Visiting Taiwan’s tiny Kinmen Islands last week, Joseph Lin practiced standing up on his paddleboard, drifting across from the Chinese city of Xiamen, where days earlier fighter jets had screamed overhead.
The Taiwanese islets, just two miles from China’s coast, have become a popular tourist destination, and Beijing’s massive military drills this month failed to deter domestic visitors from jetting closer to their sabre-rattling neighbour.
Lin, a former soldier from southern Taiwan’s Pingtung county, refused to cancel his three-day trip, saying he believed China was only trying to appease nationalist sentiment at home with its show of force.
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“I think Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has sent a warning to (Chinese President) Xi Jinping that it would not be so easy to seize Taiwan,” the 35-year-old told AFP after his paddle under the beating summer sun.
“The price would be too high.”
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait are at their highest in decades as Beijing rages against a visit to Taipei earlier this month by United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
In response, China put on unprecedented military drills, firing multiple missiles into the waters around Taiwan as well as dispatching fighter jets and warships to simulate a blockade of the island.
But even amid the flurry of military activity, tourism in Kinmen continues.
Domestic flights continue to fly to the island, tour groups and buses crowd the islands’ popular sites while visitors hoarding souvenirs dot its airport floor.
Visitors still peer out of its observation posts, walk by murals denouncing Beijing and take pictures of China from between the anti-landing spikes that dot the beach.
Kinmen is a former battleground where residents had to contend with occasional shelling from Chinese artillery into the late 1970s.
But the islets opened up to tourists in 1993 and have never looked back.
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Wartime relics and monuments of its militarized past are star attractions, regardless of Kinmen’s proximity to China and the lingering threat of invasion.
“There is no use worrying (about a Chinese invasion). We should be calm and get on with our lives,” said Vanessa Chu, 52, who traveled from the coastal city of Hsinchu.
“I hope for peace, as Taiwan is small and if the tensions continue, Taiwan will suffer more than China,” she added, speaking alongside her two sons.
Many Kinmen residents hold favorable views of China after years of close trade and tourism ties — the island’s main source of drinking water is a pipeline from the mainland.
Yet visitors from China are currently banned from traveling there because of Taiwan’s strict Covid-19 rules, which are similar to Beijing’s.
The Chinese Communist Party views the whole of Taiwan as part of its territory waiting to be “unified” one day, by force if necessary.
But on the other side of the strait in Xiamen, residents carry on with life much the same as those on the Kinmen beaches.
A young bride smiles and poses for a photoshoot on the sand while a man offers tourists binoculars to observe the small islands China bombarded over half a century earlier, killing more than 600 people.
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On nearby Lieyu, known as Little Kinmen and the closest inhabited islet to China, Taiwanese tourists have their own look across the water.
They use a telescope from an old fortress to view a Xiamen billboard that reads “One Country Two Systems, Unify China”.
The slogan is intended for Taiwanese onlookers, a reference to the deal China made guaranteeing Hong Kong certain freedoms and a high degree of autonomy ahead of its 1997 handover from British rule.
But the vast majority of Taiwanese have long rejected that model — even more so after witnessing Beijing crush political freedoms in Hong Kong over the past three years following huge democracy protests.
During AFP’s visit to Kinmen, some tourists chuckled when a guide joked that the Chinese could have changed the slogan in Xiamen to “Use of Force, Unify China” as she struggled to locate the billboard with the telescope.
An elderly tourist from Taipei who declined to give his name said he believed China would not strike Taiwan directly because “there would be too much loss”.
Lin, the former soldier, said he is prepared to fight if needed.
“Taiwan is my home and I am willing to stand out,” he said, paddleboard in hand.
“If we don’t protect Taiwan, who will protect us? Our democracy is valuable.”