China’s latest weapon against Taiwan: The sand dredger

EAST CHINA SEA: Taiwanese coast guard commander Lin Chie-ming is on the frontline of a brand new kind of warfare that China is waging against Taiwan. China’s weapon? Sand.

On a cold morning in late January, Lin, clad in an orange uniform, stood on the rolling deck of his boat because it patrolled in uneven waters off the Taiwan-run Matsu Islands.

Just a few kilometres away, the Chinese coast was faintly seen from Lin’s boat. He was looking out for Chinese sand-dredging ships encroaching on waters managed by Taiwan.

The Chinese purpose, Taiwanese officers say: Pressure Taiwan by tying down the island democracy’s naval defences and undermining the livelihoods of Matsu residents.

Half an hour into the patrol, Lin’s nine-man crew noticed two 3,000-ton dredgers, dwarfing their 100-ton vessel. Parked simply outdoors Taiwan’s waters, neither of the dredgers clearly displayed their names, making it troublesome for a crew member to establish them as he peered via binoculars.

Upon recognizing Lin’s boat, armed with two water cannons and a machine gun, the dredgers shortly pulled up anchor and headed again towards the Chinese coast.

“They think this area is part of China’s territory,” stated Lin, referring to Chinese dredgers which have been intruding into Matsu’s waters. “They usually leave after we drive them away, but they come back again after we go away.”

The sand-dredging is one weapon China is utilizing against Taiwan in a marketing campaign of so-called grey-zone warfare, which entails utilizing irregular ways to exhaust a foe with out truly resorting to open fight.

READ: China launches ‘grey-zone’ warfare to subdue Taiwan

Since June final 12 months, Chinese dredgers have been swarming across the Matsu Islands, dropping anchor and scooping up huge quantities of sand from the ocean mattress for building tasks in China.

Sand-dredging ships with Chinese flags are seen from a Taiwanese coast guard ship patrolling in the

Sand-dredging ships with Chinese flags are seen from a Taiwanese coast guard ship patrolling within the waters off the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands, Jan 28, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang)

The ploy is taxing for Taiwan’s civilian-run Coast Guard Administration, which is now conducting round the clock patrols in an effort to repel the Chinese vessels.

Taiwanese officers and Matsu residents say the dredging forays have had different corrosive impacts – disrupting the native economic system, damaging undersea communication cables and intimidating residents and vacationers to the islands. Local officers additionally worry that the dredging is destroying marine life close by.

Besides Matsu, the place 13,300 individuals stay, the coast guard says China has additionally been dredging within the shallow waters close to the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which has lengthy served as an unofficial buffer separating China and Taiwan.

Last 12 months, Taiwan expelled almost 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from waters beneath its management, most of them within the space near the median line, in response to Taiwan’s coast guard. That is a 560 per cent soar over the 600 Chinese vessels that have been repelled in all of 2019.

In Matsu, there have been additionally many Chinese vessels that sailed near Taiwanese waters with out truly getting into, forcing the coast guard to be on fixed alert.

The dredging is a “grey-zone strategy with Chinese characteristics,” stated Su Tzu-yun, an affiliate analysis fellow at Taiwan’s high army assume tank, the Institute for National Defence and Security Research.

“You dredge for sand on the one hand, but if you can also put pressure on Taiwan, then that’s great, too.”


Sand is simply a part of the grey-zone marketing campaign. China, which claims democratically-governed Taiwan as its personal territory, has been utilizing different irregular ways to put on down the island of 23 million.

The most dramatic: In latest months, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s army, has been dispatching warplanes in menacing forays towards the island. Taiwan has been scrambling army plane on an virtually day by day foundation to go off the menace, putting an onerous burden on its air drive.

READ: Taiwan air force flexes muscles after latest Chinese incursion

Taiwanese army officers and Western analysts say China’s grey-zone ways are supposed to drain the assets and erode the need of the island’s armed forces – and make such harassment so routine that the world grows inured to it.

