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China Is Stealing Taiwan’s Sand

A surprisingly precious resource is another front in gray zone warfare.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A Chinese dredger pumps sand in Sri Lanka.
A Chinese dredger pumps sand in Sri Lanka.
A Chinese dredger pumps sand to reclaim land just outside a port in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, on Sept. 6, 2017. Shara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty Images

At the end of April, the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration received a new frigate, the Hsinchu. At 4,000 tons, it’s a massive beast and was immediately assigned for duty in Taiwan’s Northern Pacific Flotilla to protect one of Taiwan’s most precious maritime resources: sand. China is increasing its dredging of sand in the islands’ waters. It’s a devious activity that gets Beijing much-needed sand—and presents Taiwan with large expenses and maritime degradation.

“The Hsinchu is the second of four planned CGA [Coast Guard Administration] frigates and is equipped with three high-pressure water cannons that are able to shoot at targets up to 120 meters away,” Taiwan News reported when the new frigate was received. Around the time of the Hsinchu’s arrival, the CGA also received the fourth and fifth of 12 planned offshore patrol vessels. The frigates alone will cost Taiwan almost $400 million.

The CGA needs its new vessels because in the past few years, the Matsu Islands—Taiwanese territory close to the coast of China—have been receiving a steady stream of unwelcome visitors. The visitors are excavators, with crews that arrive in the waters off the islands—waters that belong to Taiwan—to take Taiwan’s sand. In 2020, Taiwan expelled nearly 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from its waters—a 560 percent leap from 2019, Reuters reported.

At the end of April, the Taiwan Coast Guard Administration received a new frigate, the Hsinchu. At 4,000 tons, it’s a massive beast and was immediately assigned for duty in Taiwan’s Northern Pacific Flotilla to protect one of Taiwan’s most precious maritime resources: sand. China is increasing its dredging of sand in the islands’ waters. It’s a devious activity that gets Beijing much-needed sand—and presents Taiwan with large expenses and maritime degradation.

“The Hsinchu is the second of four planned CGA [Coast Guard Administration] frigates and is equipped with three high-pressure water cannons that are able to shoot at targets up to 120 meters away,” Taiwan News reported when the new frigate was received. Around the time of the Hsinchu’s arrival, the CGA also received the fourth and fifth of 12 planned offshore patrol vessels. The frigates alone will cost Taiwan almost $400 million.

The CGA needs its new vessels because in the past few years, the Matsu Islands—Taiwanese territory close to the coast of China—have been receiving a steady stream of unwelcome visitors. The visitors are excavators, with crews that arrive in the waters off the islands—waters that belong to Taiwan—to take Taiwan’s sand. In 2020, Taiwan expelled nearly 4,000 Chinese sand-dredgers and sand-transporting vessels from its waters—a 560 percent leap from 2019, Reuters reported.

“China lacks a large amount of sand to build skyscrapers in many cities,” Susumu Takai, president of the Security Strategy Research Institute of Japan, told FP. “As a result, China is dredging a large amount of sea sand on the islands of Taiwan along the coast of China. Because China claims that Taiwan is part of China, it believes it is dredging sea sand near its own coast.” Taiwan can’t do very much about it other than sending coast guard vessels to chase the excavators away—by which time they’ve already managed to get at least a bit of sand out of the seabed.

“After water, sand is the world’s most-used resource,” said Arnaud Vander Velpen, a sand industry and data analytics officer at the Global Resource Information Database in Geneva, a partnership between the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Swiss government, and the University of Geneva. “Every year, the world builds the equivalent of a wall 27 meters high and 27 meters wide spanning the whole equator.” That’s 50 billion tons each year.

Most of the sand is being used by China, whose rapid rise to becoming a major industrialized economy has been powered by sand. According to data from the Global Aggregates Information Network, nearly 40 percent of sand aggregates is used by China alone. A reminder: Sand is used in concrete, glass, and asphalt—and increasingly for land reclamation, a critical part of infrastructure expansion in Hong Kong and other cities. Desert sand doesn’t work for this—it’s too smooth and not cohesive. Instead, construction needs sand from rivers, coastlines, and quarries.

“In the past four years, China has used more sand and gravel than the U.S. in the past century,” Vander Velpen pointed out. China’s infrastructure boom over the last three decades has needed—and still needs—a ton of concrete. Actually, many billions of tons: Global cement production went from 1.39 billion metric tons in 1995 to 4.4 billion tons in 2021—most of that driven by China’s new highways, airports, and megacities.

Beijing doesn’t get the vast bulk of its sand from Taiwan, of course—it dredges plenty at home, where Poyang Lake is the biggest sand mine in the world, and imports hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sand from around the world. From China’s point of view, however, harassing Taiwan over sand is a double win; it grabs a needed resource and puts an extra burden on Taipei, forcing Taiwan to divert vital financial and military resources to its coast guard. China’s sand-excavation harassment of Taiwan is, in fact, a prime example of gray zone aggression: not military in nature and not massive enough to warrant a military response by the targeted country but still very harmful. (It’s, in fact, such perfect gray zone aggression that I included it in my book The Defender’s Dilemma.)

Sand is on its way to becoming more crucial. This month, a Finnish company pioneered a sand-powered energy storage system. With renewable energy dependent on the weather, such storage systems can ease the world’s urgently needed transition to renewable energy.

But the world doesn’t have an infinite supply of sand, and nature needs it too. “All this construction means that in many locations, we’re extracting more sand and gravel than is being replenished by natural processes,” Vander Velpen told FP. “Communities that face sand scarcities battle coastal erosion, diversity loss, and flooding.” In a new report, UNEP warns that excessive sand excavation is causing harm to the environment.

Indeed, China has already harmed its own environment through sand mining. Already in 2008, such concerns caused Chinese authorities to attempt to ban sand mining in Poyang Lake. The ban didn’t stick, leaving the critical waterway ecologically devastated. Chinese scientists have warned that the Yangtze River itself is in danger from sand mining. The Matsu Islands are particularly vulnerable. “These islands have no sandy shores, depleted biological resources, and fishermen seem to be in great trouble,” Takai pointed out.

Harming other countries’ maritime environment is already somewhat of a Chinese specialty: Its government-subsidized long-distance fishing fleet travels around the world, parking itself in other countries’ waters and overfishing them, leaving them with not just depleted fish stocks but degraded maritime life as well. “Bottom trawling, which is a common mode of fishing employed by Chinese trawlers, has significant ecological impacts including high levels of by-catch, the destruction of habitats and the associated release of carbon,” the Environmental Justice Foundation noted in a new report.

Taiwan watchers usually monitor Chinese activities for signs of military aggression. They ought to monitor excavators too because the sand diggers are doing their own form of harm. Taiwan hopes that the Hsinchu and other new coast guard vessels will frighten the diggers away. But every time the diggers turn up, they cause more headaches and more environmental degradation. They’re, one might say, a maritime version of Russia’s little green men—a cleverer version.

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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