On Wednesday last week, the Presidential Office confirmed that the word “Taiwan” would be added to the hulls of Coast Guard Administration vessels.
This follows President Tsai Ing-wen’s (蔡英文) request, made during a launch ceremony on Dec. 11 last year for a new patrol vessel, the Anping (安平), that they “should be more clearly identifiable to the international community when carrying out law enforcement duties.”
Some opposition lawmakers have questioned the move, claiming that confusion over Taiwan and China’s respective coast guards is unheard of.
However, as a former navy captain, with experience investigating suspicious vessels, and expelling Chinese intelligence ships and fishing militia vessels from Taiwanese waters, I can attest that there is a definite need for the nation’s coast guard vessels to bear the name “Taiwan.”
First, the markings on the sides of coast guard ships vary from country to country. US Coast Guard vessels feature red, white and blue racing stripes embellished with the coast guard’s insignia; Japan Coast Guard vessels feature three blue stripes; South Korean vessels feature red, yellow and blue stripes; and China’s and the Philippines’ coast guard vessels feature red, white and blue stripes. Close observation is required to differentiate coast guard vessels from different nations.
Taiwanese coast guard vessels feature a red and a blue stripe with a large, white inlay of the letter “T.”
The racing stripes on Chinese coast guard vessels are comprised of a thick “eastern red” ribbon with one thin blue stripe on one side and three on the other — symbolizing the Bohai, Yellow, and East and South China seas.
The design of Philippine Coast Guard vessels is relatively similar to that of the US Coast Guard, featuring almost identical red, white and blue stripes, and the only major difference is the lack of an insignia on the Philippine vessels.
When coast guard vessels from three nations converge in the same area of the South China Sea over disputed territory, they can easily be confused.
Lettering is also used to differentiate vessels.
However, in contrast to, for example China, Japan or South Korea, Taiwanese ships indicate their country of origin as the Republic of China (ROC) and feature the lettering “ROC Coast Guard” on their side.
This makes it difficult for commercial ships and fishing boats to recognize Taiwanese vessels. If the word “Taiwan” was written in bold, capital letters above the existing lettering, Taiwanese coast guard vessels could be more easily identified by other ships while they are enforcing maritime law, conducting search-and-rescue operations or patrolling Taiwan’s sovereign waters.
While conducting nighttime checks, the coast guard uses Channel 16 (156.8 megahertz) to communicate with unidentified or suspicious ships.
If Taiwanese vessels identify themselves over the radio as the “Republic of China Coast Guard,” this might lead to confusion over why the Chinese coast guard is patrolling Taiwanese sovereign waters. Therefore, “Taiwan” must be emphasized in the initial radio call to prevent such misunderstanding.
On July 30 last year, the Chinese State Oceanic Administration announced a new maritime regulation titled “Technical Regulation 2020.”
Taking effect the following day, the regulation defined the Taiwan Strait and the waters of up to 50 nautical miles (93km) off Taiwan’s east coast as “inshore navigation zones,” stipulating that “seagoing vessels passing through China’s internal navigation lanes [would] undergo statutory checks.”
On the face of it, the regulation appeared to simply align maritime regulations with Beijing’s political stance.
However, the passing of China’s Coast Guard Law on Feb. 1 means that its coast guard might now be tasked with management and protection duties within the offshore and coastal navigation areas defined in the regulation.
Additionally, a 5,000-tonne maritime patrol rescue ship, the Haixun 06, was launched before the Lunar New Year. The ship is to be operated by the Fujian Province branch of the Chinese Maritime Safety Administration, whose director has emphasized that the ship would be used to control maritime shipping movements and provide emergency rescue services in the Strait.
This is tantamount to the annexation of the Strait as a Chinese inland waterway. This is not idle armchair strategizing: The threat is real and the die has being cast by Beijing.
In a 2017 Chinese-language article titled “The Chinese red ant has turned into a monster: Is Taiwan prepared?” I argued that China would use its fishing militia, a militarized coast guard and its navy as three pillars to uphold what Beijing views as its sovereign maritime rights.
Turning a blind eye to illegal border crossings, the stealing of sand by Chinese dredging boats and the designation of navigation zones, as well as the passage of the new law and the launch of the Haixun 06, are all salami-slicing tactics. The next step might be the normalization of crossings of the Strait’s median line by Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy vessels.
Adding “Taiwan” to the side of coast guard vessels is not just a means to be more clearly identifiable, it would also demonstrate Taiwan’s determination to defend its sovereign waters and prevent China’s coast guard from trespassing across the median line. It is a smart move.
Lu Li-shih is a former instructor at the Republic of China Naval Academy and a former captain of the ROCS Hsin Chiang.
Translated by Edward Jones
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