MATSU, Taiwan -- In the darkness, Chinese ships edge closer to Taiwan's Matsu Islands, at times entering Taiwan-controlled waters. They are not military vessels, but huge sand dredgers that spend hours pumping up tons of sand from the ocean floor. There are so many lit boats they resemble traffic on a highway, and their loud mechanical rumblings echo across the otherwise quiet islands.
Dozens -- and at their peak, hundreds -- of these 2,000-ton vessels have been making their presence felt in the waters off Matsu. The small islands are part of Taiwan, but much closer to the Chinese mainland than Taipei. Residents say the Chinese sand dredgers have disturbed them, spoiled their coasts, shrunk their beaches and harmed marine life.
Most of all, they say, the dredgers have created fear since they started coming in increasing numbers over last year -- fear about what may come next.
On a single evening, "we could see 300 or 400 dredgers," said Lin Mei-hao, who runs a guesthouse on the main island, Nangan. "Their lights shone in the nighttime. Wherever you looked there was light, there were boats, dredging sand, really loudly."
Lin grew up on Matsu, within sight of the Chinese mainland and, at the time, in a near-permanent state of alert. Leaning on a disused cement bunker -- a relic from shelling by the People's Liberation Army in the 1950s -- Lin's tone, normally affable, turns dark. War is never far from Matsu Islanders' thoughts, especially now.
"The main thing is we are afraid that the sand dredging is just an excuse. Are they actually armed boats, will they come here?" he said. "They look like civilian boats but do they have the People's Liberation Army on board? That is what we worry about."
Over two decades, Matsu was on the front lines of frequent artillery bombardments between Mao Zedong's Communist army and Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist forces. Now, some say they are on the front lines of China's newest tactic: "gray zone" or hybrid warfare, actions that are aimed at wearing down, intimidating or provoking the enemy without firing a single shot.
China has denied that it is allowing sand dredgers to operate illegally near Matsu, but some Taiwan officials and Matsu residents fear the vessels are doing the bidding of Beijing, which seeks to one day bring Taiwan under its control. The numbers of dredgers have soared as cross-strait tensions between Beijing and Taipei have ramped up to their highest point in years.
They can be seen "as a gray zone tactic, a nonmilitary form of exerting pressure, with the aim of harassment and intimidation," according to local politician Lii Wen, the head of the local chapter of Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).
Lii, a former news reporter in Taipei who now speaks publicly on foreign policy and security issues, sits in his office in downtown Matsu among a jumble of restaurants and coffee shops. He has made the dredgers a pet issue since setting up a representative office early last year in the Matsu Islands, a constituency that has voted staunchly in favor of the DPP's opponents, the Kuomintang.
"China is getting smarter and more creative in its ways of exerting pressure," said Lii in an interview in his office. His sleeveless khaki work jacket bears a localized version of the DPP flag, with the Matsu Islands in the center rather than Taiwan, along with his name.
On the wall is a large map, locating Matsu up close to China and separated from Taiwan by a large expanse of water. "If Taiwan fails to respond, then we allow the destruction of our environment and infrastructure. But if Taiwan responds with military force on civilian dredgers, then it gives China an excuse to escalate tensions."
China claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, and has never renounced the use of force to take control of it. As China-U.S. relations have worsened, Washington -- first under former President Donald Trump and now the new administration of Joe Biden -- has shown Taiwan unprecedented support, including high-level visits to the island, which has further angered Beijing.
The Matsu Islands are in a particularly precarious position. They are a mere 25-minute boat ride away from the Chinese coast -- much closer than the almost one-hour flight or 10-hour overnight ferry ride from the Taiwan mainland. On a clear day, the skyscrapers of Fujian Province are visible from Nangan Island, beyond dozens of large dredgers at work.
Canaries in the coal mine
After a 25-year career in the technology industry in built-up Taoyuan City, Lin returned home with his wife and sons and built his guesthouse to overlook the Golden Sand bay in a corner of Nangan. The 55-year-old grew up in the village that is named after the fine golden sand.
While the water shimmers in the sunlight, the beach is not what it once was, he laments. He looks down at it from the terrace of his guesthouse, built in the style of the old stone houses that dot Golden Sand village.
