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China’s sand-sucking dredgers target Taiwan with eco-warfare

China is digging the sand underneath Taiwan waters (Photo: IANS)

Environment as a weapon? China is doing it effectively.

China has found a way to attack Taiwan without firing a shot. It merely sends its giant dredger ships into Taiwan waters which begin to suck in sand from the ocean floor. These are huge ships of 2,000 tons and hundreds of these pump out tons of sand from Taiwan islands, not just damaging its ecology but even risking the life of the islands itself.

An Ecological Problem
Taipei Times quotes the Society for Wildlife and Nature (SWN) president Jeng Ming-shiou as saying: "Chinese ships have dredged more than 100,000 tonnes of sand daily from the shoal over the past few years, which has altered the sand and sediment and poses a catastrophe for local marine ecology", referring to sand mining by China in the Formosa Banks area. The region lies to Taiwan's south west and has been in news globally for China's activities.

The SWN president added that China is extracting the sand illegally and is endangering ecology. It urged the Taiwan government to provide the coast guard additional powers to protect the shoal and the marine system. One of the ideas is to sink the offending Chinese ships to ensure stronger deterrence.

Read More: After massive airspace intrusion, China threatens Taiwan and the democratic world

On its part, Taiwan is spending considerable time and energy fending off the predatory ships. It arrested 28 crew members and seized two Chinese ships last year. The crew were sent to prison and their cargo, including the illegally mined sand, was confiscated. Taiwan coast guard has been chasing away hundreds of dredging ships and has even appealed to its Chinese counterpart, which did not respond.

The Sword over Taiwan
In a recent news item, Nikkei Asia too reports that Chinese dredgers have been scooping out the sand closer to Taiwan's Matsu Islands, sometimes even entering Taiwan-controlled waters. Each ship spends hours taking out tons of sand from the ocean floor. "There are so many lit boats they resemble traffic on a highway, and their loud mechanical rumblings echo across the otherwise quiet islands", says Nikkei Asia, adding that there could be hundreds of such vessels.

It is not just sand, which is an important resource worldwide. At Matsu Islands, which lies north-west to Taiwan, the dredgers have become an omen of danger and uncertainty. The residents say that the numbers of Chinese dredgers is increasing steadily. "On a single evening we could see 300 or 400 dredgers. Their lights shone in the nighttime. Wherever you looked there was light, there were boats, dredging sand, really loudly", Lin Mei-hao, who runs a guesthouse on the main island, Nangan, told Nikkei Asia.

Read More: Vietnam asserts rights over disputed Spratly islands through its lighthouses

People do not know when these huge dredging ships just might turn into Chinese military boats and take over the Matsu Islands, which actually are closer to China than their motherland Taiwan. The two nations, exactly opposite in their sizes, lie just 180 km across the Taiwan Strait, which connects the disputed South China Sea (SCS) to the East China Sea in the north.

Chinese Stand on Dredgers
Repeatedly China has feigned ignorance about the existence of the dredgers. However, local politician Lii Wen, the head of the local chapter of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told Nikkei Asia that these can be seen, "as a gray zone tactic, a nonmilitary form of exerting pressure, with the aim of harassment and intimidation".

China has made it clear in numerous public statements over the past few years that it will take over Taiwan, even if it has to do so by force. China has also tried to warn the US about protecting or coming to the support of Taiwan through the presence of American military forces.

For China, sand dredging is yet another tactic through which it seeks to continually intimidate the small island–just like it does by violating the Taiwanese air space with its numerous flypasts.

Killing two Birds with one Stone
Chinese vessels usually enter into Taiwanese waters in the dark, which are often the exclusive waters of Taiwan. The Oxygen Project website gives a detailed view of how the dredging ships pump up the sand and water. It narrates how the Taiwanese authorities try to prevent the illegal activities, arresting them and also forcing them to dump the sand near the islands.

Read More: Australia and China spar over the Great Barrier Reef

In dredging, ships suck large amounts of water and sand into the ship along with marine life that lives on or near the seabed. The process then leaves behind broken shells and bodies affecting the food chain. The marine ecology is totally destroyed while the activity erodes the Taiwanese islands.

China–an economic powerhouse needs all kinds of natural resources, and that too in uber quantities. Sand is one of those resources which China needs for various activities. And if that ocean sand mining can serve multiple purposes, it is even better. Intimidate an adversary psychologically, damage it ecologically and use the illegally ocean sand to strengthen the islands in the disputed areas of SCS.

Even as Taiwan is now thinking of reforming its laws to possibly sink the Chinese dredgers, the Philippines is also becoming wary of Chinese activities as the communist giant has extended its sand mining activities from the Taiwan Straits to the South China Sea.