Beijing’s Increasing Maritime Gray Zone Operations Around Taiwan’s Outlying Islands – Analysis


By John Dotson

On February 14, an incident occurred near Taiwan’s Kinmen Island (金門島) group that illustrated ongoing tensions between Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over issues of maritime administration. It also illuminated patterns in the PRC’s sustained and ongoing efforts to erode Taiwan’s sovereignty. According to the Republic of China (ROC) Coast Guard Administration, around 1:45PM local time the vessel CP-1051 confronted a “three no’s boat” (三無船舶)—meaning no name, no registration certificate, no registered homeport—at a point 1.1 nautical miles to the east of Jinmen’s Bei-ding Island (北碇島), and .86 nautical miles inside waters declared restricted by Taiwan’s government. In the ensuing chase, the boat capsized, resulting in the deaths of two of the four-man crew (ROC Coast Guard, February 14February 20).

Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC, 大陸委員會) explained the ROC Coast Guard’s actions by stating that the PRC boat had resisted inspection and capsized while attempting to flee the area. Describing the background to the incident, MAC stated that:

[O]ver the past years, a small number of people from mainland China have trespassed in Taiwan’s waters to dredge sand, fish with explosives and poisons, dump trash at sea, and engage in other actions harmful to the marine ecosystem. However, Taiwan’s calls for mainland China to strengthen governance have not resulted in any improvement … Taiwanese people have repeatedly reported these incidents and called on the competent authorities to expel the vessels in accordance with the law, making the coast guard officers duty-bound to step up law enforcement to protect the people’s rights (MAC, February 15).

Three days later, on February 17, PRC Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson Zhu Fenglian (朱鳳蓮) issued a statement to provide an official PRC response of the incident. The statement opened with a standard declaration that “[b]oth sides of the Straits belong to one and the same China, and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory.” She then went on to declare that the fatal capsizing incident had “sparked widespread outrage on the mainland, and severely hurt the feelings of compatriots on both sides of the Taiwan Straits.” Zhu further issued a vague threat that “the mainland reserves the right to take further measures, the consequences of which shall be borne by the Taiwan side” (CGTN, February 18).

In the wake of the incident, there has been a steady continuation of minor incidents involving efforts by the ROC Coast Guard to chase PRC-based fishing boats out of waters that Taiwan has declared off-limits (TaiwanPlus, March 26). There has also been a significant uptick in terms of both PRC presence and “law enforcement” activity around Taiwan’s outlying islands, as well as in the escalation of PRC rhetoric directed at Taiwan. Such PRC actions serve to illustrate patterns in the “gray zone (灰色地帶)” operations undertaken by PRC government-directed assets to erode Taiwan’s sovereignty and buttress the narratives that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda system directs toward both Taiwanese and international audiences.

PRC Actions Following the Incident

PRC government reaction was predictable in the aftermath of the incident. PRC agencies and spokespeople sought to leverage the incident to further denigrate Taiwan’s sovereignty and to deny it any legitimate right of administration over its offshore islands. The PRC Coast Guard—which has fallen under military, rather than civilian, jurisdiction since 2018—has stepped up its presence and patrols in the area in the wake of the incident (Nikkei Asia, March 22, 2018).

In an apparent tit-for-tat intended to assert the PRC’s jurisdictional claims over Taiwan-administered waters, on February 19 two PRC Coast Guard vessels surrounded a Taiwanese tourist boat near Kinmen and boarded the vessel, demanding to inspect the ship’s documents and identity documents of the passengers (VOA, February 19). Various reports from late February indicated that five PRC Coast Guard ships had assumed patrols around Kinmen and that these vessels entered Taiwan-administered waters on or about February 26. On these occasions, confrontational actions were not reported and the vessels reportedly withdrew from Taiwan’s sea space when directed to do so by the ROC Coast Guard (Maritime Executive, February 27).

The PRC Coast Guard has also stepped up its presence and actions around the island of Matsu (媽祖島). Not all such actions are necessarily hostile. For example, in mid-March Taiwan press reported on incidents near both Kinmen and Matsu involving cooperative search-and-rescue operations for missing fishermen conducted by coast guard vessels from both sides (Taipei Times, March 15March 16). However, such cooperation is not representative of the PRC’s broader approach to Taiwan’s maritime claims, as the PRC denies Taiwan any rights to sovereignty or administration over these territories.

PRC Narrative Framing Following the Incident

Both the PRC’s actions and its heated rhetoric have served to further raise tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In the wake of the February 14 incident, three major narrative themes have emerged from PRC government outlets.

The Normalization of Greater PRC Presence

In a brief statement issued four days after the incident, the PRC Coast Guard announced that coast guard units based in Fujian Province would initiate “normalized enforcement patrol operations (常態化執法巡查行動)” in the “Xiamen-Jinmen sea area (厦金海域).” The statement claimed that this would “advance the safeguarding of maritime-related work and operations, [and] protect the security of fishermen’s livelihoods and property” (PRC Coast Guard, February 18). PRC press has referred to these as “law enforcement patrols and inspections” in the Kinmen area, conducted to “safeguard the legitimate rights and safety of life and property for Chinese fishermen, including those from Taiwan region” (Global Times, March 17). [1] This is consistent with an ongoing PRC effort to “normalize (常態化)” its military presence, in multiple domains, encroaching ever-further into Taiwan’s maritime periphery.

