Over the past year, scores of gargantuan Chinese sand dredgers have deployed themselves in territorial waters off the Taiwanese-administered Matsu Islands, where their activities erode beaches and ruin fishing shoals. These Chinese ships are mercenary; a small 5,000 ton ship could sell a load of sand for the equivalent of US$55,000 to Fujian construction firms — or to the People’s Liberation Army for use in building its artificial reefs in the South China Sea. They also frustrate Taiwan’s government, which tries unsuccessfully to cooperate with Beijing on environmental stewardship of their contiguous waters. Each day, Taiwanese Coast Guard vessels can nudge perhaps two Chinese ships from Matsu’s waters. One day last year, a Matsu coast guardsman told the Reuters news agency and the Financial Times, hundreds of the massive sand dredgers infringed Matsu’s waters, but the Taiwan coast guard was only able to impound two of them. For all of 2020, nearly 4,000 Chinese dredgers were identified in Matsu’s waters, but only a few hundred were confronted.
Beijing’s government, which professes to cherish the ocean environment, polices its own coastline yet encourages Chinese vessels to harass Matsu and other Taiwan-administered islands off the China coast. Although Taiwan’s Coast Guard is modern, professional and well-equipped, it is in no position to challenge the locust plague of Chinese vessels in the absence of Beijing’s enforcement of its own coastline.
I am sure Washington is perplexed by Beijing’s priorities which stress harassment of Taiwan over global environmental cooperation. And there is some concern in the Biden Administration that Beijing’s behavior is intended to provoke Taiwan in a way that might justify a retaliatory crisis.
To my friends and colleagues in Washington, I would offer a few perspectives on the Taiwan-administered offshore islands. It’s not what it looks like.
Through the 1950s and 1960s, the names “Quemoy and Matsu” (金門及馬祖) evoked unending crisis and doom for newspaper-reading Americans. In January and February 1955, the US Navy helped evacuate nearly 40,000 Chinese Nationalist soldiers and civilians from the Tachen Islands (大陳群島), raising concerns that US servicemen would be embroiled in China’s civil war.
A few weeks later, when a news reporter asked President Eisenhower “would the United States use a tactical nuclear weapon in a general war in Asia?,” he answered, “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.” In his later memoir, Eisenhower said he hoped his stand would demonstrate to the Chinese communists “the strength of our determination.” As for Quemoy and Matsu, the President privately admitted, “those damn little offshore islands, sometimes I wish they’d sink.”
In 1955, Eisenhower had persuaded Chinese Nationalist president Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) to evacuate the Tachen Islands in return for a secret American pledge to support Chiang’s continued occupation of Quemoy and Matsu. But after the Tachens emptied of Nationalists, and Communist Chinese had taken over, Eisenhower’s envoy Admiral Arthur Radford, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, conferred in Taipei with President Chiang and explained that the American president could no longer pledge defense of the offshore islands. Public opinion in the United States did not support US military involvement on what was clearly Chinese soil. An American diplomat later characterized President Chiang as insisting to Radford “that Quemoy and Matsu were the last footholds of his Government on soil that has continuously been Chinese and that he could not voluntarily abandon these islands and maintain the support of his own people.”
After the fraught Formosa Strait Crisis of 1958, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles personally pleaded with President Chiang to abandon Quemoy and Matsu and leave them to the Communists. Dulles, who had personally ensured that the multilateral Japanese peace treaty of 1951 withheld Taiwan’s former Japanese sovereignty from “China” but rather left Taiwan’s international legal status “unsettled pending future international resolution,” argued with Chiang that he need not worry about Taiwan’s legal status: Dulles recalled “that when the Generalissimo was defending Free China against the Japanese he did not identify his cause with Peking, and Nanking, or Hankow, or even Chungking. Great causes are not to be identified with the holding of particular territorial positions.”
But President Chiang was adamant. He “replied that in his opinion Taiwan could not be held long after Quemoy fell.” President Chiang, no doubt, recalled sourly that Secretary Dulles had told the Congress “the [international] juridical status of Formosa and the Pescadores is different from the juridical status of the offshore islands which have always been Chinese territory.”
In a memorandum following President Eisenhower’s state visit to Taipei in June 1960, Assistant Secretary of State Graham Parsons briefed the Secretary of State that “Chiang sees retention of the offshore islands as the only tangible symbol of his claim to the mainland and of his hope for its recovery,” and concluded that “I feel that Chiang would see such an action on his part as setting in motion an irreversible trend toward ‘two Chinas.’”
Indeed, after the Formosa Strait crisis had dissipated, Republic of China Vice President Chen Cheng (陳誠) stated, in the fall of 1958, the ROC was prepared to give up its seat in the UN rather than give up the offshore islands. American diplomats believed that, in Chiang’s eyes, his voluntary relinquishment of the offshore islands would be tantamount to his acceptance of a ‘two China’ policy — or more accurately — of a ‘one China, one Taiwan policy’.”
If Chiang Kai-shek viewed Quemoy and Matsu as essential to his vision of a future “One China” under the Republic of China, so too did Mao Zedong (毛澤東). A document reportedly from the former Soviet archives records the conversation between Mao and Soviet Communist Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev on October 2, 1959, in Beijing. Mao admitted that “I would like to clarify right away that we did not intend to undertake any large-scale military actions in the area of Taiwan [in 1958], and only wanted to create complications for the United States considering that they got bogged down in Lebanon. And we believe that our campaign was successful.” Mao added, “Although we fire at the off-shore islands, we will not make attempts to liberate them. We also think that the United States will not go to war because of the off-shore islands and Taiwan.”
Khrushchev replied that “As for the firing at the off-shore islands, if you shoot, then you ought to capture these islands, and if you do not consider necessary capturing these islands, then there is no use in firing. I do not understand this policy of yours.” A puzzled Mao explained, “We informed you about our intentions regarding Taiwan a month ahead, before we began shelling the off-shore islands … we informed you about our intentions through your General Staff.” Khrushchev reminded Mao, “Between us, in a confidential way, we say that we will not fight over Taiwan, but for outside consumption, so to say, we state on the contrary, that in case of an aggravation of the situation because of Taiwan the USSR will defend the PRC.”
Clearly, Khrushchev understood that “Taiwan” was not internationally recognized as Chinese territory. He would not help invade Taiwan, but he would commit to “defend the PRC.”
After considerable back-and-forth, Mao admitted his real strategy against Taiwan was to work on Chiang’s sole superpower ally: “If the United States does not leave Taiwan, then we will negotiate with them until they go from there.” Mao’s focus on Chiang’s alliance with the United States was a textbook stratagem from Sunzi: “The Warrior first must undermine the enemy’s legitimacy, and then confound his alliances.” (上兵伐謀 其次伐交).
The offshore islands have changed since the 1950s. There are no more military garrisons. There are no Chinese artillery barrages. Instead, relentless encroachments by Chinese sand dredgers which despoil the offshore islands’ delicate aquatic ecology and literally undermine their shorelines are Beijing’s new tactic to shake Taiwanese confidence in their own democracy. I don’t know whether Taiwan has an option of withdrawing from the offshore islands. But Taiwanese administration of the offshore islands no longer hinges on a “One China” principle. And I suspect that, unlike Vice President Chen Cheng in 1958, the Taiwanese Government of 2021 would rather have a seat in the UN than defend the offshore islands from China’s aggression, for surely, the People’s Liberation Army may take the islands whenever it wants.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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