In Kinmen, Taiwan, people hope for calm amid tensions in China | Political news

Kinmen Islands, Taiwan – A storm is raging on the small Taiwanese island of Kinmen.

On an empty beach along the west coast of the island, strong waves hammer a line of rusting defensive piles, set in concrete foundations, which run like the spikes on a hedgehog’s back along the coast rocky.

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 outposts and long-abandoned American-made tanks.

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

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

As the wind threatens to rip his jacket and mask, Young gestures toward Xiamen and then points toward 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.

When the Chinese Civil War ended in 1949, Kinmen was part of a group of outlying islands that remained in the hands of defeated nationalists, along with Taiwan itself. The Communists twice attempted to capture Kinmen, but both times were repelled by Nationalist forces.

Instead, the Communists waged an incessant artillery barrage on Kinmen for over two decades in an effort to subjugate 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 from Kinmen and its surrounding islets [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, the nationalists effectively transformed the island into a military colony where the number of soldiers sometimes exceeded the total population of around 100,000 Kinmenais.

It was only with the democratization of Taiwan that Kinmen began to open up – first to the rest of Taiwan, then at the turn of the century to Chinese tourists as well.

But in recent years, tensions between China and Taiwan have steadily increased, and with Visit to Taiwan by Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi on August 2, the situation exploded into the worst crisis between the two countries in more than 25 years.

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

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

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

He deplores the situation between China and Taiwan and fears problems to come: “The relationship has really deteriorated in recent years”.

For Wang, 56, the current situation echoes his childhood, when he and his friends had to rush to the nearest air-raid shelter every time the Chinese fired an artillery barrage at the island.

“In my mind, both sides should do everything in their power to avoid further escalation,” he said.

“Otherwise, I’m afraid the people of Kinmen will be the first to pay a heavy price.”

Defensive stakes along the west coast of Kinmen
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.

She also fears that her native Kinmen will be the first victims of the rising tensions.

“I don’t think the Taipei government is without fault if this ends in a Chinese attack,” she said on WhatsApp, citing Pelosi’s visit as an example.

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

‘Little fish’

Fisher Kuan-Lin Yu wishes he could go back to when relations across the Taiwan Strait were less politically strained.

At the time, he was working as a driver and tour guide for Chinese tourists coming to Kinmen. That ended when 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 for the benefit of everyone, including the people of Kinshasa,” he said.

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

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

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

Even before this month’s military exercises, Beijing had been send warplanes regularly in the Taiwan Air Defense Zone. He did not rule out the use of force to take the island and reiterated this threat in a white paper released Wednesday.

“With the DPP government’s flirtation with formal independence for Taiwan on the one hand and Chinese interference in Hong Kong and their aggressive rhetoric towards Taiwan on the other, I understand why the two sides find it difficult to get along. these days,” Yu said.

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

Wu Tseng-dong holds one of these munitions in his arms in his workshop in central Kinmen.

“It was a gift from Chairman Mao,” he jokes with a laugh before setting the shell down on the ground.

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

Wu transforms steel from ancient Chinese seashells into kitchen knives that he sells in his workshop.

“It’s about turning war and conflict into something constructive,” he says before getting to work with a sharp torch on the shell.

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

“I see what I’m making here as a symbol of peace at a time when we are heading dangerously towards war.”

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

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

He says that even though China now has ballistic missiles and aircraft carrierswhich diminish Kinmen’s strategic importance as a launching pad for any invasion of Taiwan, the island retains symbolic significance.

“As tensions rise between China and Taiwan, the leadership of the Communist Party of China [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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