Taiwan’s Malicious Actions—and the Culpability of Taiwan’s DPP-Led Government

The PRC government has accused the Taiwan authorities of active malice in the February incident, consistently referring to the matter as the “2-14 Vicious Boat Collision Incident (2.14惡性撞船事件)” (China News, February 27). One of the clearest examples of such messaging was presented on March 13 by PRC Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman Chen Binhua (陳斌華), who accused—without providing any specifics or evidence—Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)-led government of covering up details of the incident. Chen spoke of “the Taiwan side’s rough treatment toward mainland fishermen, resulting in the fishing boat capsizing,” and declared that Taiwan’s authorities “are the real ‘three no’s’: no compassion, no justice, no reason (無情, 無義, 無理).” Chen hinted at retaliatory measures by the PRC, but stated that, before proceeding with further actions, “we must see what sort of attitude the DPP authorities take in dealing with the incident, [and] what sort of explanation they give to the victims’ families and cross-Strait compatriots” (Xinhua, March 13). This language is largely consistent with narratives from the CCP propaganda system that preceded the incident. For instance, on January 31 a state media editorial attacked Taiwan’s government for its “impenitent stance on making provocations to pursue independence and stoking up confrontation across the Strait” (Xinhua, January 31).

Denying Taiwan’s Sovereignty and the International Status of the Taiwan Strait

Beijing has also predictably taken the opportunity to leverage the events around the Kinmen Islands to deny any legitimate independent existence for Taiwan once again. It has also used the incident to assert PRC sovereignty over the area—not only over Taiwan itself, but also over the entirety of the Taiwan Strait. Chen Binhua’s March 13 statement asserted that “both sides of the Taiwan Straits are China’s territory, China enjoys sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdictional rights over the Taiwan Strait (海峡两岸都是中国的领土,中国对台湾海峡享有主权、主权权利和管辖权).” Chen accordingly denied any international status for the sea space of the strait, asserting that “the waters of the Taiwan Strait are divided into China’s internal waters, territorial waters, contiguous zone, and exclusive economic zone. So-called ‘international waters’ do not exist (台湾海峡水域分别为中国内水、领海、毗连区和专属经济区,不存在所谓的“国际水域”)” (Xinhua, March 13). This is consistent with a narrative pushed by Beijing since at least summer 2022, which muddles together all generally recognized delineations of maritime space into a de facto single category over which the PRC claims sovereignty and administrative rights tantamount to territorial waters. [2]


Some aspects of the February 14 incident near Kinmen Island remain unclear. Whether or not the unidentified vessel was actually a fishing boat, or whether it was instead engaged in other activities, is not known. Similarly, there has been no announcement concerning the exact cause of the small craft’s fatal capsizing. However, it appears that the PRC has seized upon the opportunity presented by this incident—one of a constant series of minor incidents prompted by the efforts of Taiwan’s coast guard to exercise maritime enforcement rights overfishing and other activities near Taiwan’s outlying islands—to provoke an “opportunistic crisis.” Such minor crises provide pretexts for the PRC to further advance and “normalize” its gradual encroachments into Taiwan’s territorial space. This is similar to the fashion in which the PRC used the August 2022 visit to Taiwan by then-US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as a pretext to ramp up coercive military activity around Taiwan (Global Taiwan Brief, August 24, 2022). Opportunistic crises also provide the CCP propaganda system with a more prominent position from which to assert its narratives about Taiwan—particularly, denying Taiwan’s legitimacy and asserting PRC sovereignty—and to further normalize such messages by repetition.

The February 14 incident, and its immediate aftermath, are unlikely to produce a larger crisis. There are subtle indications that the PRC is likely seeking to manage the escalation of these incidents for example, the reportedly cooperative coast guard search-and-rescue efforts near Matsu, or the statements that the PRC will further monitor DPP actions before deciding upon further responses. Such actions could actually represent subtle signals of short-term de-escalation. However, we should expect the PRC’s “law enforcement” gray zone actions to continue in tandem with more overt acts of military intimidation as a component of its ongoing psychological warfare directed against Taiwan’s population, and its efforts to claim sovereignty over Taiwan and the international waters surrounding it.

  • About the author: John Dotson is the deputy director of the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, DC. Previously, he was the editor of the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.  John is a former officer in the U.S. Navy, whose assignments included positions at sea, in Japan, in Africa, and in the Pentagon. His service also included four years as an instructor on the faculty of the National Intelligence University, where he taught coursework on military strategy, intelligence analysis, and national security policy. John also served for six years on the staff of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, where he coordinated staff research on a range of trade and national-security issues on behalf of the U.S. Congress. He has performed extensive writing and research on a host of topics related to China, to include Chinese propaganda and influence efforts, and elite-level politics within the Chinese Communist Party. John holds an M.A. in National Security Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and a Master of International Public Policy from Johns Hopkins-SAIS.
  • Source: This article was published by The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 7


[1] This follows a consistent pattern observed in recent years in which Beijing has either eroded or outright broken pre-existing norms that offered limited de facto, if not de jure, regard for Taiwan’s territorial space—such as observing the Taiwan Strait centerline for military aviation flights, or Taiwan’s declared Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). See: Thomas Shattuck, “The PLA Air Force Erases the Taiwan Strait Centerline,” Global Taiwan Brief(September 7, 2022).

[2] For a fuller discussion of this point, see: John Dotson, “Beijing Ramps Up Its Rhetoric over Taiwan and Maritime Sovereignty,” Global Taiwan Brief (June 29, 2022).

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