June 23, 2009:
In another peace effort between China and Taiwan, the two countries have agreed to hold a long range swim each year, between the mainland, and one of the small islands Taiwan has controlled since the communist took control of China sixty years ago. Thus the event will have 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. Next year, the race will go the other way, and so on, everyone hopes, as an annual event. 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.
This race 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 dont have much chance of conquering the island until youve 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.
But right now, the trend is towards encouraging tourism, not invasion.