China’s sand dredging, stated one Taiwanese safety official investigating the matter, is “part of their psychological warfare against Taiwan, similar to what they are doing in Taiwan’s southwestern airspace”, the place the Chinese jets are intruding.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office stated in an announcement to Reuters that Taiwan’s claims that Beijing is permitting sand-dredging boats to have interaction in “illegal operations” close to Matsu and the median line are baseless. The workplace did say it has taken steps to cease unlawful sand-dredging, with out elaborating.

The workplace additionally stated Taiwan is “an inseparable part of China”. Taiwanese authorities, it alleged, are utilizing their claims of management over the waters close to the islands to “detain mainland boats and even resorting to dangerous and violent means in their treatment of mainland crews”.

Asked about China’s grey-zone actions, Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, which oversees coverage in the direction of China, stated the Chinese Communist Party was participating in “harassment” with the intention of placing stress on Taiwan. The council stated the federal government had lately elevated penalties for unlawful dredging in its waters.

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defence didn’t reply to questions.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not dominated out the usage of drive to subdue Taiwan. If he succeeds – by grey-zone ways or outright struggle – it might dramatically undermine America’s a long time of strategic dominance within the Asia-Pacific area and propel China towards preeminence within the space.

READ: US reaffirms Taiwan support after China sends warplanes

The Matsu Islands are virtually an hour by airplane from Taipei. They are one in all a handful of island teams near China’s coast that Taiwan has ruled since 1949, when the defeated Republic of China authorities, beneath Chiang Kai-shek, fled to Taiwan after shedding the Chinese civil struggle.

The Matsu, Kinmen and Pratas island teams lie a number of hundred kilometres from mainland Taiwan. Their isolation, and their much-reduced Taiwanese army presence because the finish of the Cold War, would make them extremely susceptible to a Chinese assault.

Matsu is simply 9km from the Chinese shoreline on the closest level. The island has a complete of simply 9 coast guard ships, starting from 10 to 100 tons.

On some days, authorities officers stated, the coast guard has confronted a whole bunch of Chinese vessels, ranging in measurement from 1,000 to three,000 tons, in and across the island’s waters.

Taiwan says these waters lengthen 6km out from the shoreline right here. China doesn’t formally recognise any claims of sovereignty by Taiwan.

READ: Taiwan military stages drill aimed at repelling China attack

At one level final 12 months, greater than 200 Chinese sand-dredging and transport boats have been noticed working south of Nangan, the principle Matsu islet, three Taiwanese officers instructed Reuters.

Taiwanese flags flutter on coast guard boats at a port on Nangan island

Taiwanese flags flutter on coast guard boats at a port on Nangan island, the principle island of the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands, Jan 28, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang)

Lin, the coast guard commander, remembers an analogous scene taking part in out on the morning of Oct 25, when he and his colleagues encountered an armada of roughly 100 Chinese boats. That day, he stated, his group expelled seven Chinese vessels that breached Matsu waters.

“People were frightened by the scene,” he stated, referring to native residents. “They were speculating about the purpose of the mainland boats and whether they would pose a security threat to the Matsu region.”


In some stand-offs, Taiwan’s coast guard has sprayed high-power water cannons on the Chinese ships in an try to drive them away.

Last 12 months, Taiwan impounded 4 Chinese vessels and detained 37 crew members, in response to the coast guard. Ten of these arrested got sentences of six to seven months in jail. The others are nonetheless on trial, the coast guard stated.

Taiwan is within the technique of beefing up its coast guard, partly in response to the dredging menace. Last 12 months, President Tsai Ing-wen commissioned into service the primary of a brand new class of coast guard vessel, primarily based on the design of an “aircraft-carrier killer”, a missile boat for the navy.

More than 100 new coast guard boats might be constructed within the subsequent decade, Tsai stated in December, vowing to implement a crackdown with “no mercy” on Chinese dredging in Taiwan waters. In the meantime, bigger patrol boats have been despatched to quickly reinforce the coast guard in Matsu, whose 117 members are actually conducting 24-hour patrols.

