Why China Isn’t Blowing Up Over the Deaths of Fishermen That Taiwanese Forces Chased Away

Why China Isn’t Blowing Up Over the Deaths of Fishermen That Taiwanese Forces Chased Away

Two Chinese fishermen drowned off the coast of Kinmen, a group of islands that sit just six miles from mainland China, after being chased by Taiwanese maritime forces on Wednesday—marking what Taiwan’s Coast Guard Administration says is the first of its actions to have caused deaths. But China’s response to the tragedy, which some suggested could be used to escalate tensions already simmering around the island’s sovereignty, has been uncharacteristically restrained.

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A Taiwanese coast guard statement Wednesday said the unnamed, mainland-China-registered boat had crossed a maritime border and failed to stop for inspection, instead speeding away from its patrol. The fishing boat capsized during the pursuit and four of its crew members fell into the sea, two of whom were rescued while the other two lost consciousness and died.

China was not happy. Zhu Fenglian, spokesperson for the Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council in Beijing, condemned Taiwan for “such a vicious incident,” which also, China noted, happened during Lunar New Year celebrations. Zhu blamed Taiwan’s Democratic People’s Party—which is pro-independence and recently won another presidential term leading the island—alleging that its officials have long mistreated fishermen from the mainland and forcefully and dangerously seized mainland fishing boats, a pattern it claims led to the recent deaths. 

“We warn the relevant parties in Taiwan to respect the historical fact that fishermen from both sides of the Taiwan Strait operate in the traditional fishing areas of the Taiwan Strait and ensure the personal safety of mainland fishermen, effectively preventing the recurrence of such incidents,” said Zhu.

Taiwan’s coast guard said that fishing boats, such as the one in question this week, that have “no name, no ship certificate, and no ship registration” are “a common concern of cross-strait collaborative law enforcement,” Taiwan’s government-owned Central News Agency reported.

“We deeply regret that the mainland crew refused to cooperate with our law enforcement work and this unfortunate incident occurred,” Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement on Thursday.

The deaths sparked outrage among the Chinese public. On Weibo, posts about the incident have garnered over 50 million views. In particular, some social media users are taking the chance to air nationalist sentiments, calling for retaliation against Taiwan, which Chinese authorities have long claimed—sometimes with threats of violence—as part of China.

“This is blatant provocation,” one Weibo user wrote, in a post that has garnered over 1,500 likes. “If it’s not possible to attack Taiwan now, it’s not difficult to severely punish Taiwan’s for its evil deeds, given our current strength.”

China’s official reaction, however, has been relatively “muted” considering the incident concerns Taiwan, Benjamin Ho, coordinator of the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, tells TIME. And despite the clamor, he says, China is unlikely to escalate the matter.

Chin-Hao Huang, author of Power and Restraint in China’s Rise and associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, tells TIME that one reason why China’s response has been somewhat tempered may be due to a “tacit recognition” of the illegal actions of the fishing boat.

“In terms of legality, it is clear who’s in the wrong here—who actually trespassed and operated a vessel without the proper registration,” he says. “There’s an understanding and recognition too, from the Chinese side, that you can’t really press this case further because there’s no legal grounding for them to issue a tough and harsh statement.”

Ho also cautions that fishermen casualties would not rank high in China’s priorities. “It’s probably not going to rank as heavily as if a Chinese jet would be shot down, or even a drone,” he says.

Taiwan has a history of apprehending fishermen from the mainland entering its waters. In September 2023, the Taiwanese Coast Guard detained the crew of a fishing vessel spotted 16 nautical miles off Hua Islet, Taiwan’s westernmost islet. Fishing vessels and fishermen have historically been used by Chinese authorities as a way to solidify Beijing’s claims to disputed waters, especially in the South China Sea.

While the Taiwan Strait has long been home to political tensions, fatalities resulting from the ongoing territorial rows are virtually unheard of. A pair of deadly maritime disasters involving Taiwanese authorities and mainland Chinese fishermen made headlines in 1990, when a fishing boat repatriating 50 illegal Chinese immigrants back to the mainland was hit by a Taiwanese naval vessel at sea, killing 21 on board the boat; that came just weeks after 25 Chinese immigrants died of suffocation while being repatriated to mainland China, after Taiwanese authorities forced them into boat cabins that were then sealed shut.

Already strained relations between China and Taiwan were thrown into greater uncertainty after the DPP’s William Lai Ching-te won the presidency in Taiwan’s January election. While it remains too early to tell if Beijing will up its belligerence against the island it claims as its own, the level of restraint it has shown this week may offer a glimpse into a broader strategy going forward that may prioritize diplomacy over conflict.

Read More: Taiwan’s Election Isn’t Disastrous for China—Unless Xi Makes It

“In the grand scheme of things,” says Huang, “I think maybe, in Beijing’s calculations, this shouldn’t torpedo the larger effort China may have to … encourage Taiwan to return to more functional collaboration.”

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