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Tsai Li-chu remembers being a young mother on Taiwans Kinmen Island, when the shelling started around 7:00 p.m. most nights, launched from the People’s Republic of China a few kilometers above the sea. remember having to run to the shelter with the kids, carrying the baby, says Tsai, now a retired teacher in her 60s.

The bombardments, mostly shells filled with propaganda leaflets, did not stop until the US government officially recognized Communist China and cut ties with Taiwan in the late 1970s. But hostilities never really went away. Today relations are at their worst in decades, with Chinese threats to take control of Taiwan increasingly realistic. Kinmen or Quemoy, a small archipelago nearly 200 miles from Taipei but only three miles from the Chinese city of Xiamen, lies on the front line.

Guardian graphic

The Chinese Communist Party has never ruled Taiwan but nevertheless considers it to be part of China. Beijing, led by President Xi Jinping, wants unification without war, although it is ready to use force if necessary. The Taiwanese government, meanwhile, seeks to maintain the precarious status quo: autonomy without threat of invasion. The positions are irreconcilable.

Amid growing U.S. support for Taiwan under Donald Trump, which new President Joe Biden says will continue, Beijing has responded with belligerent rhetoric and increased military activity. Last year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army stepped up exercises and flights in Taiwan’s air defense area, crossing the midline for the first time in two decades in August. It has significantly accelerated aggressive and illegal sand dredging operations. On consecutive days in January, more than a dozen PLA planes buzzed towards Taiwan, a message to the newly inaugurated Biden. The Taiwan Air Force scrambled, and for days the roar of the jets punched through the misty sky of Tainan City.

Beijing has warned: those who play with fire will burn themselves and Taiwan’s independence means war.

In a speech this month, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen said the issue had shifted from a bilateral issue to a concern of the Indo-Pacific region, or even global concentration.

Some analysts believe an attack is imminent, depending on Xi’s domestic political needs, which made the capture of Taiwan a key part of his legacy. Drew Thompson, a former U.S. Defense Department official responsible for managing bilateral relations with China and Taiwan, predicts a confluence of events in which Xi is forced to negotiate with internal party figures to run for a third term, including some factions he has hampered and be looking for leverage.

Taiwan is probably the best tool to achieve this, either by forcing it to take an incredibly big bet using force to unify Taiwan, or by making it a condition of its third term, Thompson said. You can see Taiwan becoming a pawn in a high-stakes existential showdown for Xi Jinping.

A street scene in Kinmen with flags on poles overlooking the street



Chinese and Taiwanese flags on a street in Kinmen. Photograph: Tyrone Siu / Reuters

Others say the prospect is a decade or more away and relies heavily on the United States, or suggest gray area activities adjacent to combat tactics such as dredging, which do not quite cross the line. confrontation, are the current concern.

The PLA does not have the capacity to take Taiwan and dissuade the United States from interfering in the process at this time, said Professor Steve Tsang, director of the Soas China Institute in London. A successful military takeover of Taiwan will require both, and China is probably a decade or a bit more away before building up enough capacity to feel it can do so with confidence.

What specifically happens to Kinmen is more difficult to predict. Some observers see it as a potential tripwire, testing the United States, which has signaled but never promised that it will provide military assistance in the event of a Chinese attack.

Tsang says taking Kinmen alone would weaken Beijing’s claim that Taiwan was the unfinished business of the Chinese Civil War, and therefore is likely to be safe until Beijing decides to take it all. Thompson predicts Kinmen will fall early. I can’t say if this triggers US intervention, but attacking Kinmen certainly makes the PRC’s intentions clear.

A drive through the main island takes just over half an hour, through modern townships, farmland and villages, windswept lakes and beaches with granite cliffs and rocky hills. decaying bunkers. Fujian stone houses with swallowtail roofs stand next to modern tiled houses and traditional temples, guarded by wind lion gods.

For centuries Kinmen has faced conflict with the forces on the other side and been subjected to brutal martial law for years longer than the rest of Taiwan. Remnants of its wartime past abound, both as crumbling relics and as attractions for tourists, 40% of which come from the mainland. Barnacle-encrusted anti-tank spikes line the beach at Ci Lake, where a former fort is now a military museum complete with disused tanks and a rooftop cafe where visitors can sip milk tea and watch China.

A group of tourists surround a row of restored tanks in camouflage uniforms



Tourists visiting decommissioned tanks at the military museum near Ci Lake. Photograph: Sam Yeh / AFP / Getty Images

Kinmens’ ties to the mainland date back to the Ming and Qing dynasties, and it benefits from economic and cultural exchanges, including drinking water provided by China. You cannot understand the current situation without knowing the history, said Chen Kuo-li, a retired soldier. Many Kinmen have family members in China. Politically, we don’t have a choice, but personally, we want continuous exchange and connection.

Tsai wants to maintain the status quo, but laments that the direction of political travel is cutting off all connection and all means of exchange with China.

For some born into martial law and war, risking a return to conflict and its associated poverty is unthinkable. For them, peace is the absence of war, whether under the Communist Party or not, and independence would undermine their common existence with China and hamper hopes for development and prosperity.

Sitting in the century-old courtyard of the house where he was born, Chen admitted that his decades in the military instilled a particular ideology in him, but said it was the young who were being brainwashed, pursuing unrealistic goals of independence. .

The younger generation has never been through war, martial law, so they are not aware of the suffering you may endure, he said. They are like plants in a greenhouse and they don’t know what storms look like. As a result, they don’t really cherish peace enough.

For young people who are born into a democracy, being forced to live without it can never be peace. Because we grew up in a peaceful life, not caring about food and school, and can hear different points of view, we are afraid of losing our freedom, said Wu Wei-kuo, an assistant. County Councilor Tung Sen-po. We already have a comfortable life and freedom has given us that life.

Tung Sen-po standing by a door with Chinese signs hanging on it in the street



Councilor Tung Sen-po: In my opinion, the war is still here, it was hot, then cold, now maybe psychological. Photograph: Helen Davidson / The Observer

Besides, it’s not really peaceful now. In my opinion, the war is still here, it was hot, then cold, now maybe commercial or psychological, Tung said. The older generation doesn’t think a cold war is a war, so it is peace.

In the old street of Sha Mei, a trader in his sixties, who asked not to be named, offered tea while his three-year-old grandson walked around us. Peaceful unification, or at least the status quo, was the best way forward, he said.

You live your life, I live mine. I don’t really feel the threat that we are normal people, it’s out of our control. Unification is a matter of time.

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