Battlezone: Taiwan's Kinmen island stands on frontline with China

 | Updated: Oct 26, 2021, 04:00 PM IST

At its nearest point, from the Mashan observation post, the main island of Kinmen is at low tide less than 2km from Chinese-controlled territory.

Taiwan-China battle

China views Taiwan as part of its territory, and has never renounced the use of force to bring it under Beijing's control.

Sitting on the front line between Taiwan and China, Kinmen is the last place where the two engaged in major fighting, in 1958 at the height of the Cold War, and where memories of war are burned into minds decades later - large model soldiers point guns at China from some old bunkers.

Kinmen, along with the Matsu archipelago further up the Chinese coast, has been held by the government in Taipei since the defeated Republic of China forces fled to Taiwan in 1949 after loosing a civil war with the Communists.

Regular shelling did not end until December 15, 1978, when Washington formally recognised Beijing over Taipei, though by then it was shells fired on odd-numbered days carrying propaganda leaflets that fell.

A recent spike in tensions, with China's Air Force carrying out four days of mass incursions into Taiwan's air defence zone starting on October 1, caused alarm in Western capitals and Taipei that Beijing may be planning something more dramatic.


Plane flies over military bunker

At its nearest point, from the Mashan observation post, the main island of Kinmen is at low tide less than 2km from Chinese-controlled territory. It was from there former World Bank chief economist Justin Lin swam across to defect to China in 1979.

A much-reduced military garrison remains, way down from 100,000 at the height of fighting, with tanks on occasion rumbling through back roads and soldiers guarding hidden entrances to command posts dug under the thick rock.

With new weapons, including precision missiles, any Chinese attack now would likely bypass Kinmen and go straight to military targets on Taiwan, though Kinmen, which relies on China for a stable water supply, could easily be blockaded.


Bunker facing Xiamen

A mannequin of a soldier stands inside a bunker facing Xiamen, a coastal city in China, in Lieyu Township, Kinmen, Taiwan.

The United States has sought to prevent an escalation with China, saying there was no change in Taiwan policy after President Joe Biden promised to defend the island from attack by Beijing.

Tensions have soared in recent months as Beijing steps up air incursions near Taiwan, a self-ruling democracy that China has vowed one day to take over, by force if necessary.

The United States has clarified that it was still guided by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, in which Congress required the United States to provide weaponry to "enable Taiwan to maintain sufficient self-defense capabilities."


Taiwan's flag on Shihyu Islet

The flag of Taiwan is seen painted on Shihyu Islet in front of Xiamen, a coastal city in China, in Lieyu Township, Kinmen, Taiwan.

China has ramped up economic, diplomatic and military pressure on Taiwan since the 2016 election of President Tsai Ing-wen, who views Taiwan as already sovereign and not part of "one China."

Military pressure has escalated in the last year with China sending waves of fighter jets and nuclear-capable bombers into Taiwan's air defense zone. Self-ruled Taiwan has lived under the threat of a Chinese invasion since the two sides split at the end of a civil war in 1949.

The country's 23 million people have since learned to cope with periods of sabrerattling from Beijing.

Defending Taiwan, one of Asia's most progressive democracies, has become a rare bipartisan issue in Washington's otherwise deeply polarized landscape.



Aiming at China

A mannequin of a soldier aims in the direction of China at the coastal line of Lieyu Township, Kinmen, Taiwan.

The most dramatic air incursion by Chinese jets occurred at the start of this month as China marked its annual national day when a record 149 flights crossed into Taiwan's southwestern air defence zone in four days.

Adding aggressiveness to the incursions, some of them even got personal.

In one radio broadcast posted online by aviation fans, a Chinese pilot could be heard insulting the mother of a Taiwanese combat air traffic controller.



Shells fired from China between 1958 to 1979

A bladesmith makes knives out of shells fired from China between 1958 to 1979 at his workshop on Kinmen, Taiwan. 

Kinmen's government is working hard to promote the island as more than just a war monument, hoping to entice younger visitors to see its otters and go bird watching, to stay in trendy new boutique guest houses and enjoy the local oysters.

The time warp Kinmen exists in is everywhere to see, though much of that is intentionally kept for the tourists.

The old-fashioned language on carefully preserved propaganda signs calls the Communists "bandits", and statues of late leader Chiang Kai-shek, a man now vilified by many Taiwanese for his often brutal dictatorship, laud him as the "people's saviour".

Last year, Taiwan said it recorded some 380 incursions into its southwestern air defence zone. So far this year the total is already double that at 692, as of October 22.

There has also been a steady increase in sorties using the kind of planes that would be used to strike Taiwan were an invasion to take place, including the nuclear-capable H6 bomber

In September 2020, the month that year with the highest number of sorties, Taiwan recorded incursions by 32 fighters and three bombers. So far this month, there have been 124 fighter jet incursions and 16 by bombers. Still, analysts say the threat posed by these incursions should not be exaggerated. 

The ADIZ is not the same as Taiwan's territorial airspace. 


US maintains 'strategic ambiguity'

China, which has vowed to one day seize Taiwan, says little about its ADIZ incursions. 

But analysts say they send a message to three targets: Taiwan's government and people, China's increasingly nationalist domestic audience, and western powers.

This month's record incursions came after naval exercises in the Pacific attended by multiple navies, including two US and one British aircraft carriers and a Japanese helicopter destroyer. 

The United States has long maintained a policy of "strategic ambiguity" towards Taiwan, selling it arms without explicitly promising to come to the island's help.

But President Joe Biden has now twice stated that US forces would defend Taiwan's people if China made a move on them.

While the ADIZ incursions remain far out to sea, many fear the rise in sorties increases the risk of a crash, collision or mistake that could spark a wider war.