"It's not as beautiful as it used to be" because the dredging has eroded away some of the sand, he said.
Matsu's civilian-run coast guard, at times backed by bigger coast guard vessels from the Taiwan mainland, has chased away 94 Chinese dredgers from Matsu's waters in the first four months of this year. That is the same number as for the whole of 2019. There has, however, been a reduction from last year, when they expelled 552 Chinese dredgers from around the Matsu islands, which authorities put down to a combination of factors including increased patrolling and tougher penalties.
But those that they drive away come back later. Many more dredgers sit just outside the 6,000-meter zone around Matsu's islands, which Taiwan considers its restricted waters. China does not officially recognize any of Taiwan's claims to sovereignty.
Video carried by Taiwan media last year showed dramatic confrontations at sea. In one video broadcast in October, the coast guard pulls up alongside a dredger that is pumping out water, telling the crew they have entered Taiwan's restricted waters and to leave immediately. They douse the much larger dredger with water from a cannon. Separate footage pans around to show at least dozens of boats at least three layers thick with someone saying: "Wow, we're totally surrounded."
Efforts to contact the Chinese government's Taiwan Affairs Office for comment were unsuccessful.
Matsu, a collection of islands about 20 km from the Chinese coast, is no stranger to war. The 13,000 inhabitants are in many ways the canaries in the coal mine for cross-strait tensions that are currently running at their highest in years.
These islands were very much on the front lines in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan and rebased his Republic of China government thereafter losing the war to Mao's Communists. His forces also took control of and fortified the Matsu and Kinmen islands. On the mainland, the Communist Party established the People's Republic of China.
Both Chiang, until his death in 1975, and the Communist Party vowed to take back the other "China." Every two days, from 1958 until 1979, Mao's Communist army fired artillery shells with propaganda leaflets at Matsu and Kinmen. On the days in between, Chiang's Republic of China army fired back.
Lin, whose guesthouse is a minute's walk away from a bunker, said his classmate's father lost his leg when a shell fell through the roof of a cinema where he was watching a movie in the 1960s.
"Why are there bunkers in every village near people's homes? This is why," said Lin.
"The shelling would start around 5 or 6 o'clock in the evening," recalled another resident, Yau Hsing-wu, 72. "Inside, the propaganda leaflets [sent by China] said our life in Taiwan was bad, our leaflets said their mainland system was bad."
Then, residents were outnumbered by soldiers, said Yau, a retired civil servant. There were evening curfews, and anyone wanting to go to another village after dark had to register with authorities. If they wanted to travel on one of the weekly 24-hour-long boats to "Taiwan," they had to apply for special permission with their passport. Many left for study and in search of work because the opportunities in Matsu were so few: fishing, growing vegetables, running a small store or restaurant.
Martial law here was only lifted in the 1990s, when it was still very much a rugged outpost. Today, signs of war remain everywhere. Towering above a statue of Chiang at the entrance to Nangan's harbor is a slogan warning that his soldiers are always ready for war: "We sleep with our weapons by our pillows." Repainted military tanks and forts along with its beaches are a tourist draw.
But the residents of Matsu who survived frequent artillery shelling believe the target has shifted. China's military has advanced to the stage where it can bypass their islands and aim straight for the Taiwan mainland.
"Their No. 1 target is definitely Taiwan," said the guesthouse owner, Lin. "They need to attack quickly so the U.S. doesn't have time to intervene. They might use ships to blockade Matsu and Kinmen, but they won't attack two small islands."
Matsu is still close to China culturally. The local dialect is a language that is also spoken in Fujian Province across the Taiwan Strait, and different from Taiwanese Hokkien.
People generally favor closer ties with the mainland. Yau says his father came across from Fujian and also feels Chinese, but cannot accept Communist Party rule.
"People here hope that we can keep the status quo, live our lives and let them live theirs, because there is no way we can accept their system," he said.
"The people on the mainland do not want to invade, because their life is getting better, they don't want war. But the leaders want to unify, so there is the possibility. Their military is stronger, they have more people, they have more arms."
