The tank traps on Kinmen Island’s beaches are a powerful reminder that Taiwan lives under the constant threat of Chinese invasion – and fears of conflict are now at their highest level in decades.
Democratic Taiwan has learned to live with warnings from Beijing’s authoritarian leaders that they are ready and willing to conquer a place that it considers part of its territory.
But that static background has reached levels difficult to ignore recently as China’s jets are now marching into Taiwan’s defense zone at unprecedented speed and the People’s Liberation Army is releasing propaganda simulating an invasion of the island – and even an attack on US bases in Guam.
The saber rattle has not been so loud since the mid-1990s, when China fired rockets into the Taiwan Strait in a moment of heightened tension.
Newcomer Wang Jui-sheng sits under a pavilion at National Quemoy University on Kinmen, a Taiwan-ruled island off mainland China. He feels more than a little insecure.
“China is angry with Taiwan and it is all the more brutal,” he told AFP.
“I am concerned about the possibility of military conflict between the two sides, possibly even in the near future.”
Kinmen (140,000 inhabitants) is just 3.2 km from the mainland and was left in the hands of nationalist forces at the end of the 1949 Chinese Civil War that formed what is now China and Taiwan.
If Beijing’s troops ever cross the Strait, they would almost certainly have to take Kinmen first.
And if war breaks out, it could easily lure the United States – two nuclear-armed military men compete against each other.
– flash point –
Ian Easton, author of a book on what war could look like, says the world ignores the spiraling tensions in the cross-strait at your own risk.
“This is the most dangerous, unstable and momentous hot spot in the world,” the executive director of Project 2049 Institute, a think tank specializing in China-Taiwan affairs, told AFP.
Historically, Beijing has used carrots and whips to seek out what it sees as the unification of China, fusing sweet promises of shared prosperity with warnings of the annihilation of Taiwan’s 23 million people.
But in recent years the carrot has all but disappeared.
Four years ago, Taiwan voted for President Tsai Ing-wen, who sees the island as a sovereign state rather than part of “one China”.
China cut official communications and exerted economic, military and diplomatic pressure to encourage voters to put a more Beijing-friendly politician in office next time.
It did not work. Tsai won a second term after a landslide in January, and polls show growing numbers of voters now see themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
– ‘Prepare for war’ –
Failure to win Taiwanese hearts – exacerbated by Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang – could explain why President Xi Jinping has taken the most belligerent stance against Taiwan since the Mao Zedong era.
Xi, who abolished the presidential term two years ago, made no secret of his goals.
He has described Taiwan’s takeover as “an inevitable prerequisite for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people” – a project he aims to complete by 2049, the centenary of the founding of communist China.
During a trip to a PLA base earlier this month, he called on troops to prepare for war.
Captain James Fanell, former director of Naval Intelligence for the US Pacific Fleet, believes China will invade Taiwan in some form over the next 10 years.
“The reality is that China has always had a plan and is on a schedule,” he told AFP of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, which he joined after retiring in 2015.
“We’re just into the decade of concern.”
During his career, Fanell watched China transform from a coast-constrained brown water power into a globally capable navy, equipped with better hypersonic missiles and far more ships than the US.
“For every ship we make, they make five times as many,” Fanell said.
He added that Beijing’s plans for Taiwan are now so dangerous compared to previous moments of tension that China now may have enough military power to take the island – although any invasion would be very costly.
– Will the US stand by Taiwan? – –
It is not yet clear whether the US will come to the aid of Taiwan in the event of an attack. Unlike Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, Taiwan is not an ally.
But Washington is required by Congress to sell Taiwanese weapons to defend itself and is opposed to violent change of island status.
Politics – called “strategic ambiguity” – was supposed to stave off an invasion without confronting China directly.
In the US, however, there is increasing bipartisan debate over whether a move to strategic clarity is now necessary in view of China’s more assertive approach.
“If Taiwan were conquered and occupied by the PRC (China), the American alliance system in Asia would be devastated,” said Easton.
US President Donald Trump’s administration has undoubtedly welcomed Taiwan when it clashed with Beijing on a number of issues.
Trump was far more willing than his recent predecessors to sell key weapon systems to Taiwan’s armed forces.
Over the past three years, the US has made agreements worth at least $ 15 billion, including new generation F16 fighter jets and movable missile platforms.
Whether Trump’s challenger Joe Biden will take a similar stance towards Taiwan if he wins next week’s election is unclear.
As the great powers jostle, the residents of Kinmen desperately hope that such weapons will never be needed.
“I don’t want war to break out because both sides would suffer,” said Tsai Yan-mei, a mainland Chinese resident who married a Taiwanese man and lives in Kinmen.
“I hope to have a stable life,” she added. “I enjoy democracy and freedom in Taiwan.”
(Except for the headline, this story was not edited by GossipMantri staff and posted from a syndicated feed.)