‘If the Chinese attack Taiwan, the first assault will come here’

Kinmen Islands, Taiwan – A storm has hit Kinmen, a small island in Taiwan.

On an empty beach near the west coast of the island, strong waves drive a line of rusted defensive stakes secured in concrete foundations like spikes on hedgehogs’ backs along the rocky coastline.

Further along the beach, despite the wild weather, Kinmen residents Robin Young and Ne-Zhi Wang watch the waves crash ashore. Behind them, the wind blows past old military posts and long-abandoned American-made tanks.

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

As the storm dislodges low-hanging clouds over the water, the Chinese mainland and the towers of the Chinese city of Xiamen emerge from the gloom.

As the wind threatens to rip off his jacket and mask, Yang gestures to Xiamen and then points to the beach.

“If China attacks Taiwan, the first attack will be here.”

The drum of war

A Chinese attack on Kinmen is not a theoretical scenario.

At the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Kinmen was one of a group of islands held by the defeated Nationalists along with Taiwan. The Communists made two attempts to capture Kinmen, but both times were repulsed by Nationalist forces.

Instead, the Communists continued to bombard Kinmen for more than two decades in an attempt to subjugate the Nationalists and the people of Kinmen.

The skyline of the Chinese city of Xiamen can be seen through the fog from Kinmen and its surrounding islands [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

At the same time, the Nationalists effectively turned the island into a military colony where the number of soldiers at times outnumbered the total population of Kinmeni people by around 100,000.

Only after Taiwan was democratized did Kinmen begin to open up—first to the rest of Taiwan, and by the turn of the century to Chinese tourists as well.

But in recent years, tensions between China and Taiwan have been on the rise again, and when US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan 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 conducting one of its largest military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and firing missiles at Taiwan’s main island.

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

Ne-Zhi Wang walked a short distance from the beach to Jincheng, Kinmen’s largest city, where the former aircraft maintenance technician was born and raised.

He laments the situation between China and Taiwan and fears trouble ahead: “Relations have deteriorated really quickly in recent years.”

For Wang, 56, today’s situation echoes his childhood, when he and his friends had to flee to a nearby bomb shelter whenever the Chinese fired artillery at the island.

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

“Otherwise, I’m afraid the Kinmenians will pay the heaviest price.”

Defensive claims on the west coast of Kinmen
Kinmen has defensive claims along the coast on its west coast. Previously, the number of soldiers stationed on the island was greater than the civilian population [Frederik Kelter/Al Jazeera]

Su Ching Song was born in Kinmen but moved to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, to attend university 15 years ago.

She fears that her original relationship will be the first victim of the growing tension.

“I don’t think the government in Taipei is to blame if it ends up under 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 have a strong response from China, but they still allowed her to come. I do not support an aggressive Chinese response, but the DPP is at the same time rejecting China’s red lines, and Sino-Taiwan relations will not improve if both sides deliberately provoke each other. “

‘small fish’

Fisher Kuan-Lin Yue wishes he could go back to a time when ties across the Taiwan Strait were less political.

After that, he worked as a driver and tour guide for Chinese tourists visiting Kinmen. That ended when the borders closed after the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan, and Yu returned to fishing.

“Before the current government in Taipei came to power [in 2016]It seems that China and Taiwan are getting closer to the benefit of everyone, including Kinmeni,” he said.

At the same time, Yu realizes why the relationship broke down.

An American-made Taiwanese tank left in the sand of a beach on the south coast of Kinmen
An American-made Taiwanese tank washed up 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 stance on the island since the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen – who opposes unification – was elected. In 2020, she won the election for the second time.

Even before the military drills this month, Beijing had been regularly sending warplanes into Taiwan’s air defense zone. It has not ruled out the use of force to take the island and reiterated the threat in a white paper published on Wednesday.

“With the DPP government flirting with Taiwan’s formal independence on the one hand and Chinese interference in Hong Kong and their aggressive rhetoric about Taiwan on the other, I understand why the two sides are having trouble seeing eye to eye these days,” Yu said.

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

Wu Tseng-dong holds one such ammunition in his workshop in central Kinmen.

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

The artillery is empty and just one of the hundreds of thousands that have attacked Kinmen during decades of Chinese bombing.

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

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

After 30 minutes, Wu turned it into a knife.

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

Wu working on an old shell with a cutting torch
Wu makes kitchen knives from old Chinese shells [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 while China now has ballistic missiles and aircraft carriers, reducing Kinmen’s strategic importance as a launching pad for any invasion of Taiwan, the island’s symbolic importance remains.

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