Authorities in Taiwan have said a still unidentified Chinese naval ship collided with the Taiwanese-flagged container ship Yutai Number One in the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, but details about exactly what transpired remain murky. The incident comes amid a spike in tensions between Taiwanese authorities and their counterparts in Beijing.
On Aug. 1, 2019, the Taiwanese Coast Guard announced that the Yutai Number One and the Chinese warship had hit each other at approximately 8:00 PM local time the night before in an established shipping lane, causing damage to both vessels, but no reported injuries. The incident reportedly occurred approximately 20 miles south of Kinmen County, a pair of islands that Taiwan controls, but which are situated less than 10 miles from the Chinese mainland. Kinmen is also on the Chinese side of a de facto boundary in the Taiwan Strait separating the two sides.
The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ship "requested [Yutai Number One] to go to Xiamen for investigation," Chen Jian Wen, a Taiwanese Coast Guard official told reporters in Kinmen. "So it asked us to send patrol ships to the rescue."
Taiwan's Coast Guard dispatched two small 100-ton displacement patrol boats to the general area of the incident, which were able to locate the Yutai Number One and escort it safely to Liaoluo Port in Kinmen. One of them then made a search for the other ship involved, eventually locating the unidentified Chinese warship.
“The military vessel said its hull was seriously damaged and its navigation was limited," Chen said. "It refused to stop as it immediately needed to return to Xiamen port for safety."
The Taiwanese patrol boat was unable to read the PLAN ship's hull number in the dark, according to Chen. However, it appeared that the Chinese vessel had been sailing northeast from Dongshan County in Fuijan Province. The ship could have been participating in People's Liberation Army exercises in the Taiwan Strait, which began on July 29, 2019, and are scheduled to wrap up tomorrow.
Taiwanese authorities have, so far, declined to say which ship might have been at fault or whether the PLAN vessel deliberately struck the freighter. We also don't know what cargo Yutai Number One was carrying at the time.
It is possible that the incident was simply an accident. In separate incidents in 2017, two U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyers hit commercial ships, which led to the deaths of 17 American sailors in total. Subsequent investigations into these collisions, which also occurred in known shipping lanes, found that they were “preventable” and “avoidable,” but entirely accidental.
Any number of unintentional factors could have similarly led the PLAN ship and Yutai Number One to come into contact. That the Chinese naval vessel offered to escort the Taiwanese container ship to a Chinese port may simply have reflected a standard operating procedure. Xiamen is not significantly further away from the approximate site of the incident than Liaoluo.
At the same time, the PLAN, as well as China's own Coast Guard and government-supported fleets of fishing boats, the latter of which have earned the nickname "Little Blue Men," have been responsible for numerous deliberate collisions and near-collisions in recent years. These incidents have generally been expressions of China's attempts to assert its authority over disputed maritime regions, particularly the South China Sea.
Just in March 2019, Vietnam said a Chinese vessel rammed a Vietnamese fishing boat, causing it to sink. Two months later, a similar incident occurred involving Filipino fishermen. In September 2018, the Chinese Type 052C Luyang II-class destroyer Lanzhou
aggressively maneuvered near the U.S. Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Decatur, which could easily have led to a serious accident.
The incident may have been a deliberate act meant to send a signal to the Taiwanese government. It does certainly comes a time when relations between Taipei and Beijing, as well as those between China and Taiwan's principal ally, the United States, are particularly strained. In April 2019, after months of increasingly aggressive PLA aerial activity around the island, Taiwan's President Tsai Ing Wen said she had ordered the Taiwanese Air Force to "forcibly expel" any Chinese military aircraft that violated the boundary line in the Taiwan Strait.
The PLA's ongoing exercises in the Taiwan Strait also follow an uptick in U.S. military ships sailing through the waterway as part of Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, to challenge Chinese claims to the entire waterway and demonstrate support for authorities in Taipei. Though the United States recognizes the government in Beijing, it reserves the right to continue diplomatic relations with Taipei and help provide for its defense until the status of the island is settled.
In July 2019, the U.S. government announced it had approved a number of potential arms sales to Taiwan, including M1 Abrams tanks, and there are reports that President Donald Trump's Administration might okay a deal for new advanced Block 70 F-16 Viper fighter jets, as well. Beijing has made clear that a Taiwanese purchase of additional F-16s would be crossing a firm "red line." Chinese authorities see Taiwan as an integral part of its own national territory and they have labeled President Tsai as an "independence extremist" in the past. Beijing also routinely protests U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
On top of everything else, Taiwan's government has expressed its support for protestors in Hong Kong, who have been demonstrating for weeks, initially over a now-abandoned law that would have weakened the independence of the semi-autonomous region's judiciary. Those protests have now evolved to include demands that Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam resign and for a "free Hong Kong," which Beijing might be concerned is a call for full independence.
On Aug. 1, 2019, the PLA's garrison in Hong Kong, which has publicly described itself as a valuable political tool for Beijing in the region in the past, released a video showing "anti-riot" exercises. This appeared to be a clear, if veiled threat to protesters, some of whom Hong Kong authorities have now charged with rioting.
"Recently, there have been a series of violent incidents happening in Hong Kong," Major General Chen Daoxiang, the Hong Kong garrison commander said in remarks to a gathering of dignitaries, including Carrie Lam, that same day, which were ostensibly meant to mark the 92nd anniversary of the PLA. "The incidents have seriously violated the bottom line of 'one country, two systems.' This should not be tolerated and we express our strong condemnation."
There have been persistent rumors for some time now that the PLA could be considering declaring martial law in Hong Kong to put an end to the protests for good. This, in turn, has already drawn comparisons to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing, which the Chinese government ultimately brutally crushed. The exact number of individuals who died in that crackdown is still unclear.
Back in Taiwan, authorities say they are continuing to investigate the incident involving the Yutai Number One. It will hopefully become more clear in the near future whether it was a benign accident or a deliberate altercation driven by already rising tensions between Beijing and Taipei.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org