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China’s dispute with Taiwan is playing out near this frontline island

A small Taiwan-controlled island a few miles off the coast of China lived in a constant state of war for decades. Once in 1958, troops hunkered down there in bunkers while communist forces rained down Hundreds of thousands of shells on them.

Today, Kinmen Island has become a center of Taiwan’s trade with China, and its abandoned, weathered fortifications are tourist attractions. Eight ferries a day carry Taiwanese businessmen and visitors from Kinmen to mainland China.

But seas around Kinmen are again tense after two Chinese men aboard a speedboat in the area died last month while trying to escape a Taiwan Coast Guard vessel.

China has said the patrols are to protect Chinese fishing boats. But the patrols also fit more broadly with China’s strategy to suppress Taiwan, an island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory, while avoiding triggering a major confrontation that would involve the United States.

Beijing has stepped up such “grey zone” tactics to warn Taiwan’s elected President Lai Ching-te – a politician deeply unpopular with Chinese leaders – as he prepares to take office in two months, experts, politicians said and officials in Taiwan interviews and briefings.

“With the inauguration of Lai Ching-te on May 20, mainland China will definitely increase the pressure steadily and consistently,” he said Chen Yu-jena member of the Taiwanese legislature from the opposition Nationalist Party, representing an electorate on Kinmen, in an interview with The New York Times.

Beijing insists that Taiwan must accept unification, preferably peacefully but with armed force if Chinese leaders deem it necessary. Mr. Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party rejects China’s claim to Taiwan and argues that the island’s democracy will pursue its own course – in practice self-rule, even if most governments do not recognize Taiwan as a separate state.

Some resistance from China over the deaths of the two Chinese on February 14 near Kinmen was predictable, especially given Taiwan’s continued incitement of nationalist anger. Chinese officials are now awaiting a report from Taiwanese investigators on the incident; Tensions could rise if Beijing disputes their conclusions.

Taiwanese officials said the unlicensed Chinese speedboat entered Taiwanese waters near Kinmen, ignored a Taiwan Coast Guard vessel’s request to stop and tried to run away. Taiwanese officials have said this two men who died were drowned. Two Chinese survivors told Chinese media that the Taiwanese ship collided with them during the said the Taiwan Coast Guard During the chase there was occasional “contact” between the two boats.

The Chinese government has demanded, among other things, an apology and compensation on behalf of the families of the dead. Chinese officials have complained that the Taiwan Coast Guard ship did not take video of the encounter and accused Taiwan of dragging its feet in its investigation.

The incursion of Chinese fishing boats and smugglers around Kinmen has long been a source of tension. Chinese fishing boats are supposed to stay away from Taiwan’s zone around Kinmen and smaller nearby islands, but some have flouted restrictions for years, said Tung Sen-pao, a local councilor on the island.

“They came here to fish with explosives, electrical wires, gillnets and much more,” he said. Chinese dredgers also frequently stole sand that could be sold to make concrete.

More recently, stricter enforcement by the Taiwan Coast Guard, which has seized and confiscated intruding Chinese vessels, has helped reduce violations, Taiwanese officials said.

In less tense times, local officials in Kinmen and in China’s Fujian province across the Strait might have been able to quickly resolve disputes like the one over the recent deaths. But mutual distrust between China and Taiwan runs high, and Beijing is particularly sensitive in the run-up to Mr. Lai’s inauguration.

Chinese officials have also sought to exploit the incident political points and to undermine Taiwan’s borders. However, they have denied that Taiwan has the right to restrict access to the waters off Kinmen long-term agreements in this point. And Chinese Communist Party officials and News outlets have linked the deaths To Mr Lai and his Democratic Progressive Party’s opposition to China.

The Chinese government’s Taiwan Affairs Office accused Democratic Progressive Party politicians of insensitivity and “attempting to evade responsibility.” justify the statement The Chinese Coast Guard’s latest patrols off Kinmen. It warned that China reserved the right to respond further.

The Chinese coast guard is under military control and its ships can carry cannons and other weapons. Beijing also uses them in territorial disputes with Japan and the Philippines. Chinese media published last week that the Coast Guard also recently participated in training with naval vessels under the Eastern Theater Command – the military region that includes Taiwan.

Lee Wen-chi, a fisherman from Kinmen who recently returned to shore with two buckets of sea bass, said he and other fishermen stayed away from the Chinese Coast Guard vessels and moved on when they spotted one in the distance.

“If you get too close to them, they’ll think you’re up to no good,” he said. “I avoid them as much as I can.”

Today, Taiwan only stations a few thousand soldiers on Kinmen, providing Kinmen with little immediate protection should China ever decide to invade. Taiwan’s fisheries agency said troops would hold live-fire exercises there Waters off Kinmen, next month. Such exercises take place every year, but China may view the recent ones as a provocation.

Before the Kinmen incident, the Chinese government had already signaled that it would act on perceived missteps or provocations by Mr. Lai, also known as William Lai. Beijing had hoped he would lose Taiwan’s elections in January, ending the Democratic Progressive Party’s eight-year hold on power under current President Tsai Ing-wen.

China has warned that this could be the case Suspension of tariff concessions on some products from Taiwan, including auto parts. Two days after Mr. Lai’s victory, China arranged for Nauru – a tiny Pacific island nation that was among about a dozen countries that have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan – to shift its ties to Beijing. Then China unilaterally changed a commercial flight route over the Taiwan Strait, a move that officials in Taipei said could make flying in the region riskier.

China also continues to deploy fighter jets and other military aircraft near Taiwan almost daily. Larger, more threatening military actions are possible, especially after Mr. Lai’s inauguration.

“They’re trying things out here and there to push the boundaries and create a new normal,” he said I-Chung Lai, the president of the Prospect Foundation, a Taiwanese think tank affiliated with the Democratic Progressive Party. It was unlikely that any conciliatory messages in Mr. Lai’s inaugural speech would change China’s strategy, he added: “Grey zone operations against Taiwan will intensify regardless of what William Lai says.”

Still, China’s leader Xi Jinping may not want to push these measures so far that they trigger a full crisis.

Beijing has other options for politically undermining Mr. Lai and has pointed to his vote share (40 percent) to suggest he does not represent Taiwan’s mainstream views. Mr. Xi also has his eye on the United States presidential election in November and is unlikely to make any major decisions regarding Taiwan until then, several experts say. And given the poor health of China’s economy, Mr. Xi would likely prefer to avoid a major confrontation that could unsettle investors.

“President Xi has many problems to contend with at home, and if you look back at other episodes where China has had to deal with many domestic challenges, the country has typically tried to reassure its external environment,” he said Ryan Hassthe director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution.

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