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China’s grey zone maritime operations near Taiwan intensify

During the ‘Two Sessions’ of 2024, Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister, warned: ‘whoever in the world connives at and supports Taiwan independence will get burned for playing with fire and taste the bitter fruit of their own actions.’ Such rhetoric should be no surprise. ‘Reunifying’ Taiwan is a critical part of Xi Jinping’s great Chinese Dream – to be achieved by force if necessary. In the meantime, Beijing undertakes grey zone operations and cognitive warfare to confuse international perceptions and attempt to change the status quo across the strait unilaterally.

Much attention has been paid to aircraft incursions into Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone. This is likely due to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) escalating the frequency of these incursions, and the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defence releasing more comprehensive flight data. Yet, Beijing is also applying more pressure at sea.

Research vessel encroachment

Recently, concerns have been raised by the presence of Chinese research vessels around Taiwan. CSIS has documented the links between the Zhu Hai Yun, a highly advanced ship capable of operating in an ‘unmanned ship swarm’, and the recent movements of the PLA. In late 2023, the Zhu Hai Yun transited the Taiwan Strait up to Dalian, docking at a pier operated by a research institute whose ‘primary role is studying ship vibration and acoustics for the Chinese navy’. It then took the ‘highly unusual route’ of circumnavigating Taiwan. The vessels crawled slowly through the waters off Taiwan’s northern coast before travelling along its east coast, hugging the island’s contiguous zone, which it crossed into briefly.

Since September 2023, the number of research vessels intruding into these waters has increased sharply compared with the previous three years. Other ships continue to operate outside of this boundary. Recently, Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration (CGA) sighted the Da Yang, a 4,000-ton Chinese marine resource research vessel, engaged in repeated circling within the northeast sea area near the 24 nautical miles contiguous zone. Promptly, Taiwan’s CGA deployed a 1,000-ton patrol vessel to monitor its activity and deter any attempt to breach the restricted waters around Taiwan.

China Coast Guard incursions around Kinmen

The China Coast Guard is also operating closer to Taiwanese territory. Last month’s boating incident near Kinmen, which resulted in the deaths of two Chinese nationals, has increased tensions around the offshore islands. Chinese officials still accused Taiwan’s CGA of treating the surviving crew inhumanely and demanded a sincere apology for the ‘vicious’ collision. Soon after the accident took place, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office denied the existence of Kinmen’s ‘restricted and prohibited waters’ and forcibly conducted an on-board inspection of a Taiwanese tourist vessel. Although this latter incident occurred outside restricted waters, the China Coast Guard has entered these waters on several occasions.

When another fishing vessel capsized near the Taiwan-controlled Kinmen islands on 14th March, however, the PRC chose to conduct a joint rescue mission with Taiwan instead of taking advantage of the tragedy. Yet, this benevolence was not on display when two local fishermen from Kinmen were rescued by the China Coast Guard after drifting to Fujian due to heavy fog on 17th March. The rescue plan changed suddenly when the PRC found out one of the fishermen was an active-duty Taiwanese soldier. These disputes continue to rumble, and the future remains obscure.

Beijing’s motives 

Taiwan stands at a pivotal moment as it transitions to a new Democratic Progressive Party administration headed by William Lai. Beijing, who has branded Lai an ‘obstinate Taiwan independence worker’, aims to steer his agenda to its advantage; mainly by pressuring Lai to adopt the ‘1992 consensus’ – an unlikely prospect. At the very least, by provoking tensions around the offshore islands, Beijing is reminding the incoming administration that unpredictable status-quo-revising behaviour on their end will carry consequences.

The PRC’s actions are also stress tests, aimed at gauging Taiwan’s crisis management skills, as well as amplifying public pressure. The PRC demonstrates restraint in the waters around Kinmen currently, suggesting a negotiation-over-escalation approach. Nevertheless, recent manoeuvres still test Taiwan’s determination and readiness to defend their frontline offshore islands. Moreover, these moves undermine Taiwan’s sovereignty and aim to assert de-facto Chinese control in the waters around Taiwan; the PRC would like to establish and gradually expand a sort of cognitive boundary which deters Taiwan from deploying its navy due to the associated costs of escalating incidents in Kinmen waters. 

The deployment and use of research vessels in waters around Taiwan also help prepare the PRC for a conflict over the island. While deployed ostensibly for civilian research purposes, collected data, such as seabed characteristics, salinity, currents, and diurnal heating, from these excursions is often used to support naval warfare, especially underwater warfare, under the guidance of the Chinese Military-Civilian Fusion strategy.

What next? 

Grey zone operations, exemplified by recent activities around Kinmen, gradually reshape the prevailing order and the norms underpinning it without resorting to armed confrontation. The PRC strategically employs civilian endeavours as a guise, against Taiwan and others, as it simultaneously engages in ‘fighting, negotiating, and stabilising.’ Through this approach, Beijing endeavours to assess international sentiments, probe the boundaries of neighbouring states, and discern potential counter-actions. 

Such moves stand at odds with the view held by the United Kingdom, and many of its allies and partners, that cross-strait differences must not be resolved unilaterally and through the use or threat of force and coercion. In response, political and diplomatic support should be given to Taiwan, as well as tangible assistance, encompassing intelligence sharing, training initiatives, and communication resources, to bolster Taiwan’s defence forces and law enforcement units. The Taiwan CGA must improve its ability to react to developments, so it should enhance its command and control coordination, augment intelligence-sharing mechanisms, foster interoperability, and cultivate joint operational capabilities in collaboration with domestic, regional, and international defence forces.

Additionally, all nations which are concerned with supporting peace and stability across the strait must prioritise obtaining a deeper understanding of the PRC’s grey zone manoeuvres and ‘red lines’. Consequently, active engagement with Taiwan must be pursued more vigorously.

Back in 2019, Eli Yin-Shan Huang, a Taiwanese security analyst, wrote that the expansion of the China Coast Guard’s role in the Taiwan Strait ‘must not be ignore[d]’. Developments in the waters around Kinmen confirm this warning. And recent movements of the Zhu Hai Yun and other ships highlight the challenges brought about by the PRC’s deployment of research vessels. 

In response to Wang Yi’s remarks at the Two Sessions, the Taiwanese government repeated their stance that the two sides of the strait are not subordinate to each other. As Beijing’s application of pressure at sea continues, democratic partners of Taiwan must stand united against this rising authoritarian regime aiming to reshape the world in its favour.

Zack Liao is a consultant for the China research team at the International Crisis Group.

Embedded image credit: Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED cropped and overlaid)

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