The view from the ground.

Taiwan’s Outlying Islands Are at Risk

Chinese domestic instability could encourage the CCP to attack the Taiwanese archipelagos of Kinmen and Matsu.

Abandoned barricades are seen at a local beach on Sept. 24, 2022 in Kinmen, Taiwan.
Abandoned barricades are seen at a local beach on Sept. 24, 2022 in Kinmen, Taiwan.
Abandoned barricades are seen at a local beach on Sept. 24, 2022 in Kinmen, Taiwan. Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

On the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, as waves break against the rows of anti-landing spikes that protrude from the sand, Wang Ne-Xie—a local and former military man—gazes out across the water.

On the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, as waves break against the rows of anti-landing spikes that protrude from the sand, Wang Ne-Xie—a local and former military man—gazes out across the water.

Through the light haze shrouding the horizon he spots the vague silhouettes of skyscrapers rising like ghostly columns toward the sky. They constitute the outline of the Chinese city of Xiamen, which stands only a few miles from Kinmen on the Chinese mainland.

The skyscrapers fade from view in the gentle light of dusk, but around the Taiwanese island things are far from peaceful these days. Out in the Taiwan Strait, near-daily incursions of Chinese military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone have continued unabated since former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in early August. Meanwhile, large-scale protests against harsh COVID lockdowns erupted in November throughout major Chinese cities in the biggest act of defiance to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule in more than 30 years. Developments on the Chinese domestic front and the Chinese conduct across the Taiwan Strait have convinced Wang that the Chinese will attempt an invasion of Kinmen.

“We will be here to oppose them,” he said, gesturing toward Xiamen’s darkening skyline across the water. “But we won’t be able to stop them.”

Yet Kinmen’s defenders did exactly that in 1949 and 1950 when mainland forces tried to capture the island but were repulsed. Back then, the outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu had to be conquered by the communists to clear the way for a final push toward Taiwan and a total victory in the Chinese Civil War that awaited once the nationalists were dislodged from their last holdouts in the Taiwan Strait. To prevent that from happening, the nationalists transformed Kinmen and Matsu into island fortresses and stationed tens of thousands of troops on them.

Today the situation is very different on the outlying Taiwanese islands. Since the 1990s, Kinmen and Matsu have been largely demilitarized. Most of the military installations and equipment are no longer manned by soldiers; instead, they draw flocks of tourists. The remaining bases and outposts house just a fraction of the numbers that were present in previous decades.

The demilitarization of the outlying islands was initiated during a period of calm and de-escalation in the Taiwan Strait. On the Chinese side, there was a cessation of the decadeslong artillery bombardment of the outlying islands that had continued since the failed invasion attempts. On the Taiwanese side, there was a marked troop reduction as part of a larger overhaul of the national defense policy as funds were diverted away from defense spending toward public welfare projects.

The de-escalation was preceded by groundbreaking shifts on either side, with China opening its economy to the world and Taiwan transitioning from a one-party state under strict martial law to a liberal democracy. These developments increased exchanges between China and Taiwan. Kinmen and Matsu were opened to Chinese tourists, and for a while steps toward a peaceful reunification seemed more likely than a Chinese takeover of the outlying islands.

While de-escalation resulted in demilitarization on the Taiwanese side, across the water from Kinmen, that was not the case. Quite the contrary. Chinese military spending has risen 72 percent since 2012 as China continues to expand and modernize its military capabilities. As tensions once again run high in the Taiwan Strait, the results of this expansion and modernization are repeatedly showcased around Taiwan as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) carries out constant airborne and seaborne activities near the island.

The outlying islands have not been ignored as the Chinese circle Taiwan. During the massive exercises carried out following Pelosi’s visit, Chinese drones were spotted on several occasions flying over Kinmen near the island’s military installations, resulting in one of them being shot down.

If Beijing chose to undertake an outright invasion of Kinmen and Matsu, there would be very little standing in the immediate way of the Chinese forces’ advance on the largely demilitarized islands. Even if the Taiwanese were to attempt to reinforce the islands, such reinforcements would have to cover about 120 miles, whereas the Chinese attackers would only have to cover three to 12 miles to reach their targets.

Given the lightly defended state of the islands, Chinese military preparations could also be conducted more covertly than preparations for an all-out attack on the Taiwanese main island could. Additionally, the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three Communiqués, and the Six Assurances that on the U.S. side together constitute the guiding parameters of the U.S.-Taiwanese defense relationship offer pledges to Taiwan proper and the Taiwanese islands of Penghu, but they do not include the Taiwanese outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu.

“There is a lack of American security guarantees for Kinmen and Matsu because the islands hold very little strategic value to the American strategy in the Western Pacific,” said Yao-Yuan Yeh, a professor of East Asian politics at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

The first island chain running from Japan in the north to Malaysia in the south is the principal American strategic line in the military containment of China. Were Taiwan’s outlying islands to fall to the Chinese, this line would still be intact.

