The stranded sailors were brought in to Honiara (pictured) after their rescue. Photograph: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

PORT MORESBY, 24 MARCH 2022 (THE GUARDIAN) — Tensions between China and Taiwan have found an unlikely battleground – a fight over who rescued nine Papua New Guinean sailors who were lost at sea for nearly a month.

The dispute came after the rescue of the Papua New Guinean nationals in Solomon Island waters after 29 days lost at sea, late in February.

Credit for the mission was claimed by China in an article published in the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper, on 26 February. The article claimed the ship’s captain called the Chinese embassy in Solomon Islands asking for help, which had been given by the Chinese government.

Sun Xiao, an attaché at the Chinese embassy in Solomon Islands, told the Guardian he had taken the call from the captain of the ship, who was from mainland China.

“[At] 3.30am in the early morning of 24 February, 2022, staff of the Chinese Embassy in Solomon Islands received an urgent phone call from Li Zhi, captain of a fishing boat operating in sea waters southwest of Solomon Islands. Captain Li told the Embassy that he was from Fujian province of the People’s Republic of China. He and his crew had just rescued nine survivors from a raft drifting 29 days at sea.”

Sun alleged that Capt Li told embassy officials: “As a Chinese national, I appeal to the Chinese Embassy for assistance. I believe the Embassy will kindly help inform [Solomon Islands] and PNG governments to pick up those survivors and safely send them home.” He also provided the embassy with the coordinates and radio frequency of his fishing boat.

Upon receiving the phone call, the Chinese Embassy lost no time in engaging with the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs & External Trade, the Office of the Prime Minister and Cabinet calling on Solomon Islands government to arrange for maritime authorities to find and rescue the survivors … As Captain Li told the embassy: ‘All survivors have been taken care of by my crew, and are in good shape now. Some of my crew members come from Fujian and Shandong province of China. We Chinese people have longstanding tradition of willing to help those in trouble. They will be well treated on board my boat.’”

However, Taiwan’s ministry of foreign affairs furiously disputed China’s version of the rescue, calling it a “blatant lie”.

“First of all, our office would like to point out that this is a rescue attempt successfully carried out primarily due to the joint efforts of a Taiwanese fishing vessel and Taiwan’s rescue authority,” said a spokesperson.

“Unlike what the Chinese Embassy in Honiara claimed, Yixiang No. 8, the fishing boat that saved the nine PNG nationals, is a registered Taiwanese fishing boat. And Taipei Rescue Coordination Center (TRCC), Taiwan’s National maritime search and rescue authority, was the authority that initially coordinated with its counterparts in both PNG and Solomon Islands in a timely manner and secured those nine lives eventually.”

The spokesperson said the crew of Yixiang No. 8 spotted the sailors drifting on 25 February and reported them to the TRCC, which reached out to authorities in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands and then carried out the rescue, eventually handing over the nine Papua New Guineans to authorities from Solomon Islands at a location near Rennell Island.

“This office is not attempting to rule out the possibility that the Chinese embassy in Honiara may have stepped in at the very last stage of this operation and facilitated the repatriation of the nine PNG nationals back to their mother land. However, claiming Yixiang No. 8 as a Chinese fishing vessel and totally disregard TRCC’s efforts is a blatant lie which simply does not reflect the actual fact. Obviously, China is preaching the world of its so-called ‘One China Principle’ and taking advantages of Taiwan again.”

After the Global Times article, the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) confirmed that it had Taiwan to thank for the rescue.

“The [Royal Solomon Islands Police Vessel] Gizo operation carried out after request received from Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) Honiara that a Taiwanese fishing vessel Yi SIANG No. 8 found a ray-boat with a 40 horse powered engine with nine survivors on the boat,” said RSIPF director of police maritime, Supt Nevol Soko.

According to Soko, the survivors – six men and three women – were then kept on board the vessel for two nights while waiting for the patrol boat to transport them to Solomon Islands’ capital of Honiara. They were checked by a doctor and found to be healthy, despite their long time at sea, and tested negative for Covid.

“They were so fortunate to be rescued after drifting for 29 days,” he said.

Pacific nations have been the site of contestation between Taiwan and China in recent years. A number of the few countries in the world that recognise Taiwan diplomatically are in the Pacific, though several of these, including Solomon Islands, have switched allegiance from Taiwan to China in recent years.

The switch from Taipei to Beijing has been particularly vexed in Solomon Islands, with the country divided between supporters of the two. The diplomatic switch was seen as a flashpoint for violent protests and rioting in the capital of Honiara in November last year, which saw buildings, including much of Chinatown, burnt down and three people killed…. PACNEWS

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