June 30, 2013:
On June 26th Taiwan completed a seven year effort to clear all the mines on Kinmen, one of the small islands off the Chinese coast that it has controlled despite decades of attacks from the mainland. It took all those years to find and remove 126,000 mines from beaches on several of these small islands. Kinmen was the first island on which beaches have been declared safe for people to use again. On the 26th the beaches on Kinmen were opened to the public for the first time in over 60 years. The mine clearing effort is nearly completed on nearby Matsu Island as well. All this mine clearing is part of over a decade of efforts by China and Taiwan to improve relations between the two countries, although China still does not consider Taiwan a country but a wayward province. Taiwan originally thought the mine clearing would take a decade but they developed more effective ways to get it done. Nevertheless, it was an expensive job, with each mine costing several hundred dollars to find and remove.
The mine clearing was one of many efforts to make the former island fortresses more hospitable to Chinese and Taiwanese visitors. For example, four years ago China and Taiwan agreed to hold a long range swim each year, between the mainland and one of the small Taiwan controlled islands, just off the mainland coast. This event features fifty swimmers, each from Taiwan and China, going 8.5 kilometers from the mainland (a beach on Amoy Bay), to Little Kinmen (Quemoy in the West) island. Each year the race changes direction. The other Taiwan controlled islands (the Matsu chain) are smaller and 19 kilometers from the mainland.
The Kinmen chain of small islands (some only two kilometers from the coast) were last heavily fought over (with artillery) in 1958. In 1992, the Taiwanese military passed control of the islands to civil authorities. While still fortified and garrisoned, these coastal islands are now mostly parkland, attracting tourists from Taiwan and the mainland.
All this reminds everyone that a Chinese attempt to forcibly make Taiwan part of China would have to involve dealing with the many small islands in the waters between Taiwan and China. Any Chinese plan to invade Taiwan would probably ignore the Kinmen and Matsu islands. But a group of larger islands, the Pescadores, are within artillery range of Taiwan itself. The Pescadores have an area of only 127 square kilometers and a population of 90,000. There is a military garrison on the island, which includes an armored brigade, lots of infantry, anti-aircraft missiles, and mobile anti-ship missile units. The Pescadores are doubly important, as they are opposite the most important landing beaches on Taiwan. Any invasion force must seize a port as soon as possible, in order to bring in more troops and supplies. You don’t have much chance of conquering the island until you’ve done that. The two best landing areas, for seizing nearby ports, are in the northwest and southwest regions of Taiwan. The better of the two is in the southwest, where the ports of Kaohsiung and Tsinan are near the landing beaches. Those beaches are also near the Pescadores islands.
If China uses some of its airborne and amphibious forces to take the Pescadores, they will have a base for the next stage of the operation: the landing on Taiwan itself. But it is likely that speed will be the most important element. The faster the Chinese establish themselves on Taiwan, the better their bargaining position with the United States and the rest of the world. If China does not win a quick victory, the economic sanctions start kicking in. Billions of dollars of cancelled orders from the United States and Europe put millions of Chinese out of work and make the invasion very unpopular. Should the invasion prove unsuccessful as well, a change in Chinese leadership is likely to quickly follow. One way or another, the Pescadores islands will play a major role in any assault on Taiwan and the Taiwanese are still keeping their defenses strong there.
Overall, the trend is towards encouraging tourism, not invasion. But China still insists that Taiwan is a wayward province and that the motherland is willing to wait until the Taiwanese see the error of their ways and come home. The Taiwanese are waiting for China to become a democracy and either forget about absorbing Taiwan or make a better offer. In the meantime, most Taiwanese are quite content to remain independent.