The cases have some similarities but this time it could be much more difficult to negotiate a resolution, observers say.

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Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

Two mainland Chinese fishermen drown after Taiwan coastguard pursuit

Both incidents happened amid a lack of communication and trust between the two sides.

Like the earlier tragedy, Beijing strongly condemned Taipei’s handling of the February collision. Beijing called the crash a “vicious incident” and said Taipei should be held responsible for the deaths of the mainland Chinese.

However, analysts warn that trust between Beijing and Taipei has deteriorated since 1990 and the deaths on February 14 could add to the strains on cross-strait tensions.

“At present, the two sides lack political mutual trust, and many cross-strait issues, including such incidents, have fallen into zero-sum competition,” said Liu Guoshen, a leading Taiwan affairs specialist at Xiamen University.

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He added that Taiwanese authorities must act “cautiously” in handling cross-strait affairs, or else ties between Taipei and Beijing would be “doomed forever”.

Taipei insisted that the boat was not licensed and had entered its “prohibited or restricted waters” near the Quemoy group of islands, also known as Kinmen, just a few nautical miles from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen.

Officials from the two sides have held 11 rounds of talks so far about the incident, but no outcome has been released to the public yet.

Due to the lack of mutual trust … many accidents are overly politicised and are likely to lead to results no one wants to see

Prof. Chang Wu-ueh, Tamkang University in Taiwan

Chang Wu-ueh, a professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan, noted that the incident also happened close to the opening of the “two sessions”, mainland China’s annual parliamentary meetings, when Beijing faces more “public opinion pressure” from citizens.

“[The incident] is a result of confrontation or deterioration of cross-strait relations. Due to the lack of mutual trust and understanding, many accidents are overly politicised and are likely to lead to results no one wants to see,” Chang said.

However, when Xi was on the front lines handling the 1990 incident, the political atmosphere was different and “better”, Chang said.

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Over three decades ago, Xi organised a team of more than 20 police and border defence officers to investigate the Min Ping Yu No 5540 incident, according to Fang Qingyun, who was the secretary of political and legal affairs committee of Fuzhou at the time.

Fang, who went to Quemoy in 1990 to negotiate the return of mainland Chinese residents with Taiwan, said in a 2019 interview that Xi told him that “both sides should work together in a humanitarian spirit to properly resolve the issue of illegal crossings”.

The talks led to the signing of the Kinmen agreement, which would come to serve as the basis for later operations to return people across the Taiwan Strait. The agreement was signed by the Red Cross organisations of both sides, marking the first formal cross-strait agreement between civil groups since the two sides split in 1949.

Taiwanese coast guards inspect the capsized vessel on February 14. Photo: Taiwan Coast Guard Administration via AP

According to Fang, when Xi inspected Fuzhou as vice-president in 2010, the first thing he mentioned during a meeting was the Kinmen agreement, which he said “laid a good foundation for improving cross-strait relations”.

Less than a month after the Min Ping Yu No 5540 incident, 21 migrants from mainland China died after their boat was hit by a Taiwanese naval destroyer that was escorting them back to Fujian province.

Chang from Tamkang University said the political atmosphere in 1990 – when cross-strait exchanges were first resuming after decades of no contact – was better than the strained ties of today.

“At that time, both sides considered problems from a humanitarian perspective … the current problem is that the two sides often lack political mutual trust,” Chang said.

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Zhang Wensheng, deputy dean of the Taiwan Research Institute of Xiamen University, said confrontations between the two sides were the cause of the February incident and the disputes in handling the matter.

“The DPP authorities are full of hostility to the mainland, and the Taiwan coastal department was brutal in law enforcement and lack of humanitarian spirit,” Zhang said.

“If this matter is not resolved reasonably, it may cause other disputes,” Zhang warned, adding direct conflicts between two sides might lead to more accidents in the future.

Beijing strengthened patrols in waters near Quemoy and sent former military frigates to the area following the incident.