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Taiwan and China Launched Joint Rescues of Capsized Fishing Boats

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Taiwan and China Launched Joint Rescues of Capsized Fishing Boats

Humanitarian cooperation highlights a potential path to dialogue and de-escalation.

Taiwan and China Launched Joint Rescues of Capsized Fishing Boats

Taiwanese Coast Guard personnel take part in the rescue of crew members from a mainland fishing boat that capsized near the Kinmen Islands, Mar. 14, 2024.

Credit: Coast Guard Administration, ROC (Taiwan)

In a rare display of cooperation, Taiwan’s coast guard, following requests from China’s coast guard, initiated search and rescue missions with their counterparts for surviving sailors after a fishing boat capsized near the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Islands and Matsu Islands, groups of heavily fortified islands only miles away from the Chinese mainland. 

On March 14, Taiwan quickly dispatched four coast guard vessels with rescue divers on board to the disaster site near Kinmen, while China sent six helicopters and three vessels. The next day, another Chinese fishing boat capsized near the Matsu Islands, prompting another joint rescue effort from both sides. 

In contrast to the commonly depicted images of Taiwan’s outlying islands, which feature sharp anti-tank structures on beaches and heavy artillery cannons sheltered in underground tunnels, the joint humanitarian cooperation efforts highlighted the kind of atmosphere of cooperation that was more salient a decade ago. Today, humanitarian assistance and cooperation offers a potential stepping-stone for both sides to restart communication channels and de-escalate tensions. 

The rare glimpse of cooperation between Taiwan and China was preceded by a fatal collision between a Chinese fishing boat accused of trespassing in a restricted zone and a Taiwanese coast guard patrol ship – again near the Kinmen Islands. The collision led to the death of two Chinese fishermen and the arrest of the two others who survived. China accused Taiwan’s coast guard of “dangerous” acts of excessive force while Taiwan denied any inappropriate conduct. 

The incident prompted China to increase coast guard patrols in restricted zones surrounding Taiwan, leading to the boarding of a Taiwanese tourist cruise sailing near Chinese waters. This incident shows the extremely fragile state of cross-strait relations at the moment, and it highlights the urgent need for more responsible management of tensions to prevent incidents from spiraling into wider conflicts. 

Cross-strait dialogue and cooperation have been severely stalled since 2016, when China ended official contacts with Taiwan following the election of President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). In response, Tsai expressed her administration’s willingness to hold dialogue and resume exchanges with China if conducted on a basis of mutual equality and dignity. However, China has refused to reverse the decision unless Tsai accepts the 1992 Consensus, an alleged agreement emerging from a meeting between the Kuomintang (KMT) and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1992 to recognize that both Taiwan and Mainland China belong to “one China,” albeit with each side having its own interpretation of what “China” means. 

Like Tsai, President-elect Lai Ching-te has refused to accept the consensus, arguing that doing so would mean accepting China’s plan to govern Taiwan according to the Hong Kong model of “One Country, Two Systems.” 

Despite the rising tensions between the two sides, cooperation on humanitarian assistance – like maritime rescues – requires substantially less political pre-conditions compared to dialogues and exchanges. Humanitarian cooperation thus creates a unique opportunity to strengthen unofficial lines of communication. Dialogues on humanitarian aid can eventually open the door to dialogues on sensitive political, economic, or security issues. 

Dialogue beginning with non-governmental organizations is encouraged as they often lead to dialogues involving government agencies or semi-official organizations. In fact many breakthroughs in cross-strait relations during periods of high tensions, historically, were driven by civilian concerns and initially managed through nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), such as the Red Cross.

The resumption of cross-strait humanitarian assistance and cooperation could also reduce the rise of nationalistic pressures that are aggravating cross-strait tensions and further goodwill by fostering people-to-people ties. 

There are strong and converging interests for both sides to resume non-official dialogues on humanitarian issues, such as managing trespassing fishing vessels.

From the CCP’s perspective, any accidents caused by the Chinese coast guard or fishing vessels could worsen the already declining appeal of mainland China in Taiwan and stimulate support for independence-leaning governments and legislators. Furthermore, surges in nationalism focused on Taiwan could force the CCP leadership to take drastic measures against Taiwan that risk escalation at a time when the Chinese military is ill-prepared for a possible regional war surrounding Taiwan.

Tensions between Taiwan and China have contributed to a sharp drop in foreign direct investment crucial to mitigating China’s mounting economic crisis, one that could eventually threaten social stability for the CCP. Contrary to China’s continued reassurance of its intention of peaceful development, fears of a war over Taiwan have also motivated China’s neighboring countries to increase defense spending and strengthen ties with the United States.

The future DPP administration led by Lai Ching-te also faces mounting pressure to stabilize cross-strait relations. The fatal collision in the Kinmen Islands has unleashed heavy criticism from the opposition party, the KMT. While the DPP will remain in power in the executive for the next four years, its lack of a majority in the legislature places increasing demands on a future Lai administration to more effectively manage tensions with China. On the defense side, civilian maritime accidents occurring could provoke more gray-zone level conflicts that would drain resources needed for deterring a full-scale invasion. 

The probability of future cross-strait of dialogue and cooperation on humanitarian issues will depend on Lai’s policy toward China and whether the CCP would accommodate some level of engagement with Taiwan without political pre-conditions. So far China’s relatively moderate response to Lai’s election victory suggests that Beijing has not ruled out engaging Lai’s administration. Similarly, Lai has denied any plans to declare formal independence and expressed hope of resuming dialogue with China following his election victory. 

Both Taiwan and China should realize that, first, humanitarian dialogues and cooperation carry very little political risks and, thus, require almost no political pre-conditions. Dialogue and cooperation also serve to discourage both sides from crossing each other’s political red lines. Mutual trust naturally builds when new channels of dialogue open and beneficial cooperative relationships form. Each side will then go to greater lengths to avoid inflammatory political remarks and military actions as mutual perceptions of threat diminish. 

The United States should play a supportive role in encouraging cross-strait humanitarian cooperation and dialogue. American policymakers must realize that stable China-U.S. relations do not automatically equate to stable cross-strait relations. In addition, peace between the United States and China heavily hinges on the stability of cross-strait relations. An outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait would most likely trigger U.S. involvement in defending Taiwan. For this reason, the resumption of communication and exchanges between Taiwan and China is a prerequisite to reducing the risk of the China-U.S. competition veering into military conflict. 

The joint efforts of Taiwan and China’s coast guard to save the lives of drowning fishermen is not surprising, considering the strength of international humanitarian norms. Nevertheless, this instance gives a glimmer of hope to the world that geopolitical competitors can find common ground and that, perhaps, a little cooperation has the potential to spark dialogues that can prevent competitors from becoming adversaries.