Taipei [Taiwan], June 17 (ANI): Chinese sand dredgers are edging closer to Taiwan's Matsu Islands and entering Taiwan-controlled waters, spending hours pumping up tons of sand from the ocean floor. They have sparked panic over the disturbance of residents, spoiling of coasts, diminishing beaches and damaged marine life.
At their peak, hundreds of these 2,000-ton vessels have been making their presence felt in the waters off Matsu. Most residents say that the dredgers have created fear since they started coming in increasing numbers over last year, reported Nikkei Asia.
On a single evening, "we could see 300 or 400 dredgers," said Lin Mei-hao, who runs a guesthouse on the main island, Nangan. "Their lights shone in the nighttime. Wherever you looked there was light, there were boats, dredging sand, really loudly," he said.
Some say that the Matsu islands are now on the frontlines of China's newest tactic: "gray zone" or hybrid warfare, actions that are aimed at wearing down, intimidating or provoking the enemy without firing a single shot.
Though China has denied that it is allowing sand dredgers to operate illegally near Matsu, many Taiwan officials and Matsu residents fear the vessels are doing the bidding of Beijing, which seeks to one day bring Taiwan under its control.
Local politician Lii Wen, the head of the local chapter of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) sees the dredgers as a "gray zone tactic, a nonmilitary form of exerting pressure, with the aim of harassment and intimidation".
"China is getting smarter and more creative in its ways of exerting pressure," said Lii in an interview.
According to Nikkei Asia, the Matsu Islands are in a particularly precarious position as they are a mere 25-minute boat ride away from the Chinese coast, much closer to the Taiwan Island. Matsu's civilian-run coast guard has previously chased away 94 Chinese dredgers from Matsu's waters in the first four months of this year.
However, many more dredgers sit just outside the 6,000-meter zone around Matsu's islands, which Taiwan considers its restricted waters. China does not officially recognize any of Taiwan's claims to sovereignty.
The dredgers remove huge amounts of sand from the ocean floor to feed infrastructure and land reclamation projects in China. The jump in dredgers and their incursions into Taiwan-controlled waters is set against an increasing assertiveness by China in the South China Sea at large, which is a major route for the world's maritime traffic.
As well as causing fear and noise pollution, residents complain the dredgers have harmed Matsu's beaches and marine life, Nikkei Asia reported.
Lin Tsung-yi, chair of the Geography Department at National Taiwan Normal University, said that some fish, organisms and marine life that live on the sea bottom will not be able to adjust to those conditions created by dredging and that the process is disturbing the ecosystem.
In May, Matsu's coast guard expelled 38 Chinese vessels -- both sand dredgers and fishing boats -- from its surrounding waters, according to a report by the state-owned Central News Agency. However, this has been upto no effect as China continues to send its ships in taiwan-controlled waters.
Beijing claims full sovereignty over Taiwan, a democracy of almost 24 million people located off the southeastern coast of mainland China, even though the two sides have been governed separately for more than seven decades.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are escalating. China ramped up political pressure and military threats against Taiwan, with almost daily incursions into Taipei's air defence identification zone.
The island recently witnessed the largest daily incursion as over two dozen Chinese military planes flew into the country's Air Defence Identified Zones (ADIZ) on Tuesday, said the Defence Ministry.
China recently passed a new law authorising its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in areas that China considers its own territoryWang Ting-yu, a Taiwanese legislator and member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee, said that China is sending their fishermen and their boats to surround other countries' coast guards and counting on the fact that democratic countries will not dare to use their navy or "gunpower to hit Taiwan".
Meanwhile, China has also proceeded to increase pressure on Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2016, who ha said that Taiwan is already an independent country under its formal name.
The Taiwan government has reacted by a mixture of beefing up coast guard patrols, toughening up punishments for illegal dredging, and commissioning new coastguard vessels. It has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the US to establish a coast guard working group to strengthen cooperation and training and the sharing of information related to law enforcement.
According to Nikkei Asia, if China succeeds in taking control of Taiwan, it would erode the US strategic dominance in Asia-Pacific. If the US failed to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a Chinese invasion, it would lose credibility with its regional allies and partners. (ANI)