The grounding of a Chinese-flagged fishing vessel in the Marshall Islands is being treated as a "crime scene", according to officials in the Pacific Ocean archipelago, in an incident highlighting growing unease between China, the US and its Taiwan-backed allies in the region.
On 3 January, the 94-metre boat ran aground on an atoll in the north, but authorities say it was not licensed to be in the country's waters. The US Coast Guard helped coordinate the rescue of its 24 crew members.
"What they were doing in Marshall Islands' waters is still unanswered," Chief Secretary Ben Graham said, adding that the government "is treating this as a crime scene".
The boat's 24-member crew arrived in the capital Majuro on Sunday after being rescued by a government patrol boat and a Chinese fishing vessel, with the US Coast Guard providing aerial reconnaissance.
The grounded vessel, the Ou Ya Leng No 6, is a frozen fish carrier and the owner is reported to be a squid supplier to long line vessels fishing in the region.
Sam Lanwi, deputy director of the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority, said the boat was "not licensed to operate in the Marshall Islands exclusive economic zone".
Graham said investigators were interviewing the crew while other officials were heading to the scene of the incident to inspect the vessel and assess damage to the atoll.
Diplomatic love affair
The Marshall Islands, located about halfway between Hawaii and Australia, gained independence in 1986 after four decades under US administration.
After an 8-year diplomatic love affair with the People's Republic of China (PRC), lasting from 1990 through 1998, Majuro abruptly ditched Beijing and switched sides, linking up with Taiwan.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Islands Report said at the time that “hundreds of millions of dollars in cash and investment pledges for the Marshalls are included in the deal.”
For four months, the Marshall Islands were in the unique situation of being the only country in the world to boast embassies of both China and Taiwan –the missions separated by just 100 metres– before Beijing angrily pulled out.
While cozied up with Beijing, the Marshall Islands gave out some 2000 passports, many of which were bought by citizens of the PRC, who were then accused by the US State Department of using Marshall-Island citizenship to enter the USA. After Washington's protest, Majuro stopped issuing passports.
Beijing building influence
Meanwhile, the tug-of-war over influence over this strategically important group of atolls continues.
In 2004, Washington established the “Compact of Free Association agreements” between with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau (all island-states that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan), that allowed free travel and work in the US, but also a possibility for Washington to establish military bases on the islands.
China has been steadily boosting its ally-base in the Pacific. Since 1975, it has had ties with Samoa. Tonga signed on in 1998 and, more recently Vanuatu (2004) and Micronesia (2007) have also aligned with Beijing. The PRC also maintains visa-free relations with some islands, including Fiji.
Competition between China and Taiwan is especially strong on the Marshall Islands. Last Friday Taiwan's Council of Indigenous People signed an agreement for economic and cultural exchanges, while Marshallese businessmen are trying to interest Chinese investors in turning the Rongelap Atoll (evacuated after the US military detonated a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb nearby) into a second Hong Kong – where investors are promised relaxed visa and tax procedures.
A 2018 report by the Washington-based US-China Economic and Security Review Commission warns that China's growing engagement in the Pacific Islands may harm US interests in the region.
“China's inroads in Micronesia, where most of the United States' engagement in the Pacific Islands is concentrated, could threaten the US Compact of Free Association agreements with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia over the long term,” the report says.
China and the US are involved in an increasingly nasty trade war, swapping tit-for-tat tariffs worth billions of US dollars. On 7-8 January, vice-ministerial level talks are to try and solve some of the issues between Beijing and Washington.