Taiwan island haunted by memories of China war prepares for key vote

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, rejecting the ruling DPP Government’s stance that the island is “already independent”

January 09, 2024 04:55 pm | Updated January 10, 2024 07:52 am IST - Taipei

A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying a satellite called Einstein Probe takes off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, China on January 9, 2024.

A Long March-2C carrier rocket carrying a satellite called Einstein Probe takes off from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province, China on January 9, 2024. | Photo Credit: cnsphoto via Reuters

Spikes jut from the beaches of Taiwan’s Kinmen island, military checkpoints serve as traffic roundabouts and bunkers double up as tourist cafes — reminders everywhere of the conflict decades earlier with Chinese communist forces.

Kinmen, which lies 200 kilometres from Taiwan but only seven kilometre from China, was a battlefield front line for the nationalists who fled to Taiwan in 1949, and the target of frequent bombardments up until 1979. China’s bombardments of Kinmen only stopped in 1979 when the U.S. switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing.

This is a position maintained today even as Washington becomes Taipei’s most important ally and its key weapons provider.

Plummeting relations

Meanwhile, U.S.-China relations have plummeted, with the two superpowers tussling over technology exports, spying concerns and human rights issues — but also on the status of Taiwan. Now Kinmen residents are preparing to vote in a crucial presidential election on Saturday that is being watched closely from Beijing to Washington, and whose winner will set democratic Taiwan’s course over the next four years.

One-time opponents of the Chinese Communist Party, Kuomintang (KMT) has evolved into a political bloc that today sees the economic fortunes of modern Taiwan linked to a close relationship with Beijing.

China has long claimed Taiwan as part of its territory, with President Xi Jinping — who has never ruled out the use of force to bring it under Beijing’s control — describing “unification” as “inevitable”.

For the majority of the island’s 23 million people accustomed to democratic life, joining authoritarian China is unthinkable.

In Taiwan’s election, KMT candidate Hou Yu-ih is going up against Lai Ching-te of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which has shaped its platform on sovereignty from China.

‘Already independent’

The previous vote in 2020 saw a historic landslide for the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, who enraged China with her stance that Taiwan is “already independent”. Over Ms. Tsai’s eight-year tenure, Beijing refused to engage with her government, ramping up tensions across the Taiwan Strait. Besides sending in unprecedented numbers of fighter jets and naval vessels around Taiwan, Beijing also staged two massive war games in recent years — flying missiles to surrounding waters and simulating a blockade of the island.

These actions have upped global worries of a conflict, even if it is “unlikely in the near term”, Amanda Hsiao of the International Crisis Group said.

“The extent to which tensions will be kept under check in the next four years will depend on how the next president approaches defence reform, and manages relations with Beijing and Washington.”

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