China’s Seizure of Taiwan Fishing Boat Risks Inflaming Tensions

(Bloomberg) -- China detained a Taiwanese fishing boat and its crew, a move that risks worsening tensions with the island’s new president.

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The vessel was stopped by the Chinese Coast Guard on Tuesday evening near the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, maritime authorities in Taipei said in a statement. Kinmen is roughly 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) from China.

The incident marks the first time since 2007 that China detained a Taiwanese ship for fishing out of season, a spokesman for the Taiwan Coast Guard said in a briefing Wednesday. China usually bans fishing for a few months every year starting May 1 to protect fisheries.

Two of the boat’s crew members are Taiwanese and the other three are Indonesian, the spokesman said. The Chinese Coast Guard said the vessel was detained because it violated the nation’s summer fishing ban and was damaging the environment.

WATCH: Why the South China Sea could spark a war.

While incidents involving a variety of boats from the two sides occasionally occur, this latest one comes as Beijing ramps up pressure on Taiwanese President Lai Ching-te. China sees Lai as pushing for independence for the US-backed island that Beijing has vowed to control eventually, by force if necessary. China held major military drills around Taiwan just days after Lai took office in May.

Officials in Taipei have also expressed concern in recent days that China will detain more individuals from the island to pile pressure on Lai. Last week, Taiwan hiked its travel warning for China to the second-highest level, citing Beijing’s decision to expand laws that threaten “separatists” from the island with the death penalty.

Taiwan controls many small islands like Kinmen that are just kilometers from China and in rich fishing grounds. That can easily bring the coast guards of the two sides and other ships into close contact.

Taiwan’s maritime authorities said that their Coast Guard ships tried to prevent the fishing vessel from being detained but “since our boats had penetrated deep into the other party’s territorial waters, in order to avoid escalating the conflict, the hot pursuit was stopped.”

The fishing boat was taken to Weitou, a port in the Chinese city of Quanzhou, Fujian province, they said.

China should release the crew and the ship soon, a spokesman for Taiwan’s Cabinet said in a statement, adding that Beijing shouldn’t escalate the situation.

In March, China detained two men whose boat got lost in fog in waters near Kinmen. One of them has been released but the other remains in Chinese custody.

The detained man was an active member of Taiwan’s armed forces at the time of the incident. His family later secured a discharge, a move that may be aimed at facilitating his release.

A China-registered speedboat carrying four people capsized near Kinmen in February during a chase after it refused inspection by Taiwanese authorities. Two of the Chinese fishermen were rescued and the other two died.

Taiwan expressed regret at the “unfortunate incident” but said its Coast Guard behaved lawfully and properly. China condemned the deaths, saying the episode undermined the goodwill between people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

--With assistance from Argin Chang, Jing Li and Rob Fenner.

(Updates with more details from Taiwan Coast Guard and comments from China.)

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