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The first light is trickling through the fog on Beigan, one of the Matsu Islands in the Taiwan Strait, 270 kilometres from Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, but just 20 kilometres from China.
Between the rows of century-old stone houses that dot the village of Qinbi, locals are preparing fish noodles for breakfast, fishermen are casting their nets, and I’m filing a story from a stoop in a laneway overlooking the ocean, having spent the past week hopping around the Taiwan Strait.
It’s hard to imagine such a serene place could be the first point of attack in the next great power conflict, but reminders dot the landscape. Beneath the fisherman’s houses are bunkers; across the bay, signs tell residents to be “prepared to fight”.
The Matsu Islands were taken over by the future Taiwanese government, the Kuomintang, at the beginning of the 20th century, after the end of the imperial Qing dynasty. It took another 38 years for the Chinese Communist Party’s rivals to govern Taiwan, but they have ruled the islands closest to China since 1911.
To get here from Taipei you have to first navigate Taiwan’s occasionally volatile weather and land on a single strip runway. When we arrived, the airport had been closed for six hours. The ferry ride to Qinbi took about 20 minutes but felt like an hour thanks to the rough South China Sea.
Thankfully, photographer Daniel Ceng had brought motion sickness tablets back with him from a recent assignment in Ukraine, which got us through the ride, but it was a reminder of the challenging conditions any invading Chinese force might face if it attempts an invasion of Taiwan.
Qinbi sits opposite Fujian, a key air force and military base for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and pride of Xi Jinping, who first came to national attention here as governor of the province. China’s largest air-force carrier has been named the Fujian. It’s hard to miss the symbolism for the future of Taiwan-China relations. To ram home the point, Xi has repeatedly warned that he reserves the right to take Taiwan by force if necessary to complete the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”. Few Matsu locals are buying what Xi is selling.