China Warship Collision Led to Standoff, Freighter Captain Says

taiwan ship collision
Yutai No. 1. Photo courtesy Taiwan Coast Guard

By Samson Ellis and Adela Lin (Bloomberg) –The Taiwanese coast guard intervened to end an hour-long standoff between a freighter and an unidentified Chinese warship after the two vessels collided in the contested Taiwan Strait last week.

The Taiwanese-registered bulk carrier Yutai No. 1 collided with a Chinese naval vessel around 20 nautical miles southeast of Taiwan-controlled Kinmen Island late on July 31, Fu Shih-hour, the cargo ship’s captain, told Bloomberg News on Tuesday. Fu said he had called the Taiwanese coast guard for assistance after the captain of the Chinese warship tried to persuade him to divert to the mainland port of Xiamen.

“When they arrived, the coast guard told the Chinese captain very clearly that we were in international waters and that we were under no obligation to follow their orders,” Fu said in a telephone interview from the southern Taiwanese port of Kaohsiung. “It’s not as if we were in Chinese waters and had to listen to them. The other captain wasn’t happy about it, but had to begrudgingly accept it.”

The crash underscored the potential for diplomatic flare-ups in the Taiwan Strait, a busy shipping lane through one of the world’s great geopolitical flash points. As the People’s Liberation Army rapidly expands its navy, both China and the U.S. have increased the frequency of military transits through the strait and around democratically run Taiwan.

Mystery Ship
The identity of the Chinese ship has been a topic of debate since the incident. The Taipei-based China Times reported last Friday it may have been the Longhushan, China’s newest amphibious transport dock. The vessel is designed to transfer helicopters, hovercraft and several hundred troops to shore during an attack.

China’s Taiwan Affairs Office and ministries for national defense and foreign affairs didn’t return faxed requests for comment on the incident.

Fu said he was unable to clearly identify the ship in the dark and it didn’t appear to have its automatic identification system (AIS) turned on. He said only it was definitely a military ship and was traveling very fast. He estimated the ship to be at least 100 meters (330 feet) in length.

The Longhushan, with a length of about 210 meters, is the largest domestically designed amphibious warfare ship operated by China, according to Chinese media. The Global Times, a newspaper published by China’s Communist Party, hailed it as offering the People’s Liberation Army an advantage in a potential invasion of Taiwan.

China has increased its military and economic pressure on Taiwan since the island’s independence-leaning president, Tsai Ing-wen, came into power in 2016. In its first defense white paper since 2015, Beijing reiterated last month its determination to halt through any means Taiwan from pursuing formal independence.

Fu, 72, was keen to play down any potential political ramifications from the incident.

“This was just a simple incident at sea. It shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Neither of us meant to collide with each other,” he said. “I don’t blame the other captain for not having the AIS turned on because navy ships don’t usually use it. It wasn’t on purpose.”

–With assistance from Dandan Li.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P