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Analysts say China patrols within the restricted water of Kinmen to intimidate Taiwan


Last month, China empowered its coast guard to board any vessels in waters it considers its own. That includes the waters around one Taiwanese island where residents have long been caught in the middle of tensions with China. NPR's Emily Feng takes us there.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Atop an abandoned military watch post, Lien Siun (ph) shows me where two Chinese fishermen capsized and drowned this past February after being chased by Taiwan's Coast Guard.

LIEN SIUN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Since then, in apparent retaliation, China's Coast Guard has been patrolling within the restricted waters of Kinmen, the Taiwanese island Lien lives on, and that's something that has not happened in the last 30 years.

LIEN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Kinmen is closer to China than to Taiwan's main island. It used to be a military outpost and a symbol of the Chinese Civil War that is technically still ongoing. In fact, China and Kinmen shelled each other on and off until the 1970s. And now analysts worry that as the power balance tilts in China's favor, Beijing is using Kinmen to intimidate Taiwan and break down its territorial claims. Here's Gregory Poling, a senior fellow at D.C. think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

GREGORY POLING: And with each stage, it normalizes this idea that there really is no such thing as a buffer between Taiwan and China.

FENG: In addition to the patrols, China is also sending an average of more than 500 military planes and boats a month around Taiwan for the last two years. That's more than three times compared to years previous, according to Taiwanese defense data. Andrew Yang is a former defense minister for Taiwan who now runs a security think tank in Taipei. He thinks the patrols encode an additional message.

ANDREW YANG: To send a clear message to Taiwanese, say, you want peace? Then you have to think about something, right? You have to impose in pressures over your government not to step a wrong foot.

FENG: Strangely, though, come to Kinmen...

XU PI HUANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: ...And you'll find the Taiwanese living here are perfectly unworried about the Chinese patrols. This is Xu Pi Huang (ph), an official with Kinmen's Fishermen's Association.

XU: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says, "The Chinese still largely respect their fishing boats. And in Kinmen," he says, "we are used to this. The anxiety we feel now is not even 1% of what we endured when China was shelling us." Xu's practiced calm hides a deep cynicism among residents in Kinmen, where family, language and business ties between the residents and those of China are dense.

CHUNYANG HONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Chunyang Hong (ph), a Kinmen local counselor, says China has carefully choreographed the patrols, leaving people in Kinmen largely unaffected. In other words, he thinks the patrols are political theater, and Taiwan's response is over the top. China and Taiwan have not officially opened up travel between the two, but in Kinmen, local residents are allowed to take a boat to China. And at the harbor, I meet Taipei resident Gary Wong (ph). He still reminisces about his days as a Taiwanese soldier stationed on Kinmen in the late 1970s.

GARY WONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says in those days, his only contact with China was the propaganda flyers they shot towards Taiwan's Kinmen Island, along with artillery fire. He'd pick up the flyers on morning jogs, and sometimes he'd peek a look. Flash forward to today, and he's now about to get on a boat to China. His daughter even works in China.

WONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says his understanding of China has totally changed in recent years. He's seen how fast it's grown economically. And as for the current Chinese Coast Guard patrols around Kinmen, he still feels safe enough to take a ferry.

WONG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He compares China's patrols to its shelling of Kinmen more than four decades ago. It was all carefully timed, he says. China only fired on odd number days and only between 7 to 8 p.m. that spared lives on Kinmen, but it also signaled if tensions worsened, it would be the people caught in between on Kinmen who would suffer first.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Kinmen, Taiwan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.