The two Taiwanese islands blocking an invasion from Beijing

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“They are better than Chinese chives,” says taxi driver Chen Peng-chieh.

Penghu, like many remote and agricultural islands around the world, is plagued by economic forces that have seen young people leave as access to information about the outside world has exploded. The fact that it is in the front line of Taiwan’s defense is of little immediate concern to its inhabitants, who are more worried about fish stocks and the presence of new generations to replace them.

But Penghu’s geographic reality has dominated questions about its future and a local political campaign. The ruling party in Taiwan, the Democratic People’s Party [DPP] made Saturday’s local mayoral and local council midterm elections – usually dominated by concerns over potholes, rubbish delivery and grants – a matter of national security. He underscored the threat from China at every opportunity.

“The DPP has a very important agenda for the election this time,” said its candidate for the county of the islands Chen Kuang-fu. “It’s to protect the land and fight for Taiwan. Taiwan’s performance in democracy, politics and economy should be cherished by the whole world.

Fighting for Taiwan: Chen Kuang-fu, magistrate of Penghu and member of the DPP party.Credit:Daniel Ceng

From the southwestern edge of this island, 500 kilometers from Taipei, a Chinese armada would first appear on the horizon if Beijing launched an amphibious assault on Taiwan. At its furthest point, a lighthouse built by the British in the 1870s adjoins a military base built to protect Taiwan.

Below, jagged cliffs give way to pebbly beaches and winding villages that wind their way up the escarpment like Portofino, Italy. Inside, barricades, tracks and walls painted in camouflage mark the islands. China would have to take control of all of this if it were to land on the Taiwanese mainland and prevent a rearguard action by Taiwanese forces.

“In terms of economics and tactical strategies, Penghu is really important,” Chen said. “Since Penghu is in the middle of the Taiwan Strait, transportation here is crucial.”

The tactics divided voters. “I think they’re trying to scare us,” says Jay Lee, a 50-year-old retiree.

“The government should make people feel safe. China is like a fierce dog. People shouldn’t try to make him angry.

Taiwan’s opposition, the Kuomintang, ran a campaign based on the needs of the local community and attempted to move away from geopolitics. The Kuomintang fought a civil war with the Chinese Communist Party in the 1940s before fleeing to Taiwan, but is now seen as more favorable to cultivating ties with the Chinese mainland.

Chen Wan-Hao works on fishing tools in a village near Xiyu Island in Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait.

Chen Wan-Hao works on fishing tools in a village near Xiyu Island in Penghu, an archipelago of 90 islands and islets in the Taiwan Strait.Credit:Daniel Ceng

Chen Wan-hao, 82, a 26-year-old grandmother who makes fishing lines in the village of Baisha, said voting for the Kuomintang would be like “voting to go straight to China”.

“If China attacks, we may die, but as long as our offspring are alive, it’s fine,” she said.

Lee is more cynical. “I’m not worried at all. If China really attacks, Kinmen and Matsu would be hit first, not Penghu.

Lights twinkle on the horizon over the islands of Matsu. Twenty-five minutes by boat is the Chinese coast of Fujian.

A tourist reacts near a billboard with a message reminding people to be ready to fight seen on the Taiwanese island of Matsu, near Fujian, China.

A tourist reacts near a billboard with a message reminding people to be ready to fight seen on the Taiwanese island of Matsu, near Fujian, China.Credit:Daniel Ceng

Down the Minjiang River, the People’s Liberation Army waits. Longtian and Huian airbases were expanded by President Xi Jinping in 2020. Chinese fighter jets can reach Taipei in seven minutes from Fujian.

Taiwan’s Chief of General Staff Huang Shu-kuang has ordered the military to conduct a review of the formation and tactical posture of the air defense forces in response to the year’s expansion last. Nearby is one of the Chinese amphibious bases used to house boats that can land troops on the ground. Pingtan Island, 80 kilometers south of Matsu, was the scene of China’s live-fire exercises when US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taipei in May. Kinmen is even closer than Matsu, but too close to the Chinese coast to be a threat and less strategically important.

The Taiwanese military trucks that patrol Matsu are too narrow for its streets. When local infantry fire live ammunition, they crack in the night and fire into the sky. The language here is closer to Fujian and Fukien, but most locals are patriotically Taiwanese.

“Always be ready to fight even when you sleep,” reads a ten-meter-high stone sign carved in red from the rock of the bay opposite.

Wang Chun-chin reacts to the camera inside his family's gallery and cafe popular among Taiwanese soldiers on Matsu Island, near Fujian, China.

Wang Chun-chin reacts to the camera inside his family’s gallery and cafe popular among Taiwanese soldiers on Matsu Island, near Fujian, China.Credit:Daniel Ceng

On the other side, Wang Chun-chin patrols his cafe Furen, his army photo gallery and his fish noodle dispensary. She remembers taking refuge in her shop when she was a teenager when Chinese bombs fell on Matsu.

“We hid in bomb shelters, we saw people die, loved ones lose their hands to artillery or shelling, legs missing from attacks,” she says. “These younger generations have not been there like us.”

But she says she is done feeling anxious about the threat of her 55-year-old home being taken over by China. “These threats occur daily. How much longer can we worry?

Tsao Erh-yuan, the local Kuomintang candidate for Matsu, said he thinks Matsu and Taiwan will remain safe “if Taiwan independence is not declared”.

Kuomintang candidate Tsao Erh-yuan in the Lianjiang county magistrate election in Matsu, Taiwan Strait.

Kuomintang candidate Tsao Erh-yuan in the Lianjiang county magistrate election in Matsu, Taiwan Strait.Credit:Daniel Ceng

“Matsu has been a key partner with mainland China in terms of trade and economic ties. It is important to keep these links operational.

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In Qinbi, on Matsu’s second-largest island, Beigan, Chen – who only asked to be identified by his last name – wanders Thursday morning between the bunkers and century-old houses that dot the coast of this stone village . The number of military exercises on the Chinese and Taiwanese side has increased in this region this year. Like some of his compatriots on the islands that separate the superpower from its Democratic neighbor, he walks with a dose of realpolitik.

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