FEATURE: CGA sets first line of defense in Kinmen

GUARDIANS::The agency’s duties range from protecting the nation’s territorial waters and watching against disease outbreaks to making sure elderly residents are cared for

By Lin Chia-nan  /  Staff reporter

Mon, Feb 11, 2019 - Page 3

Some say that the Coast Guard Administration (CGA) is the easiest assignment for soldiers, as its personnel are often seen on beaches, but for those stationed in Kinmen County, cross-strait tensions can take different forms — from disease prevention to maritime defense.

Clad in fluorescent orange uniforms, coast guard personnel might appear distant to many Taiwanese, partly because they include military, police and administrative officers whose duties mainly cover emergency response.

The agency has drawn increasing public attention since a pig carcass was found on a Kinmen beach on Dec. 31 last year and was on Jan. 3 confirmed to be infected with the African swine fever virus.

The Council of Agriculture said that the carcass could have floated from China, where the disease appears to have spread out of control since China reported the first infection in August last year.

President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) visited the county to inspect quarantine measures the day after the council announced its test results.

Kinmen, composed of two bigger islands and several smaller unpopulated islets, is more than 300km from Taiwan proper, but about 2km from China, making it a front line for cross-strait exchanges, good or bad.

There are 459 coast guard personnel stationed on Kinmen — 413 male and 46 female — in addition to the army’s Kinmen Defense Command.

The pig carcass cannot have been on the beach for more than four hours, given the coast guard’s patrol schedule, said CGA Kinmen-Matsu-Penghu Branch Ninth Coast Patrol Corps deputy chief Wang Jung-chung (王榮忠), who discovered the carcass.

The carcass is not likely to be a Chinese biochemical weapon as some have speculated, as any vessel trying to dump it would have been intercepted by Taiwanese or Chinese coast guards, the corps’ chief Wu Chien-kuang (吳建冠) said, adding that people who could avoid coast guard patrols would have dumped more carcasses.

The discovery was foreseeable, as northeasterly monsoons often carry trash from China to the county’s beaches, and the corps was the first government agency to alert the council of such a possibility in November last year, Wu said.

With cross-strait traffic via the “small three links” getting busier ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday, government agencies tightened the controls on Chinese visitors arriving at the county’s Shueitou Harbor (水頭碼頭), which receives 47 shuttle boats every day, he said, adding that it takes only 30 minutes to sail from Xiamen to the harbor.

Chinese travelers undergo health and immigration checks before they are allowed into the nation at the harbor, and their luggage is checked by X-ray scanners and sniffer dogs, he said.

However, officers must be vigilant, as non-metal objects, such as live animals, cannot be detected by the machines, Wu added.

Despite the threat posed by the disease, the corps does not feel much extra burden, as it regularly trains for cross-strait animal epidemics, such as avian influenza, he said.

Guarding the nation’s territorial waters against Chinese fishing boats is another day-to-day battle for coast guard personnel.

Given Kinmen’s proximity to China, the exclusive economic zone surrounding the county varies, ending 1.5km off the coast of the county’s Mashan (馬山) area at its narrowest point, Ministry of National Defense’s guidelines show.

Stationed at the county’s Liaoluo Harbor (料羅碼頭), CGA Fleet Branch member Cheng Shu-yu (鄭書羽), the captain of a 100-tonne patrol vessel, said he has to expel many Chinese fishing boats from Taiwanese waters every day.

During a patrol of Kinmen’s waters on Jan. 24, he spotted a 15-tonne Chinese fishing boat fishing in Taiwan’s territorial waters, Cheng said.

He warned the boat’s crew with sirens and spoke to them through loudspeakers, Cheng added.

“You have invaded our territorial waters. Please leave right now,” Cheng told the Chinese crew in Chinese and Hoklo (also known as Taiwanese) as the patrol boat approached the fishers, causing a moment of tension.

Fortunately, the Chinese crew obeyed his instruction and left, Cheng said, adding that had it refused to leave, they would have had to forcefully board and inspect the fishing boat.

While the patrol boat is equipped with weapons, forcible boarding can be risky, especially when fishers wield knives or threaten to start a fire to discourage coast guard personnel from boarding, Cheng added.

He has to evaluate the risks involved in boarding or using weapons, Cheng said, adding that the latter scenario should be taken extremely seriously, as it could evolve into a cross-strait conflict.

Nonetheless, boarding uncooperative ships might be sometimes necessary, as an intrusive ship near Kinmen face a fine of NT$300,000 (US$9,758) or a little more, which might be ineffective to curb illegal fishing, Cheng said.

The coast guard last year expelled 34 Chinese boats from Taiwanese waters, detained 42 vessels and confiscated 26, and issued fines totaling NT$6.3 million, agency data showed.

The agency plans to build 141 new patrol vessels by 2027 to boost its patrol capabilities, as well as the domestic shipbuilding industry. Jong Shyn Shipbuilding Co last month started building the first of 12 new 600-tonne vessels.

Not all of the coast guard’s missions are so belligerent. In the county, the corps members also serve as borough wardens.

They regularly visit elderly people living alone in remote areas to check if they need any help.

The corps has also distributed red envelopes for the Lunar New Year, said Lin Yu-hsiu (林育秀), one of the corps’ female members and its psychological counselor for rookies.

It is not difficult to keep an eye on solitary elders, who can also provide important intelligence to the corps, Wu said.

Asked if they regard Chinese as “enemies,” some coast guard personnel said that they are the targets of the law, while others said they are ordinary people like Taiwanese and that the cultural similarities shared by Kinmen and Xiamen residents are indelible.

The ambivalent mentality is best epitomized by the county’s Mofan Street (模範街) in Jincheng Township (金城), which is lined with the Republic of China flags on one side and the People’s Republic of China flags on the other.

The flags were hung by the borough warden about a year ago, but residents can change the flags if they want, a souvenir store owner said on condition of anonymity.