Why Taiwanese islands with view of China aren’t worried about rising tensions

Shi Islet, a small island that is part of the Kinmen archipelago. The Chinese city of Xiamen can be seen in the background. Photographs by Annabelle Chih for The Wall Street Journal
Shi Islet, a small island that is part of the Kinmen archipelago. The Chinese city of Xiamen can be seen in the background. Photographs by Annabelle Chih for The Wall Street Journal

Summary

The Kinmen archipelago has been on the front line of friction with Beijing for decades, but most of those who live there say a new political reality has provided reassurance.

KINMEN, Taiwan—Those who live on this tiny island joke that the Chinese mainland, just 3 miles away, is close enough that roosters crow to chickens on the other side.

The Kinmen archipelago has been the front line of friction between China and Taiwan for decades. Those tensions have been heating up again recently.

In February, China reacted furiously to the death of two fishermen who were killed while being pursued by Taiwan’s coast guard. Taiwan’s defense minister acknowledged last month that American troops have been sent to the outlying islands to train Taiwanese forces. On Monday, the Taiwanese army repelled two Chinese drones flying close to two of Kinmen’s outlying islands, the military said.

But many of those who live on Kinmen aren’t worried, saying that China has little incentive to use force against the Taiwanese territory with the strongest ties to the mainland. Such an assault would only harden the resolve of the rest of Taiwan while encouraging the U.S. to make a firmer commitment to its defense.

Kinmen’s main island was the site of a ferocious clash shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, when thousands of Mao Zedong’s Communist troops were killed by the rival Nationalist forces, who were retreating to Taiwan. In the years after, two major artillery battles were fought on Kinmen, followed by decades of regular shelling. Kinmen remained under the control of the Nationalists, also known as the Kuomintang, and quiet has prevailed since the late 1970s.

Yang Kuo-chin, 73, recalled the time he heard the thump of Chinese artillery when he was just 7 on his family farm. “They are fighting again," he recalled his brother telling him. They raced to hide underneath piles of peanuts that were used to make peanut oil. The family dug a makeshift bomb shelter under their home, where they hid during shelling in 1958, as hundreds of thousands of bombs rained on the island in what is known as the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis, or locally as the Aug. 23 Artillery War.

“Seeing it go—bang bang bang—was very terrifying," he said. Nobody died, he added, but his house was littered with peanuts.

As he cleaned oysters from stakes planted in a beach facing the mainland, Yang said he wasn’t worried that the roar of artillery would return. Rows of metal posts were arrayed across the beach to help defend against a potential invasion.

His calm in the face of a potential conflict with China isn’t merely stoicism, but a recognition of Kinmen’s position that is sometimes lost from afar. The archipelago represents the Communist Party’s slim hope of using soft power, rather than force, to win over a neighbor it covets but has never controlled.

Kinmen’s proximity to China means many of its residents have much more direct kinship ties to people on the mainland. The archipelago tends to reliably support the Nationalist Party, which takes a warmer stance toward relations with China. But even as many Kinmen residents call for more travel and trade with China, they also say they cherish living in a democracy and cast doubts on China’s authoritarian system.

Kinmen was once defended by as many as 100,000 Taiwanese soldiers in the late 1950s. Chiang Kai-shek based a large portion of Taiwan’s military here as a Cold War tripwire to draw in American support if China overpowered their defenses. The island beaches are still festooned with old barriers and disused forts. Its roundabout intersections frequently feature a pillbox in the center, now overgrown with trees or topped with giant bottles of kaoliang liquor to advertise the fiery local specialty.

Kinmen once served a key role in bottling up China’s then-limited ability to carry out a maritime assault on Taiwan, said Chieh Chung, a defense analyst at the National Policy Foundation, a think tank in Taipei affiliated with the Nationalists, the former Chiang-led party that ruled Taiwan for decades after World War II and is now the main opposition party. But as China’s military strength has grown, Kinmen’s military importance has diminished to little more than an early-warning post. The garrison there is now down to a few thousand Taiwanese soldiers.

“China’s firepower, whether through its air force or naval weapons, can easily surpass Kinmen and directly hit Taiwan’s main island," Chieh said.

Today, Kinmen is protected more by political and economic reality than military might. The use of force against Kinmen would signal that China can no longer hope to win the rest of Taiwan through anything but force, and would make such an invasion that much more difficult.

“I cannot imagine any scenario, except as a prelude to a full-scale invasion, in which seizing the islands makes sense," said Michael Szonyi, a professor of Chinese History at Harvard University and author of a book on Kinmen, “Cold War Island: Quemoy on the Front Line."

China’s chief tool of persuasion toward Kinmen is now economic. The archipelago has been largely left out of Taiwan’s boom. Courtyard homes with gently swaybacked tile roofs fill its cramped villages, the sort of traditional architecture often torn down for development on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

Just across the water, the glittering skyline of Xiamen shows the potential for growth. Construction work at Xiamen’s new airport is visible and audible from Kinmen.

Hung Hsin-i, who owns a clothing and accessories shop in Kinmen’s central town of Jincheng, said local businesses have been struggling through a downturn in tourism, following prolonged restrictions on mainland Chinese tourists since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. She lost her previous job at a duty-free shop that lost 90% of its business when the travel ban was enacted. Last year, Chinese nationals who live abroad were allowed again to visit Taiwan, including Kinmen, with many in the tourism sector looking forward to a full reopening.

Hung had hoped that the Nationalists would win the presidential election in January. She said she expects the party and its allies to promote travel and trade with the mainland. But the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, which is more skeptical of Beijing’s intentions toward Taiwan, retained the presidency, with Lai Ching-te elected to replace Tsai Ing-wen, who has reached her two-term limit.

“We’ve come a long way from the past," Hung said. “Even if we are afraid of war—or unification—it’s not within our control to worry about."

Fishing has been the local industry most heavily affected by tensions between the two sides. “There are simply too many boats from the mainland," said Chen Shui-i, the head of the Kinmen Fishermen’s Association, noting that the Taiwanese fishing grounds are richer compared with the more competitive conditions on the Chinese side.

In response to the death of the two Chinese fishermen, Beijing said it would step up coast guard patrols in the area. Beijing also declared that it didn’t recognize Taiwan’s boundary around the Kinmen islands, although Taiwanese authorities say the Chinese side traditionally adhered to those lines in law enforcement operations.

“Our space for fishing has been compressed, which isn’t to say they won’t let us fish but we can randomly be stopped and investigated," said Liu Mao-jung, 69, as he was preparing to leave a Kinmen port to fish.

The opening of direct links more than 20 years ago during an earlier period of cross-strait rapprochement has allowed Kinmen locals to make regular trips to Xiamen by ferry. The connection to the mainland has allowed people to re-establish family ties cut by the Chinese civil war, as well as carry out more prosaic tasks such as picking up cheap goods.

The ferry service, which was halted for nearly three years due to Covid controls, resumed in early 2023. The boats leave from a terminal on the southwest corner of Kinmen’s main island, just below a hill with memorials to two American soldiers killed by Chinese shelling in 1954.

Yang, the oysterman, visits Xiamen regularly and said he was planning to visit the city in the afternoon to go shopping after he cleaned up his harvest. But there are limits to China’s pull. “Of course living in a democratic country is much better," he said.

Write to Joyu Wang at joyu.wang@wsj.com and Austin Ramzy at austin.ramzy@wsj.com

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