China Could Quarantine Taiwan With Coast Guard to Undermine Island’s Sovereignty: Report

‘We need to think about designating the Chinese Coast Guard as part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,’ says report author, Bonny Lin.
China Could Quarantine Taiwan With Coast Guard to Undermine Island’s Sovereignty: Report
China Coast Guard ships monitor the distribution of fuel and food to fishers by the civilian-led mission Atin Ito (This Is Ours) Coalition, in the disputed South China Sea on May 16, 2024. (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)
Frank Fang
Eva Fu
Updated:
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Taiwan is at risk of ceding some of its autonomy to communist China if Beijing decides to inflict severe economic pain on the island via a “gray-zone” quarantine, according to experts from a Washington-based think tank.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), in a report released earlier this month, warns that it is “more feasible” for the Chinese regime to quarantine Taiwan in the near future than to invade or blockade the self-ruled island.

Quarantine is a “law enforcement-led operation to control maritime or air traffic within a specific area,” in other words, using customs rules to harass ships. Under a quarantine, the Chinese military “would play a supporting role.” In contrast, a blockade that stops all maritime traffic is considered an act of war under international law.

The report says the Chinese regime would mobilize vessels operated under the China coast guard, Maritime Safety Administration, and maritime militia to implement a maritime quarantine.

“China’s use of the coast guard and civilian law enforcement complicates the ability of the United States and regional actors to respond,” the report reads.

Unlike a Chinese invasion, which would inevitably halt commercial trade through the Taiwan Strait, a quarantine wouldn’t have such an impact, according to the report. The Taiwan Strait, a narrow body of water separating China and Taiwan, is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

“A quarantine does not require closing off or restricting international traffic through the Taiwan Strait—an action that other countries could use as a justification to intervene to assist Taiwan and defend international legal rights to freedom of navigation,” the report reads.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) considers Taiwan as one of its territories and aims to take it over, even as the island is a de facto independent nation with its own democratically elected government. Last year, CIA Director William Burns said CCP leader Xi Jinping had instructed his military to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.

Bonny Lin, one of the report’s authors and director of the CSIS’s China Power Project, recently told The Epoch Times that the United States has started to carry out war games with close allies and partners regarding a quarantine scenario.

One of the recommendations that Ms. Lin offered is engaging with U.S. allies and partners in more tabletop exercises.

“The second is to encourage more Coast Guard cooperation between the United States and our allies and partners and our allies with Taiwan,” she said.

“The third recommendation that we also have in there is we need to think about designating the Chinese coast guard as part of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

“Chinese coast guard does not operate like a typical coast guard; it actually operates more like a military. And there’s no reason why we have to treat the Chinese coast guard as just a civilian entity.”

According to the report, the Chinese coast guard is a quasi-military organization that reports to the CCP’s top military body, the Central Military Commission. It’s the world’s largest coast guard, operating more than 150 oceangoing vessels and more than 400 smaller vessels.

Maritime Quarantine

The report examines two examples of potential maritime quarantines and explains that these cases “align with activities and capabilities China has demonstrated through past operations.”

In both cases, the Chinese regime would start by publicly announcing “enhanced customs inspection rules,” the report states, requiring cargo and tanker vessels to “file advance customs declarations with relevant Chinese authorities” before entering Taiwanese ports. The new measure would go into effect 48 hours later.

“Chinese law enforcement vessels will be authorized to board vessels, conduct on-site inspections, question personnel, and undertake other measures against non-compliant ships,” the report reads. “Chinese authorities also threaten fines and market access restrictions for companies flouting the new rules.”

In the first scenario, which the report calls a limited maritime quarantine, China would position more than 10 law enforcement patrol vessels off the coast of Kaohsiung, one of the major ports in southern Taiwan. A smaller contingent of vessels would sit off the coast of major ports at Taipei and the central Taiwanese city of Taichung.

These groups of vessels would “intrude into Taiwan’s 24-nautical-mile contiguous zone and occasionally approach the 12-nautical-mile territorial seas boundary,” according to the report. China would deploy about 20 maritime militia vessels to support the operation.

To deter intervention by other countries and counter possible responses from Taiwan’s navy, China’s navy would dispatch about 30 destroyers, frigates, support vessels, and attack submarines to encircle Taiwan at different locations.

“Beijing does not need universal compliance with the customs rules in order to claim success. Compliance by around 75 percent of shipping companies would be a considerable success for China,” the report reads, adding that the quarantine measure could last for about seven days.

The Chinese regime also could implement a full maritime quarantine,  which would be a “scaled-up” version of the first scenario, the report states. In the second scenario, Beijing would send a larger contingent of law enforcement patrol vessels to encircle Taiwan, targeting several other ports in addition to the ports of Taipei, Taichung, and Kaohsiung.

Beijing would also dispatch its Shandong aircraft carrier and its strike group to the waters southeast of Taiwan.

“In this [second] scenario, China is much more active in terms of boarding and searching vessels,” the report reads. “Chinese forces stop at least one or two vessels per day for the period of the quarantine, focusing mostly on Taiwan-flagged ships.”

The full maritime quarantine would last for more than two weeks, the report states, which would cause Taiwan to suffer a “significant and noticeable decline of merchandise trade” because of the CCP’s customs enforcement.

China

The CCP’s goal isn’t to seal off Taiwan completely in either of the two scenarios, the report explains.

“Instead, these campaigns are designed to punish Taiwan, assert Beijing’s claimed sovereignty over the island, test the response from international shipping companies, and put significant pressure on Taiwan,” the report reads.

“Even if successfully implemented, there are limits to what a quarantine can achieve.

“If Beijing’s goal is to inflict enough pain to force Taiwan’s surrender, China would need to move beyond the gray zone into overt military action. A military blockade would be a key option for China if it seeks to forcefully unify Taiwan without launching an all-out invasion.”

The report mentions a CSIS survey published in January, which found that only 13 percent of U.S. experts and 9 percent of Taiwan experts were “completely confident” that the United States would intervene militarily to defend Taiwan from a quarantine. By contrast, if the CCP launched an all-out invasion, those confidence levels rise to 46 percent of U.S. experts and 49 percent of Taiwan experts.

The United States is Taiwan’s largest arms supplier. It is bound by law, the Taiwan Relations Act, to provide the island with the means to defend itself.

Frank Fang is a Taiwan-based journalist. He covers U.S., China, and Taiwan news. He holds a master's degree in materials science from Tsinghua University in Taiwan.
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