The appearance of hundreds of sand dredgers ramped up fears, Yau said.
"All of a sudden there were a lot of ships, there were sand dredgers everywhere. We were thinking: Will the mainland invade, will there be armed militia on board?" he said. "Our island is really small. And when we looked out there were all their boats, hundreds of them. Within half an hour, they can sail here. It was terrifying."
The dredgers remove huge amounts of sand from the ocean floor to feed infrastructure and land reclamation projects in China. They generally don't have a registered ship name or port, and are considered illegal under Chinese legislation, too, said Lii, the local politician.
The Chinese coast guard has "engaged in some limited campaigns against the dredgers and they highly publicize these efforts," said Lii. "But from our perspective, we feel that these efforts are quite uneven, and that sometimes the dredgers come out in large numbers and the Chinese coast guard seems to turn a blind eye."
The jump in dredgers and their incursions into Taiwan-controlled waters is set against an increasing assertiveness by China in the South China Sea at large, which is a major route for the world's maritime traffic. China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, an area of the western Pacific Ocean that is surrounded by southern China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam -- which all hold competing claims to parts of it.
In January, Beijing passed a new law authorizing its coast guard to fire on foreign vessels in areas that China considers its own territory.
To push its territorial claims, China has in recent years built artificial islands around reefs it occupies, and then built military facilities and runways for Chinese fighter jets on top of them.
It has also been projecting power and asserting its claims through fleets of Chinese fishing boats, which have long assisted the coast guard and navy in furthering Beijing's interests through patrols, surveillance and confronting foreign vessels. In March, the Philippines reported a "swarming and threatening" presence of more than 200 Chinese "maritime militia" vessels at the Philippines-claimed Whitsun Reef, which stayed there for several weeks. China's foreign ministry said the vessels were simply fishing boats in "Chinese territory," sheltering from the wind.
"People look around the Matsu Islands, surrounded by all these sand dredging boats. It's very similar with the boats in the Philippines," said Wang Ting-yu, a Taiwanese legislator and member of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Defense Committee.
On the surface, the sand dredgers "are just a boat doing something illegal," he said.
"But they are training to familiarize themselves with your water area. Once the party needs them, they will become a gray zone ... and behind this will be their coastguard, behind the coastguard will be their navy, and sometimes there will be a mixture hiding on a boat. So gray zone tactics is quite a complicated and difficult situation to deal with."
China is sending their fishermen and their boats to surround other countries' coast guards and counting on the fact that democratic countries will not dare to use their navy or "gunpower to hit us," Wang said. "They are using this to push your line back, back, backward and then they can occupy the water area they want.
"Maybe the conflict [Chinese President] Xi Jinping wants will start with this," Wang said.
Next in line
The Communist Party considers Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has never ruled over it. For years, the two sides have existed in an uneasy status quo, with Taiwan operating as a de-facto independent state with its own government, elections, currency and military, but without formally declaring independence from China, something that Beijing has declared a "red line." It regularly threatens to bring Taiwan under its control, by force if necessary.
China has increased the pressure on Taiwan since President Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party came to power in 2016. She has committed herself to the status quo, while also saying that Taiwan is already an independent country under its formal name, the Republic of China. Beijing has painted her as a dangerous separatist and ramped up diplomatic, economic and military pressure on Taiwan.
Tsai easily won reelection in January 2020 against her China-friendly opponent, rallying voters with the message that if Taiwanese give into China now, their future generations would be protesting on the streets like the people of Hong Kong.
Now Beijing has almost completed its goal of total control of Hong Kong, fears have grown that Taiwan is next in its sights.
U.S. military officials have sounded the alarm. The outgoing commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, told senators in March that the Chinese military had "amplified its force posturing near and around Taiwan," including flying military aircraft into its Air Defense Identification Zone "at the highest rate in nearly 25 years." They have built systems and capabilities "that would indicate that they're interested in aggression."
"I think the threat is manifest during this decade, in fact, in the next six years," he said. He warned that the military balance in the Indo-Pacific is becoming "more unfavorable" to the U.S. as China modernizes its forces.
