In Taiwan’s Kinmen, people hope for calm amid tensions with China | Political news

Kinmen Islands, Taiwan – A storm hits the small Taiwanese island of Kinmen.

On an empty beach along the west coast of the island, strong waves hit a line of rusty defensive stakes, secured in concrete foundations, that run like spikes on a hedgehog’s back along the rocky stretch of coastline. .

Further up the beach, despite the wild weather, Kinmen residents Robin Young and Ne-Xie Wang watch the waves crash against the shore. Behind them, the wind howls through the cracks of old military posts and long-abandoned American-made tanks.

The fortifications once formed the backbone of Kinmen’s western defenses, where Taiwan proper is 200 km (124 miles) away and mainland China less than five (three miles).

As the storm drags a group of low clouds over the water, the Chinese mainland and the towers of the Chinese city of Xiamen emerge from the gloom.

With the wind threatening to rip off his jacket and mask, Young gestures toward Xiamen, then points to the beach.

“If the Chinese attack Taiwan, the first assault will come here.”

the drums of war

A Chinese assault on Kinmen is not a theoretical scenario.

At the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, Kinmen was among a group of outlying islands that remained in the hands of the defeated Nationalists, along with Taiwan itself. The communists twice tried to capture Kinmen, but were repulsed both times by Nationalist forces.

Instead, the communists carried out relentless artillery bombardment on Kinmen for more than two decades in an attempt to subdue the nationalists and the people of Kinmen.

Jangongyu Islet with the Xiamen skyline in the background
The skyline of the Chinese city of Xiamen is visible through the haze of Kinmen and the surrounding islets. [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, the Nationalists effectively turned the island into a military colony where the number of soldiers sometimes exceeded the total population of some 100,000 Kinmen.

It was only when Taiwan became democratized that Kinmen began to open up, first to the rest of Taiwan and, at the turn of the century, to Chinese tourists as well.

But in recent years, tensions between China and Taiwan have risen steadily once again, and with US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan on August 2, the situation erupted into the worst crisis between the two countries in more than 25 years.

The Chinese responded to Pelosi’s visit by holding their largest military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and sending missiles across the main island of Taiwan.

Tanks were deployed on the beaches of Xiamen, and Taiwan chased away drones sent over Kinmen by Chinese forces.

Ne-Xie Wang takes a short walk from the beach to Kinmen’s largest city, Jincheng, not far from where the former aircraft maintenance technician was born and raised.

He laments the state of affairs between China and Taiwan and fears trouble: “The relationship has really soured quickly in recent years.”

For Wang, 56, the current situation is reminiscent of his childhood, when he and his friends had to run to the nearest bomb shelter every time the Chinese fired an artillery barrage at the island.

“In my opinion, both sides should do everything in their power to prevent further escalation,” he says.

“Otherwise, I am afraid that the Kinmen will be the first to pay a heavy price.”

Defensive stakes along Kinmen's west coast
Defensive stakes line the beach on the west coast of Kinmen. In the past, the number of soldiers stationed on the island exceeded the civilian population. [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

Su Ching Song was born in Kinmen but has lived in Taiwan’s capital Taipei since moving there to study at university 15 years ago.

He also fears that his native relatives will be the first victims of the rising tensions.

“I don’t think the Taipei government is off the hook if it ends up in a Chinese attack,” he said on WhatsApp, offering Pelosi’s visit as an example.

“The DPP (Democratic Progressive Party) government in Taipei must have known her visit would provoke a strong response from China, but they let her come anyway. I don’t support China’s aggressive response, but the DPP at the same time is being very dismissive of China’s red lines, and the Sino-Taiwanese relationship will not improve if both sides intentionally provoke each other.”

‘Small fish’

Fisher Kuan-Lin Yu wishes she could go back to a time when relations across the Taiwan Strait were less politically heated.

Back then, he was working as a driver and tour guide for Chinese tourists who came to Kinmen. That ended when the borders were closed following the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and Yu returned to fishing.

“Before the current Taipei government came to power [in 2016]it seemed that China and Taiwan were getting closer to the benefit of everyone, including the Kinmen,” he said.

At the same time, Yu understands why the relationship has deteriorated.

An American-made Taiwanese tank abandoned in the sand on a beach on the south shore of Kinmen
An American-made Taiwanese tank abandoned in the sand on a beach on the south shore of Kinmen
[Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and has taken an increasingly assertive approach towards the island since Tsai Ing-wen of the DPP, who opposes unification, was elected. She scored a second landslide electoral victory in 2020.

Even before this month’s military exercises, Beijing had been regularly sending fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defense zone. He has not ruled out the use of force to take over the island and reiterated that threat in a white paper released Wednesday.

“With the DPP government’s flirtation with formal Taiwan independence on the one hand and Chinese meddling in Hong Kong and its aggressive rhetoric towards Taiwan on the other, I understand why both sides have trouble coming to terms these days,” Yu said.

“Still, I’d rather the Chinese spend their money here than (on) their artillery ammunition.”

Wu Tseng-dong holds one such round in his arms in his workshop in downtown Kinmen.

“It was a gift from Chairman Mao,” he jokes, chuckling before placing the shell on the ground.

The artillery shell is empty and just one of hundreds of thousands that hit Kinmen during decades of Chinese bombardment.

Wu transforms the steel from old Chinese shells into kitchen knives, which he sells in his workshop.

“It’s about making war and conflict constructive,” he says before going to work with a blowtorch on the shell.

Less than 30 minutes later, Wu turned it into a knife.

“I see what I am doing here as a symbol of peace at a time when we are dangerously close to war.”

Wu working on an old shell with a cutting torch
Wu makes a kitchen knife from an old Chinese shell [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

For Kinmen, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned, according to Chen Fang-Yu, an assistant professor at Soochow University in Taipei who studies political relations between Taiwan, China and the United States.

He says that although China now possesses ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers, which lessens Kinmen’s strategic importance as a launch pad for any invasion of Taiwan, the island retains symbolic significance.

“As tensions rise between China and Taiwan, Chinese Communist Party leaders [CCP[ might end up in a situation where they need a tangible win in the Taiwan Strait but are not ready for an all-out assault on Taiwan. In that scenario, seizing the largely demilitarised outlying Taiwanese islands of Kinmen and Matsu could provide a symbolic victory for the CCP; akin to what Russia did with Crimea in 2014.”

Kuan-Lin Yu prays that Kinmen will not suffer the same fate as Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow.

“But that is not really in my hands or the hands of the Kinmenese. We are just a small fish in a strait of leviathans.”

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