On a quiet evening this month, the deep roar of a Chinese commercial sand dredge could be heard across the water from Nangan, the largest of Taiwan’s Matsu Islands.
“They will return after the monsoon season,” said Mao-Chen Tsai of the Matsu Coast Guard, explaining that the number of illegal sand dredging had increased in recent weeks after a hiatus during the time of storm.
Last month, Tsai’s team expelled 59 illegal dredgers and sand transport ships from shallow waters around Matsu, less than 10 km from China’s Fujian province.
Ships are digging sand to feed China’s infrastructure boom and land reclamation projects in its coastal cities, which have pushed up prices for the most widely used product in the world after water.
But analysts warn that dredgers are also being put in place to threaten the 13,000 Taiwanese islanders.
“This is a psychological war,” said Su Tzu-yun, an analyst at the National Research Institute for Defense and Security, a think tank backed by Taiwan’s defense ministry.
He argued that privately operated sand dredges were part of Beijing’s “gray zone tactics” aimed at undermining the island’s defensive capabilities and intimidating the population without resorting to military force.
Taiwanese officials added that the dredges were destroying the marine environment, causing Matsu’s beaches to sink and accelerating the decline of the fishing stock.
The dredges, which weigh between 1,000 and 9,000 tons and are up to 100 meters long, are concentrated in the waters between Nangan and Xiju islands, mainly outside the restricted area.
But in the past month, ships have been regularly stranded in waters over which Taiwan claims jurisdiction, which stretches 6 km off the coast of Matsu. The dragons were driven out by the coast guard with water cannons, forcing them to return to China.
The increase in incursions comes despite Taiwan committing convictions for illegal sand dredging up to a maximum of seven years in prison, with a fine of NT 100 million ($ 3.6 million).
But officials complain that Matsu does not have the resources to pursue any dredging. According to Tsai, “at the worst point last year, there were hundreds of ships in our waters.” . . but we confiscated two of them. “
Analysts said the profits from the sand sale outweighed the risks of losing the dredge and paying stranded workers in Taiwanese prisons. Su estimated that, in one day, a 5,000-ton ship could fill the equivalent of three Olympic-sized sand pools, which could sell for $ 55,000.
Beijing has limited dredging activities in its own waters to protect its marine ecology, pushing Chinese boats into waters that Taiwan says control and exploit conflicting territorial and maritime claims.
Lii Wen, a Matsu opposition politician, said Chinese coastguards were inconsistent in responding to Taiwan’s complaints about dredging intrusions. Chinese Coast Guard did not respond to a request for comment.
Beijing claims that democratic Taiwan is part of its territory, a claim rejected by Taipei. Taiwan says its various islands, including the Matsu group, are part of a de facto sovereign nation. As tensions over Taiwan’s status have increased over the past year, the People’s Liberation Army has been conducting operations almost daily, sending warplanes in the Taiwan Air Defense Identification Zone.
“Now, these huge titans are entering the waters of Taiwan and carrying our coast guards,” Lii said. Last year, Matsu’s small fleet of 100-ton Coast Guard boats drove nearly 4,000 ships from the waters surrounding Matsu.
“It is difficult for Taiwan to adequately respond to this challenge. We will allow the destruction of our environment if we do nothing,” Lii added.
“However, if we respond with military force to retake civilian dragons, then it could give China a pretext to further increase tensions in the Taiwan Strait.”
In 2020, the dredges cut a submarine communication cable six times, disrupting the internet and telecommunications connection for the 736 residents of Xiju Island. A Taiwanese official, who did not want to be named, told the Financial Times that the incidents had raised alarm in the capital: “We did not know if China was cutting off communications before making more serious moves against Matsu.” .
A spokesman for Chunghwa Telecom, the main network provider for Matsu, said there was no evidence that the cables were intentionally cut. However, security analysts say the incidents should be seen in the context of the growing Chinese cyberattacks on Taiwan.
Until the recent rescue of the dragons, Matsu officials were optimistic that a series of joint combat operations in October and November between Taiwanese and Chinese coastguards had put an end to the illegal activity.
Such efforts are in stark contrast to the radio silence between the leaders of the two countries after Beijing cut off a communication channel across the strait with Taipei after Tsai Ing-wen’s first victory in the 2016 presidential election.
On the islands, residents are angry and complain that their fishing industry is threatened as the sand that supports marine life is excavated and shipped to China. “Our fishermen carry the weight of the dredger,” said a local official who did not want to be named.
He continued: “Matsu was a fishing paradise, with waters full of different species of fish and crustaceans. Dragons have devastated the marine ecology. Our fishermen are now struggling to survive by the sea. ”