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Kinmen Island Benefits from Warming Ties With China

  • Thibault Worth

A Taiwanese island that saw ferocious fighting after the Chinese civil war is now looking toward a new era of peaceful tourism. As part of that change, a massive demining effort is under way to make the island safer.

From Kinmen Island, it is possible to see right across the water to the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen. During the dying days of the Chinese civil war, thousands of soldiers died here in the Battle of Kuningtou in 1949.

Afterward, Chinese troops fired shells across to the island for years. Taiwan's military laid thousands of anti-tank and anti-personnel mines on the island's coast to deter an invasion.

Taiwan has been self-ruled since 1949, and the communist government in Beijing has vowed to return the island to mainland control, by force if necessary. At times in the past 60 years, it has seemed as though fight could flare up again.

But since 2007, the Taiwan military has been trying to clear the island's 154 minefields, to protect the 82,000 residents and to boost tourism. The efforts show how far China and Taiwan have come in reducing the danger of armed conflict.

Lieutenant General Lu Hsiao-rung heads the command responsible for the mine clearing project. He has promised to remove the remaining mines as well as other unexploded weapons under a seven-year plan that began in 2006. Thirty percent of the mine fields already have been cleared.

The general says after they clean up the mine fields, they will plan trees which will form a natural defense for the island. And, he says, Taiwan's military can still deploy rapidly in case of an invasion.

But all signs suggest that any future invasion will be from tourists. After taking office last May, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou allowed in more Chinese visitors. During a speech marking his first year in office Wednesday, the president reiterated the importance of tourism in his economic revitalization plan.

These days, many Chinese tourists include Kinmen as part of a tour of Taiwan.

They come to see miles of tunnels built by Nationalist forces during the Cold War. They also like to buy local knives produced from the rusty bombshells still strewn about the island.

For decades, Wu Tseng-dong has been making and selling such knives in his workshop, a reminder of the war that overshadowed Kinmen.

Wu says the war "was just part of history." He says that no one likes wars, but we must keep the remnants to show our descendants that wars are bad. And, he thinks, if all countries used the steel they have to produce knifes then there would be world peace.

Though the risk of invasion today seems minimal today, Lieutenant General Lu says hundreds of spikes made from railroad tracks will not be removed from the beach.

They were sunk in the sand to slow an amphibious attack. The islanders want to keep the spikes because they are a popular attraction with tourists.

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