China's battle force ships already outnumber the American navy's, although the U.S. has more larger warships. If China succeeds in taking control of Taiwan, it would erode the U.S.'s strategic dominance in Asia-Pacific. If the U.S. failed to come to Taiwan's aid in the event of a Chinese invasion, it would lose credibility with its regional allies and partners.
Gray zone tactics
In Taiwan, where people have lived with threats from China for years, there is still no fear of an impending military attack. Officials and ordinary citizens see an invasion as too high-risk for China, and too many economic and other domestic pressures for its leadership to grapple with first. But they expect more pressure from Beijing, and warily view China's gray zone tactics, designed to put pressure on the island's government and people to weaken their defenses and morale.
Highlighting the growing concern, Taiwan's Quadrennial Defense Review this year has a section on gray zone tactics for the first time. It says that China "has been frequently using gray zone tactics," including disseminating disinformation to try to sway public opinion.
What China refers to as routine drills, Taiwan calls acts of pressure and harassment. The review says that China's "harassments" include regular intrusions into Taiwan's ADIZ, naval and air force training exercises around the island, assigning a carrier group to transit through the Taiwan Strait to the Western Pacific, sending spy boats and sea vessels to collect intelligence around Taiwanese waters, and holding training drills that simulate an invasion.
Legislator Wang said that while China was carrying out training exercises with its Liaoning aircraft carrier and other vessels, with "so many battleships, and so many air fighters," there was a high risk of "misjudgment, misfire."
"Because someone, even one pilot, doing something wrong may cause some chain reaction," Wang said.
In the skies off Taiwan's southwest coast, Chinese military jets have been making near-daily sorties into a corner of Taiwan's ADIZ since at least September, when Taiwan's defense ministry started regularly publicizing them. The pressure of scrambling thousands of times to give the Chinese pilots verbal warnings to leave is wearing down Taiwan's fighter planes.
In March, Deputy Defense Minister Chang Che-ping told parliament that Taiwan was now generally using ground-based air defense missile systems to track them because of the "war of attrition issue."
Those air incursions happen in the skies within Taiwan's large, sprawling ADIZ, between the southern part of Taiwan and the Taiwan-controlled Pratas Islands in the South China Sea. The dredgers are much closer, and visible.
Dredging sand is not a new thing; Chinese sand dredgers have been coming to pump up sand in the waters between Taiwan and China for years. Part of the city of Xiamen, just across from Taiwan's Kinmen Island, is built on reclaimed land, and there is a reclamation project going on further north in Zhejiang Province, where many of the current dredgers head for when piled full of sand, according to officials on Nangan. While reports say that dredged sand is used for construction, such sand needs to go through an expensive desalination process to be of suitable quality.
The dredgers started coming in greater numbers in 2019. Most of the time, they operate outside Taiwanese waters. But in 2019, coast guard crews expelled 605 Chinese sand dredgers from inside their restricted zone -- 508 near the Penghu Islands, 94 near Matsu, and three near Kinmen, according to the Coast Guard Administration.
Penghu's restricted waters are much larger -- 12 nautical miles from the islands' coastlines, and include the Formosa Banks, an area with a higher sea bed where more sand accumulates.
In 2020, the coast guard expelled almost 4,000 dredgers, a six-fold increase. Most of these were from Penghu's area, with 3,422 expelled, and Matsu, which saw 552.
From January to April this year, the Coast Guard has expelled 94 Chinese dredgers from Matsu's waters, and 65 from near Penghu.
In May, Matsu's coast guard expelled 38 Chinese vessels -- both sand dredgers and fishing boats -- from its surrounding waters, according to a report by the state-owned Central News Agency.
The Coast Guard's primary strategy is to chase dredgers away rather than catch them and prosecute them. In 2019, seven ships and crew were detained and punished, while in 2020 this went down to four ships despite thousands of dredgers crossing into Taiwan-controlled waters. In the first four months of this year, no ships or crew were detained, according to the Coast Guard Administration.
Boarding the dredgers can be dangerous for coast guard crews, and while they have the power to confiscate dredgers, Nangan Island has space for just two. One has been anchored at the harbor for months at the coast guard's expense, still with sand, shells and crab carcasses sitting inside it.
