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Kinmen (Taiwan) (AFP) – Visiting Taiwan’s tiny Kinmen Islands last week, Joseph Lin practiced while standing on his paddleboard, drifting across the Chinese city of Xiamen, where fighter jets had roared overhead.
The Taiwanese islets, just two miles from the Chinese coast, have become a popular tourist destination, and massive military exercises in Beijing this month have not deterred domestic visitors from getting closer to their neighbor.
Lin, a former soldier from Pingtung County in southern Taiwan, refused to cancel his three-day trip, saying he believed China was only trying to appease nationalist sentiment at home with its show of force .
“I think Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine sent a warning to (Chinese President) Xi Jinping that it wouldn’t be so easy to take over Taiwan,” the man told AFP. 35 years after paddling in the beating summer sun.
“The price would be too high.”
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are at their highest in decades as Beijing rages against a visit to Taipei earlier this month by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In response, China has held unprecedented military drills, firing several missiles into the waters around Taiwan and sending fighter jets and warships to simulate a blockade of the island.
But even amid the wave of military activity, tourism in Kinmen continues.
Domestic flights continue to fly to the island, tour groups and buses throng the islands’ popular sites while souvenir-hoarding visitors dot the airport floor.
Visitors still watch from its vantage points, walk past murals denouncing Beijing and snap photos of China between the anti-landing spikes that dot the beach.
Life goes on
Kinmen is a former battlefield where residents faced occasional shelling from Chinese artillery until the late 1970s.
But the islets opened to tourists in 1993 and have never looked back.
War relics and monuments to its militarized past are star attractions, regardless of Kinmen’s proximity to China and the lingering threat of invasion.
“There is no point in worrying (about a Chinese invasion). We need to be calm and get on with our lives,” said Vanessa Chu, 52, who traveled from the coastal town of Hsinchu.
“I hope for peace, because Taiwan is small and if tensions continue, Taiwan will suffer more than China,” she added alongside her two sons.
Many Kinmen residents have a favorable view of China after years of close trade and tourism ties – the island’s main source of drinking water is a pipeline from the mainland.
Yet visitors from China are currently banned from travel there due to Taiwan’s strict Covid-19 rules, which are similar to those in Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party sees all of Taiwan as part of its territory waiting to be “unified” one day, by force if necessary.
But on the other side of the Xiamen Strait, the inhabitants live much like those of the Kinmen beaches.
A bride smiles and poses for a photo op on the sand as a man offers tourists binoculars to observe the small islands that China bombed more than half a century earlier, killing more than 600 people.
‘Use of force’
Nearby Lieyu, known as Little Kinmen and the closest inhabited islet to China, Taiwanese tourists have their own view of the water.
They use a telescope from an ancient fortress to see a Xiamen billboard that reads “One country, two systems, unite China.”
The slogan is aimed at Taiwanese viewers, a reference to the agreement China struck guaranteeing Hong Kong certain freedoms and a high degree of autonomy before its 1997 handover from British rule.
But the vast majority of Taiwanese have long rejected that model – all the more so after watching Beijing crush political freedoms in Hong Kong over the past three years following huge pro-democracy protests.
During AFP’s visit to Kinmen, some tourists laughed when a guide joked that the Chinese could have changed the slogan in Xiamen to “Use of Force, Unify China” as she struggled to locate the billboard with the telescope.
An elderly tourist from Taipei who declined to be named said he believed China would not hit Taiwan directly because “there would be too many casualties”.
Lin, the former soldier, said he was ready to fight if necessary.
“Taiwan is my home and I’m ready to stand out,” he said, paddle in hand.
“If we don’t protect Taiwan, who will protect us? Our democracy is precious.
© 2022 AFP