Horst D. Deckert

The Tiny Island That Serves As a Tripwire for War Between US & China


As was the case with the Ukraine narrative leading up to Russia’s invasion, the American narrative regarding Taiwan points to China’s provocative actions around Taiwan while waving off the possibility that Washington’s weapons deliveries and military buildup in that part of the Indo-Pacific region would be perceived as provocative from Beijing’s viewpoint.

Earlier this year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Island in Between in the Best Documentary Short Film category at the ninety-sixth Academy Awards.

Although it didn’t end up taking home the Oscar, the documentary drew attention to the little-known Kinmen Island and its precarious position as an inflection point in the relationship between Taiwan, mainland China, and the continuing involvement of the United States. Taiwanese American director S. Leo Chiang narrates scenes of the tranquil lives of locals on the island juxtaposed against the dreaded possibility of war that looms larger there than in the rest of Taiwan as the shores of the mainland lay in visible distance.

In the film, a massive concrete loudspeaker pointed across Xiamen Bay wafts the voice of classic Taiwanese pop singer Teresa Teng as she sweetly sings her hits and delivers political taunts to the nearest mainland city, proclaiming that “I just hope all of you on the mainland will enjoy the same democracy and freedom that we have.” Chiang noted in an interview that

from there, you probably can see and hear things and feel things that you cannot from Taipei, or from the rest of the main Taiwan Island. A lot of them have the attitude [that] we’ve always been really friendly with the folks in China, and we support closer relationships [with China].

The nuance of the Taiwanese people in managing relations with China seems utterly lost on Americans, and it shows in Washington’s policy.

Green Berets Confirmed Stationed Just Miles from China’s Shores

The main island of Kinmen is situated just six miles away from the mainland Chinese city of Xiamen, and some parts of the island group are just 2.5 miles away. While Taiwan and its key role in US-China tensions has been gaining attention, far fewer people have heard of Kinmen. That might be changing as the US raises its level of engagement, sending military advisers and US Army Special Forces, better known as the Green Berets, there.

Just a couple weeks after Island in Between was nominated for an Oscar, it was announced that US military advisers had begun long-term deployments to the island to assist in the training at the Taiwanese military’s amphibious camps to enhance their capabilities in countering enemy incursions. The deployments were planned along with various other types of support for Taiwan’s military under the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. These include the Green Berets of the 1st Special Forces Group, which are permanently stationed at two bases of the 101st Amphibious Reconnaissance Battalion. The presence of Green Berets in Kinmen and another outlying island group called Penghu was recently confirmed by Taiwanese defense minister Chiu Kuo-cheng.

Another aspect of the cooperation under the National Defense Authorization Act includes the Green Berets’ training of their counterparts in Taiwan on the use of the Black Hornet Nano, a small unmanned aerial vehicle that assists with portable surveillance and intelligence gathering. The Taiwanese Aviation and Special Forces Command has shown interest in buying these microdrones, which the US will likely oblige. Nobody actually believes that a group of US Army Special Forces stationed in Kinmen with small observation drones would make any difference if China launched an invasion. It would appear that this move serves as posturing against China, especially as a signal that America will brazenly and openly station special forces just miles from the mainland. It is nothing short of provocative, laying a tripwire for a miscalculation that could bring about the cross-strait conflict.

Flare-Ups over Taiwan

A few weeks after that revelation, tensions flared up around Kinmen when two Chinese fishermen drowned when their boat capsized following a chase by the Taiwanese coast guard under accusations of trespassing to which the Chinese coast guard responded by boarding a sightseeing boat and escorting it back to the island. The next day, the Taiwanese said that they drove off Chinese coast guard vessels that had entered the waters near the island. While these incidents did not result in more serious consequences, the increased attention on Kinmen is raising red flags that the island is once again becoming a hotspot for cross-strait tensions.

Taiwan has been proclaimed an integral part of China by the People’s Republic with claims that extend much further back in time than before the end of the Chinese Civil War. Xi Jinping has staked his reputation and legacy on reunifying the island with the mainland. Top American intelligence officials say Xi has ordered his military to be ready to invade the island by 2027. Against this backdrop, the Chinese military has increased its deployment of air forces that cross into Taiwanese air identification zones, implemented maritime demonstrations, and thrown its weight around in the South China Sea as the world anticipates the worst for the self-governing island.

Speaking to the Washington Post, Tom Shugart, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said that “these drills keep getting bigger and bigger. As the number and frequency continues to grow, it naturally becomes that much harder to know whether next time is the real thing.” The US government’s stances and policies that openly place it in opposition to China in a geopolitical rivalry has pushed relations to ever-worse depths.

Whose Doorstep?

Chiang ends his documentary by asking, “When these young men arrive in Kinmen, will they be surprised, like I am, of the peaceful sunsets? The same ones that my father must have seen when he served here all those years ago? And by the kindness of the people here who are forever caught in between?” His words ring as true for the young Taiwanese men who go to Kinmen for their mandatory military service as it does for the American troops that are now stationed there. At the big picture level, Kinmen, Taiwan, and all of the inhabitants there are tragically in the crosshairs of the greater rivalry between the US and China.

As was the case with the Ukraine narrative leading up to Russia’s invasion, the American narrative regarding Taiwan points to China’s provocative actions around Taiwan while waving off the possibility that Washington’s weapons deliveries and military buildup in that part of the Indo-Pacific region would be perceived as provocative from Beijing’s viewpoint. In a 2016 campaign speech, Hillary Clinton said that “Moscow has taken aggressive military action in Ukraine, right on NATO’s [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization] doorstep.” Whose doorstep now? A quick look at a map of where eastern Ukraine and Taiwan are in relation to the US, Russia, and China should give a sufficient impression of who’s on whose doorstep.

It’s a shining example of Ron Paul’s “imagine” speech where the former Congressman preached the kind of strategic empathy that asks to put the shoe on the other foot, to see what things look like for the other side. What does it look like to China, then, when the superpower almost seven thousand miles across the Pacific openly places its special forces in viewing distance from China’s shores on an island in between the mainland and Taiwan? Who’s on whose doorstep?

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