China is waging a subtle war against an island neighbour, deploying a rather unusual tactic as it looks to expand its regional empire.
Its latest weapon? Sand.
Satellite images analysed by Reuters show the Asian superpower committing a relentless campaign of sand dredging, frequently encroaching on waters controlled by Taiwan.
The Chinese goal, according to Taiwanese officials, is to pressure Taiwan by tying down the island democracy’s naval defences, and undermining the livelihoods of Matsu residents who occupy a string of islands that sit between China and Taiwan, but are controlled by the latter.
“They think this area is part of China’s territory,” Taiwanese coast guard commander Lin Chie-ming told Reuters, referring to the Chinese dredgers that have been intruding into Matsu’s waters.
“They usually leave after we drive them away, but they come back again after we go away.”
In one satellite image captured on October 25 last year, 226 vessels were spotted off Taiwan’s Nangan island.
China’s ‘grey-zone’ warfare against Taiwan
The sand-dredging is one weapon China is using against Taiwan in a campaign of so-called grey-zone warfare, which entails using irregular tactics to exhaust a foe without actually resorting to open combat.
Since June last year, Chinese dredgers have been swarming around the Matsu Islands, dropping anchor and scooping up vast amounts of sand from the ocean bed for construction projects in China.
The ploy is taxing for Taiwan’s civilian-run Coast Guard Administration, which is now conducting round-the-clock patrols in an effort to repel the Chinese vessels.
Taiwanese officials and Matsu residents say the dredging forays have had other corrosive impacts – disrupting the local economy, damaging undersea communication cables and intimidating residents and tourists to the islands.
Local officials also fear the dredging is destroying marine life nearby.
China has also reportedly been dredging in the shallow waters near the median line of the Taiwan Strait, which has long served as an unofficial buffer separating China and Taiwan.
It comes as the Chinese Communist Party vows to reclaim the autonomous island nation and bring it under the control of Beijing, just as it has done to Hong Kong.
Sand is just part of the grey-zone campaign. China, which claims democratically-governed Taiwan as its own territory, has been using other unusual tactics to wear down the island of 23 million.
The most dramatic: In recent months, the People’s Liberation Army, China’s military, has been dispatching warplanes in menacing forays toward the island. Taiwan has been scrambling military aircraft on an almost daily basis to head off the threat, placing an onerous burden on its air force.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has not ruled out the use of force to subdue Taiwan, a prospect that has the potential to push the US and its allies into heated conflict.
“The prospect of conflict is alive and well over Taiwan,” Professor John Blaxland from the ANU College of Asia & the Pacific told Yahoo News Australia in August.
He sees China’s continued assertion that it will reclaim the country as a “wild card” issue that could see Australia dragged into conflict in the years ahead, as the Taiwan Strait remains a “flashpoint” for potential conflict.
Australia warned on China’s Taiwan takeover
The Australian Defence Department was warned last year that Xi Jinping’s government was “highly likely” to attempt to take over Taiwan using “all means short of war”, The Australian reported Tuesday.
Linda Jakobson, the head of Australian policy think tank China Matters, delivered that assessment to Prime Minister Scott Morrison in a report last May, the newspaper reported.
Writing in the Australian Financial Review on Tuesday, Ms Jakobson delivered a public version of the report, asking the question: What do we do when Beijing turns up heat on Taiwan?
She argued Beijing will pursue a protracted and intensive campaign using “all means short of war” to force the Taiwanese leadership to start negotiating about coming under the auspices of Beijing.
“A military invasion of Taiwan by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) cannot be ruled out, but is improbable,” she wrote.
“Australia should prepare for a scenario in which Beijing adopts an aggressive mix of new technologies and conventional methods to apply pressure on Taiwan.
These range from economic pressure or an embargo, via intimidation, dissemination operations, cyber attacks, and covert actions and subversion, to assassination and the limited use of military force.”
The incremental approach would be very difficult for the US and allies like Australia to counter, she warned, and “collectively they could allow Beijing to achieve its aim” of reunification with Taiwan.
Last month, China toughened its language towards Taiwan, warning after a recent flurry of military activity near the island that “independence means war” and that their armed forces were taking action to respond to “provocation” and foreign interference.
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