“So why risk a war with China over them?” Yeh asked.

Until recently, the Taiwanese have estimated that the risks against the islands are low since a takeover would not fulfill the overall Chinese goal of unifying Taiwan with the mainland.

For the Chinese, the outlying islands used to constitute a strategic obstacle that had to be overcome for any amphibious invasion of Taiwan to be conceivable. However, as China has demonstrated in countless military drills in recent years, the modernized PLA would be quite capable of striking Taiwan and swarming the island without the outlying islands as a launching pad.

If the Chinese launch an attack against the outlying islands, it would not be because of a U.S. omission, Chinese armament, or Taiwanese demilitarization, according to Yeh.

“The threat of invasion against the outlying islands really depends on the domestic pressure on the CCP and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping and how they handle such domestic pressure moving forward,” Yeh said.

And the domestic pressure has been rising on the Chinese leadership in several arenas in the last couple of years. Economic growth is at its lowest level in decades, youth unemployment is hovering around 20 percent, and tens of thousands of homebuyers are refusing to pay mortgages on incomplete apartments in a distorted housing market connected to a decadeslong building frenzy that at the same time has left upward of 50 million homes unoccupied.

Many of these issues have only been made worse by the three years of COVID-19 restrictions that in November sparked the biggest protests in urban China seen in a generation.

Although the zero-COVID policy was dismantled following the protests, that itself has led to a new crisis as millions of Chinese are catching the virus, while the recent strain on funeral homes and crematoriums is suggesting that people are dying in unusually high numbers.

“Meanwhile, the socioeconomic issues plaguing China remain just underneath the surface,” said Christina Chen at the Taiwanese security think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Research.

These issues will become increasingly difficult to resolve, according to Chen, as China moves from an authoritarian style of leadership toward a totalitarian one with an ever-more powerful Xi at the helm.

The reconstituted Chinese leadership initially did not recognize the existence of any protests and later indicated that any unrest was due to foreign forces seeking to destroy China.

It is a common trait among leaders of authoritarian and totalitarian systems to blame internal trouble and unrest on foreign interference and external forces seeking to undermine and eventually destroy the nation. The Russian leadership has used the notion of “foreign agents” to shut down NGOs and lock up opposition figures in the country since 2012. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed Turkey’s sky-high inflation on “foreign financial tools,” while Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has blamed “the foreign hand” for instigating the protests that have rocked Iran since mid-September.

In the face of internal instability, such accusations of foreign meddling can lead to military interference in neighboring countries as a way of bolstering domestic support. President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings rose markedly following the Russian takeover of Crimea in 2014, as did Erdogan’s approval ratings after the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria in 2019.

Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu twice in December expressed concern that the Chinese leadership will take China down a similar road.

“We are concerned that the Chinese government will aim at Taiwan, will accuse Taiwan of being the cause for the unrest in China,” he said, suggesting later that the Taiwanese government believes that China is looking for a pretext and that the military situation is looking more serious than ever.

Were the Taiwanese government’s fears to come true, the vulnerability of the outlying islands would make them an obvious target of a military endeavor meant to divert attention away from a potentially deteriorating domestic socioeconomic situation in China.

While Kinmen and Matsu might very well have lost much of their strategic military significance, they have lost none of their symbolic significance, Chen said.

“A takeover of the outlying islands could offer a particularly solid boost to Xi Jinping since the PLA tried twice and failed twice to capture the islands in the past,” Chen added. “So, a conquest would be a feat not attained by any previous CCP leader.”

However, for Yeh it is not necessarily a predetermined outcome that the PLA will roll carefree onto Kinmen and Matsu if an attack is launched.

“As Russia has found out in Ukraine, military operations can be messy, unpredictable, and go completely sideways,” Yeh said.

But with Xi more uncontested than ever and surrounded by a new CCP leadership whose main qualification is loyalty to him, Yeh is concerned that there are fewer people left to ask the necessary questions and make sure Xi has the complete picture if the leadership starts to plan an invasion.

“Are they factoring in all the risks that would come with launching a military engagement in one of the most hotly contested regions in the world? Can they be sure that Taiwan and the U.S. will just stand by as China takes over Taiwanese territory? If they miscalculate, it can lead to war.”

According to Yeh, the answers to these questions depend on several factors—one of which is the U.S. and Taiwanese perception of the Chinese endgame.

“If a swift takeover of Kinmen and Matsu comes across as the absolute end goal, reactions could be more subdued from the American and Taiwanese camps. If it is seen as just the initial step in an extended conquest, then we are getting closer to war.”

Back on the western beach of Kinmen, Wang is aware that it is by bigger forces that Kinmen’s fate will be decided, not by the island’s 140,000 inhabitants.

“There is a great game being played in the region,” he said, “and on Kinmen, we just hope that we don’t fall victim to it.”

Frederik Kelter is a Danish freelance journalist based in Taiwan.

Read More On Taiwan | War

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