Taiwan: Just five miles from China, Kinmen Island knows how possessive Bejing can be

ITV News' Senior International Correspondent John Irvine reports from Kinmen Island

There is more to Taiwan than you think. The strait separating the democratic island from the communist mainland is 110 miles wide, but there is Taiwanese territory a lot closer to China than that.

Standing on a beach on Kinmen Island we can see the skyscrapers of the Chinese city of Xiamen just five miles across the sea.

The beach is prickly with anti-tank spikes. Ranks of the barnacled-encrusted girders are a feature of all the beaches facing China.

But then Kinmen has been in the firing line more than any other part of Taiwan ever since Chiang Kai-shek and what was left of the nationalist army left the mainland for the islands in 1949.

Back then the communists attempted an amphibious landing, but things went badly wrong and they suffered a calamitous defeat.

Wind forward to today and the latest spasm of tension has the world wondering if Xi Jingping would dare to emulate his partner Vladimir Putin and order an invasion of territory his nation regards as its own.

The Chinese have become more aggressive and assertive. Their military drills involving ships, jets and missiles, have been getting closer and closer to Taiwan.

American servicemen aboard one of the battleships sent through the Taiwan strait. Credit: ITV News

Washington responded by sending two warships through the Taiwan Strait at the end of last month.

Taiwan too has been staging military drills. The government has announced increased military spending on planes and ships, but there have been calls to purchase the lighter type of weapons that have proved so effective in Ukrainian hands.

We spoke to a former chief of the defence staff, Admiral Lee Hsi-min, who said armaments like shoulder-fired missiles should be bought to increase deterrence without antagonising China.

Admiral Lee Hsi-min. Credit: ITV News

“We need to be like Muhammad Ali,” he told me. “We should float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.”

In Taipei many of the people we spoke to say that the Chinese threat has been a fact of life for 70 years, and that the fact the worst has never happened probably means it never will.

Kinmen Island knows differently. In 1958 the Chinese Army bombarded the place with almost half a million artillery shells in the space of just 44 days.

The islanders know full well just how violently possessive Beijing can be.

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