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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Helen Davidson in Taipei

China coast guard boards Taiwan tourist boat in escalation of tensions

A view of the South China Sea between the city of Xiamen in China, in the far distance, and the islands of Kinmen in Taiwan, in the foreground.
A view of the Chinese city of Xiamen, in the far distance, and the islands of Kinmen in Taiwan, in the foreground. China’s coast guard boarded a Taiwanese tourist vessel near Kinmen on Monday. Photograph: An Rong Xu/Getty Images

China’s coast guard has boarded a Taiwanese tourist vessel, as tensions continue to escalate in the waters between China’s mainland and Taiwan’s Kinmen islands after a capsizing killed two people last week.

The Taiwanese sight-seeing ferry King Xia was carrying 11 crew and 23 passengers on a tour around Kinmen’s main island on Monday when it was intercepted by two Chinese coast guard patrol vessels. Six officers boarded the King Xia and asked to inspect the documentation of the crew, before disembarking about 30 minutes later, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Authority (CGA) said. Soon after a Taiwan coast guard patrol arrived to escort King Xia back to port.

Kinmen is Taiwanese territory but sits just a few kilometres from the Chinese mainland. Statements from the CGA and Taiwanese officials suggest the King Xia had strayed slightly off course – which the CGA said was to avoid shoals in the area. It said Chinese and Taiwanese tourist vessels often accidentally cross into the other side’s waters but the CGA doesn’t try to board Chinese boats because it is clearly accidental, and called on Chinese authorities to “uphold peace and rationality”.

Kuan Bi-ling, head of Taiwan’s Ocean Affairs Council told reporters on Tuesday the actions of the Chinese coast guard had “triggered panic” among Taiwanese people.

“Boats like these are not illegal at all,” she said.

Taiwan’s Maritime and Port Bureau urged Taiwanese vessels to refuse future requests by Chinese coast guards to board for inspection, and instead to immediately notify the CGA.

Taiwan’s defense minister, Chiu Kuo-cheng said on Tuesday the military would not “actively intervene” in the incident, so as to not further escalate tensions.

“Let’s handle the matter peacefully,” he told reporters.

One passenger on the tourist boat told Taiwan’s United Daily News the incident was “very scary” and she was “worried that they might not be able to go back to Taiwan”.

The incident comes amid heightened tensions after a Chinese fishing boat, which was being pursued by Taiwan’s coast guard, capsized on Wednesday. Two of the four people on board died, and the other two were detained by the coast guard.

At the time, Beijing condemned the actions of Taiwan’s coast guard and called for further investigation of the deaths. It also announced it would increase inspection patrols in the area. Taiwan’s government defended the incident, saying the Chinese crew had illegally entered Taiwanese waters, “refused to cooperate” with requests to board for inspection, and sped away. It said the CGA had the right to “enforce the law”.

On Saturday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office called for Taiwan to release the two detained fishers, and rejected Taiwan’s claim the boat had been in “restricted waters”.

The office’s spokesperson, Zhu Fenglian, said that both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to China – a reflection of Beijing’s claim that Taiwan is a province and not a sovereign state.

“Fishermen on both sides of the Taiwan Strait have been operating in traditional fishing grounds in Xiamen and Jinhai waters since ancient times. There is no such thing as ‘prohibited or restricted waters’,” Zhu said.

On Monday the office said family members of the four fishers in the capsize would travel to Kinmen, accompanied by Chinese representatives for support.

Beijing has long claimed Taiwan, and under the rule of Xi Jinping it has strengthened its resolve to achieve what it terms “reunification”. Xi has not ruled out using force to do so, but in an effort to avoid war has instead increased military harassment, economic coercion and incentives, and cognitive warfare.

Additional research by Chi Hui Lin

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