China Seizes Taiwanese Fishing Boat As Tensions Rise

China’s Coast Guard has seized a Taiwanese fishing boat and its crew of five and forced it to a port on the mainland Chinese coast, a move that could add to tensions between Beijing and President Lai Ching-te of Taiwan.

The fishing boat, Ta Chin Man 88, was in Chinese waters 27 miles northeast of Kinmen, a Taiwanese-controlled island close to the Chinese coast, when two Chinese Coast Guard ships boarded and took control of it on Tuesday night, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration said. Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels that sailed to the area to help the fishing boat were blocked by their Chinese counterparts, the administration added.

The situation in the seas around Taiwan, a self-governed island that China claims as its own, has become more and more tense, with coast guard standoffs between the two sides seemingly on the rise. The concern among officials is that such encounters bring the risk of a clash that could deepen antagonism between the sides or even set off a regional crisis.

The Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels broadcast demands for the Chinese Coast Guard to free the fishing boat, but the Chinese ships responded only by “demanding no interference,” the statement from Taiwan said. The fishing boat had two crew members from Taiwan and three from Indonesia, officials said. Many workers on Taiwanese fishing boats are from Indonesia or other Southeast Asian countries.

A spokesman for China’s Coast Guard, Liu Dejun, said the seized boat had broken a fishing moratorium in Chinese waters that China declared in May and had been using an illegal fine-meshed net. During the seizure of the boat, Mr. Liu said in a statement, the Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels “tried to meddle in our normal law enforcement” and were driven away.

Hsieh Ching-chin, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration, said at a news conference on Wednesday that the Ta Chin Man 88 had entered Chinese territorial waters. He called for China to release the boat and crew, saying that they should not become pawns in the tensions between China and Taiwan. China has seized 17 Taiwanese fishing boats since 2003 and the last such incident was in 2007, Mr. Hsieh said. In recent months, Chinese officials and media have warned fishing boats not to violate the fishing ban, which lasts until mid-August.

“This year, China is different from the past, with stronger law enforcement during the fishing moratorium,” Mr. Hsieh said. “China should not use political factors to deal with this incident.”

Still, the seizure could become another irritant between Taiwan and Beijing, especially if the boat’s crew members are held in China for weeks or longer. The Chinese government vehemently dislikes Mr. Lai, who took office in May and bluntly rejects Beijing’s claims of sovereignty. In the months before and after his inauguration, China stepped up efforts intended to warn and intimidate him and his Democratic Progressive Party.

“They want to demonstrate to Taiwan that it does not have control over air space and sea space. They certainly seem to be ratcheting up pressure,” said Bonnie S. Glaser, the director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, referring to China’s recent actions. “I think they want to signal to Lai that he is very close to their red lines and he had better not cross them.”

The Chinese government last month issued expansive guidelines on punishments that it could mete out to those it deems to be supporters of Taiwanese independence, setting off alarm in Taiwan, especially because the rules raise the possibility of death sentences in extreme cases. In response, Taiwan warned its people not to travel to China.

China has also stepped up military flights around Taiwan that appear intended, at least partly, to wear down the island’s air force and other defenses. Nearly 300 People’s Liberation Army aircraft flew into airspace off the island in June, the second-highest monthly count since Taiwan’s Defense Ministry began regularly issuing such data in 2020, according to PLATracker, a site that analyzes data released by the ministry.

That heightened military activity does not mean that an attack on Taiwan is looming, experts and diplomats say. Instead, such operations are part of Beijing’s expanding “gray zone” tactics to intimidate and wear down Taiwan, while stopping short of a major confrontation that could draw in the United States, the island’s crucial security supporter. China’s large and well-armed coast guard force is a pillar of that campaign.

In February, a Chinese speedboat capsized after being chased by the Taiwan Coast Guard, and two of its crew died. Since then, China has repeatedly sent its ships into waters off Kinmen that Taiwan calls a prohibited zone.

China is also still holding a Taiwanese soldier who had been posted on Kinmen. He and a friend had apparently gone on a boating trip in March, and drifted into nearby Chinese waters, where they were detained by the Chinese Coast Guard. The soldier’s friend was later released.

In June, the Chinese Coast Guard imposed new rules spelling out its powers to board and hold vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, and to detain foreign nationals on those vessels.

China is using its coast guard “to put pressure on Taiwan’s outlying islands and the main island,” said Ou Si-fu, a researcher at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taipei, a think tank under Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. “This ‘gray zone’ harassment creates a nuisance for Taiwan, tiring it out by running around, because there are so many ships especially near the outlying islands, and Taiwan has no way to effectively counter them.”

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