The dredgers noisily pump up sand and water, and then the water pours out from the sides. The sand is transferred via a conveyor belt to a separate transporter ship. They dredge around the clock.
As well as causing fear and noise pollution, residents complain the dredgers have harmed Matsu's beaches and marine life.
Lin Tsung-yi, chair of the Geography Department at National Taiwan Normal University, said that dredging disturbs sand and mud sediments.
Some fish, organisms and marine life that live on the sea bottom "will not be able to adjust to those conditions," so will move to other areas if they can, or die, he said. "It's disturbing the whole ecosystem."
Lin You-sheng, chairman of a Matsu amateur fishing association, said it would take four or five years for the ecology of the sea bed to recover.
"Things are going from bad to worse" for fishermen and people who make fish products, and Matsu attracts a lot of recreational anglers, said Lin, 52. "It used to be a fishing paradise, but now a lot of people come from Taiwan to fish and they can't catch anything."
At times, the dredgers have disturbed ferry traffic between Nangan and Juguang, two other islands that are part of the Matsu archipelago, which carry tourists and some residents. Ferries have to give way to the dredgers, which sometimes come as close as 20 meters to them, said Wang Chien-hua, the director of Lienchiang County Government's economic development department, which is based on Nangan.
The hulking vessels have also damaged undersea cables four or five times over the past year, and each time it can cost up to 40 million New Taiwan dollars ($1.4 million) to repair, Wang said. When a cable is damaged, residents on Nangan still have phone and internet services, but the internet slows down considerably and TV channels can disappear.
Wang does not believe the dredgers are a strategy by mainland authorities to pressure Matsu or Taiwan authorities. He is in contact with Fujian Province's Taiwan Affairs Office, in Fuzhou city, via a communications channel between the two sides that have been in operation for years. There are similar channels between the coastguards, police, and county and provincial officials of the two sides, he said.
On mornings and evenings when there are a lot of dredgers close to the island, Wang takes a photo and sends it to the Fuzhou authorities via WeChat, who will then get in touch with maritime and coastal agencies, he said.
"They want to help," Wang said. But everyone has their "own jurisdictions that they can't cross over."
"I personally believe this is profit-seeking, private business behavior rather than the mainland authorities acquiescing in it," he said. "Because if the mainland suddenly wants to seize Matsu, it will be so easy for them. It would use its own ships to surround Matsu, it wouldn't need the big dredgers."
David vs. Goliath
The Taiwan government has reacted by a mixture of beefing up coast guard patrols, toughening up punishments for illegal dredging, and commissioning new coastguard vessels. The Matsu coast guard's 100-ton vessels were boosted by temporary reinforcements from the Taiwan mainland: 1,000-ton to 2,000-ton coast guard vessels with water cannons.
In April, the coast guard took delivery of its largest patrol boat yet, a 4,000-ton vessel, which Tsai said will help Taiwan crack down on illegal activities on the open seas.
Taiwan's cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council said that the government had agreed to amend laws in December to toughen the penalties for illegal sand dredging in Taiwan's waters to one to seven years' imprisonment.
"We hope to show the government's determination to enforce the law through heavy penalties, so as to deter mainland Chinese sand dredgers from illegally dredging sand in our waters. We have also repeatedly called on the other side to restrain their ships and personnel," the council said.
Taiwan has also signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. to establish a coast guard working group to strengthen cooperation and training and the sharing of information related to law enforcement. The March agreement was the first signed by Taiwan and the U.S. since Biden came to power in January.
The MOU is "specifically related to gray zone tactics from the PLA," said legislator Wang.
Lii, head of the DPP office in Matsu, said that over the past year, Taiwan had come up with "so many different mechanisms for coping with dredgers," and was trying them out "one by one."
"We do have some experiences to share, in particular how to face pressure from China in the form of civilian boats instead of military ones, since this is an issue that many other countries are also looking at."
"We have such a diverse toolbox since no single method is sufficient when you are coping with all these 2,000-ton beasts that are intruding into our waters. It's a David-versus-Goliath situation," he said.