The variety of sand dredgers off the coast of Matsu dropped considerably on the finish of final 12 months, as winter climate introduced rougher seas that make dredging troublesome. When the seasons change and the seas are calmer, native residents worry that dredgers might be again.

From the late Nineteen Fifties via to the late Seventies, Chinese forces sometimes bombarded the Matsu Islands with artillery shells. Remnants of that period are nonetheless seen throughout the island group, from outdated air-raid tunnels to anti-Communist slogans displayed on the rugged cliffs of Nangan island.

Bunker is seen on the coast of Nangan island

A bunker is seen on the coast of Nangan island, the principle island of the Taiwan-controlled Matsu Islands, Jan 28, 2021. (Photo: REUTERS/Ann Wang)

READ: ‘China is angry’ – Taiwan anxiety rises as sabre-rattling grows

Today, Matsu is a well-liked vacationer vacation spot. Its picturesque old-stone properties have been was trendy visitor homes.

But locals say China’s dredging ways are hurting their livelihoods. Chen Kuo-chiang, who runs a seafood restaurant on Nangan, says the dredging has led to a drastic decline within the variety of fish he catches off the island.

Three years in the past, he was hooking a dozen a day together with his rod, stated Chen, 39, as he stood fishing on some rocks in a Nangan port. Now, he stated, he struggles to catch one or two.

The fears of a Chinese invasion are palpable on Nangan. Chen thinks the sand dredging could be a precursor to an assault by Chinese forces. “We don’t want to be ruled by mainland China,” he stated. “We have freedom, which is limited over there.”

Tsai Chia-chen, who works at an ocean-front mattress and breakfast, stated concern was significantly excessive forward of the US presidential election in early November.

At the time, stated Tsai, rumours circulated that China may seize the window of alternative with the United States distracted by the election to launch an assault on Taiwan. The giant variety of Chinese dredgers across the islands in late October added to the nervousness, she recalled.

“Our guests were obviously worried,” she stated. “There was only one small Taiwan coast guard boat, surrounded by many huge dredgers.”


On 5 events final 12 months, the dredgers broken undersea communication cables between Nangan and Juguang, one other isle within the Matsu group, the three Taiwanese officers instructed Reuters. Mobile telephone and Internet providers for the islanders have been disrupted, they stated. There have been no such incidents in 2019.

State-backed Chunghwa Telecom stated it spent NT$60 million (about US$2 million) to repair the cables final 12 months. It additionally employed an area fishing boat to conduct day by day patrols to make sure the protection of the cables.

The coast guard stated many of the absolutely loaded Chinese vessels round Matsu have been seen heading with their sand in a northerly course, in the direction of the town of Wenzhou, the place the native Chinese authorities has been touting an enormous land reclamation undertaking.

Known because the Ou Fei undertaking, the world has been reclaimed for a brand new financial zone. It encompasses about 66 sq km – greater than double the world of all of the Matsu Islands. On its web site, the Wenzhou native authorities describes the undertaking as a “major strategic development for the future” of the town.

The Wenzhou metropolis authorities didn’t reply to a request for remark.

Following contact on the native stage between the 2 sides, China detained a number of dredging boats final month, in response to Taiwan’s coast guard.

But a Taiwan-initiated assembly with authorities within the port metropolis of Fuzhou to debate the dredging was “postponed indefinitely” and with out clarification in late December, stated Wang Chien-hua, who oversees financial improvement within the native authorities that administers Matsu.

Taiwan had been planning to make use of the net assembly to induce Chinese authorities to implement necessary registration for dredgers and punish those that exit to sea with out reporting to the authorities, in response to an inside authorities be aware reviewed by Reuters.

The Taiwan Affairs Office in Beijing stated the native authorities on each side maintained “necessary communication and collaboration” to make sure order on the seas.

Aboard his patrol vessel, Taiwanese commander Lin sounded defiant. The coast guard, he stated, “will use force to drive away” Chinese ships that enter Taiwan’s waters.

“That way we can reassure the people in Matsu. At the moment, we are capable of doing this job.”

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