiwan into a target for gray-zone activity similar to the tactics China employs around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are controlled by Japan by claimed by China and Taiwan. However, the Taiwanese military has emphasized that it has no plans to step up military deployments on outlying islands of Taiwan in response to the incident. This would, too, be a measure aimed at avoiding a potentially dangerous spiral of escalation and showing restraint.

What proved controversial in Taiwan was that the coast guard did not immediately publicize that the two Chinese men died because of a collision with one of its vessels. As such, the Taiwanese coast guard – and by extension, the Tsai administration – has been accused of being less than forthcoming by KMT politicians such as legislator Hsu Chiao-hsin. 

The relatives of the deceased, who traveled to Kinmen to claim the bodies, also called for an investigation into the deaths. This was widely reported on by pan-Blue media. The pan-Blue camp has continued to lean into the issue, with attacks on the Tsai administration focusing on the perceived lack of transparency. 

Some communication between Taiwanese and Chinese coast guard officials has taken place in the two weeks since the incident, with the Taiwanese coast guard stating that discussions are ongoing. Reportedly eight discussions were held in seven days. 

On February 26, KMT deputy chair Andrew Hsia set off to China for a weeklong visit. While the KMT claimed Hsia did not have specific plans to meet with Chinese officials, he later met with TAO director Song Tao. 

This is not the first time that Hsia has visited China at sensitive political moments. Hsia first began visiting China regularly in the wake of the live-fire exercises that the People’s Liberation Army carried out around Taiwan in August 2022, after the historic visit to Taiwan by then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. 

Hsia’s visit was intended to frame the KMT as the only political party able to conduct dialogue with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and, in this way, dial back cross-strait tensions. Still, Hsia’s trip to China in August 2022 was controversial even within the KMT. During this time, younger KMT politicians running in local elections issued an open letter suggesting that Hsia’s trip would be poor optics in the wake of the exercises. They worried the visit would lend credence to the argument that the KMT was dangerously close to the CCP at a time that the party has sought to turn around its pro-China image. Though the KMT leadership claimed the visit had been planned before the exercises, the Presidential Office stated that Hsia only applied to visit China when the exercises took place. 

In the course of his latest meeting with Hsia, Song reiterated the Chinese narrative that the Taiwanese coast guard regularly harassed Chinese fishing vessels. On the other hand, Hsia asserted that the KMT – which now control Taiwan’s legislature following the January 2024 elections – would provide oversight over the DPP and seek an investigation into the truth of the incident.

Likewise, Hsia conveyed condolences to the families of the deceased on behalf of KMT chair Eric Chu. He also claimed that that KMT has the support of the majority of Taiwanese society when it comes to pushing for exchanges with China. This echoes the language of the TAO after the 2024 elections, which framed the DPP as not having the majority support of the Taiwanese public in spite of defeating the KMT and the Taiwan People’s Party in the presidential race. 

It is to be seen how the KMT will frame Hsia’s trip once he returns to Taiwan. In the past, the KMT has sought direct meetings with CCP officials to sideline the DPP administration. It is possible that the KMT will continue to carry out such meetings to circumvent the incoming Lai administration and bolster the KMT’s claim to be able to negotiate with the CCP in a way that the DPP is incapable of. The Hsia trip may be an early precedent of this strategy in the incoming administration.