According to Police Captain Shih Chun-hsu, the man, nicknamed Zhou, was spotted near Taichung Port on Friday evening after crossing the roughly 80-kilometer (50-mile) body of water in Fujian Province, on the east coast of China.
He made the trip in an inflatable boat equipped with an outboard motor carrying 90 liters of fuel.
Zhou was arrested in the early hours of Saturday and told police he had taken a break from the island of Taiwan in search of “freedom and democracy.” He is currently in quarantine while police investigate his story and ensure he is not a fugitive from justice.
The Taiwan Strait is one of the most militarized waterbands in the world and is patrolled by the Chinese and Taiwanese navies. China alone has more than 255 Coast Guard vessels, as well as dozens of heavily armed warships, in the region, according to a recent US Department of Defense assessment. The strait is also transited semi-regularly by means of the US Navy in freedom of navigation operations.
The Republic of China (ROC), as it is officially called Taiwan, is not a member of the United Nations or bound by the Refugee Convention. The island does not allow people to officially apply for asylum, and anyone found guilty of entering the country illegally faces up to three years in prison and a fine of 90,000 NT $ (3,200 ).
Zhou is under investigation for violating Taiwan’s national security and immigration laws, police said in a statement.
Tensions between Taiwan and China have intensified in recent months, as Beijing stepped up air and naval exercises around the autonomous island, which the Communist Party considers part of its territory and has vowed to “reunite” with mainland China, to force it if necessary.
In an interview with UK Sky News last week, Taiwan Foreign Secretary Joseph Wu said China was “preparing for its latest military assault” on the island, vowing to “defend us until ‘at the end”.
“Taiwan happens to be at the forefront of China’s expansion of its authoritarian order,” Wu said. “And if Taiwan is taken over by China, I think the consequences will be global.”
Washington’s engagement with Taipei grew significantly under President Donald Trump, a trend that largely continued under President Joe Biden.
Last month, the State Department released new guidelines reflecting “our deepening of our informal relationship,” allowing various government and official bodies to have more engagement with their Taiwanese counterparts, although Washington does not officially recognize the ROC.
“We are firmly resolved that Taiwan can defend itself,” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in April. “It would be a grave mistake for anyone to try to change this status quo by force.”