BBC Home > BBC News > Asia-Pacific

Choppy waters between China and Taiwan

22 March 08 11:47 GMT

Taiwan's dealings with Beijing were a key election issue for the island, which held its presidential poll on Saturday. The BBC's Michael Bristow recently visited the point in mainland China which is nearest to Taiwan to examine this tense relationship.

There are a few places in the world where political tension has left arch-enemies eyeballing each other across a narrow divide.

Until it was torn down, the Berlin Wall was one of those places; the Demilitarized Zone separating North and South Korea still exists.

And a 1,500 metre-wide stretch of water between the Chinese port of Xiamen and the Taiwanese-controlled island of Jinmen is another contentious border.

It divides communist China from the democratic island chain of Taiwan. The tiny island is a reminder of ongoing political tension in the Taiwan Strait.

The two sides separated after a civil war in China in 1949, leaving Taiwan in limbo - it is not a separate country, but it is not part of China either.

This unresolved issue once led to the regular exchange of artillery fire across the water between Xiamen and Kinmen (which is sometimes also referred to as Jinmen).

If continuing tension between the two sides escalates, this narrow stretch of sea could once again become the front line in a new war.

Quiet waters - for now

However at the moment, the waters of the Taiwan Strait look anything but dangerous.

The only fighting is between Xiamen's tour operators, who compete for Chinese tourists eager to sail up to Kinmen to get a look at the "enemy".

Ticket sellers stand along the dockside trying to coax passers-by into joining two-hour cruises that costs 126 yuan (£8.70, $17.80) per person.

It is clear from the start that this is a different kind of boat tour.

Security officials inspect ID cards before people board and there is a constant running commentary about the trip's significance.

The announcer points out Xiamen's highest point, where visiting national leaders usually go to have a look at Kinmen.

She also directs tourists' gaze towards a tiny island manned by Chinese soldiers from the People's Liberation Army.

Even the ship's name - Chenggong - is full of meaning.

It is named after the Chinese commander who captured Taiwan from the Dutch.

"My feeling is that we should go and unite with Taiwan immediately," said one tourist as the boat approached Kinmen.

"If the peaceful way doesn't work, we would use force. We must liberate Taiwan."

Another tourist said Kinmen "belongs to China, that's for sure. Taiwan and mainland will be united in the future."

No separation

The belief expressed by Chinese sightseers that the two sides will eventually be reunified is shared by the Chinese authorities.

If it ever wanted to follow up on these suggestions, the government could use the six warships that were docked in Xiamen's harbour.

In his "state-of-the-union" address to the Chinese parliament earlier this month, Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated China's position on this issue.

"We will never allow anyone to separate Taiwan from the motherland in any guise or by any means," he told delegates.

"Reunification of the two sides is inevitable in the course of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation."

That has basically been China's position for the last half a century or so, but it is not sitting idly by and waiting for its hopes to be fulfilled.

It has reserved the right to use force against Taiwan if it declares independence, and is believed to have missiles still pointing at the island to back up that threat.

It also tries to isolate Taiwan from the rest of the world, opposing, for example, Taiwan's many bids to join the United Nations.

At the same time, it holds out the prospect of talks, although Beijing will only sit down with those Taiwanese who agree that China and Taiwan are one and the same country.

Politics seems a world away on the Jinmen pleasure boat, which does not actually go to the island; it stops a few hundred metres short of the shore.

Ahead of them, Chinese tourists can see a flag of the Republic of China, the official name of Taiwan, fluttering in the breeze.

There is also a sentry point and a giant slogan outlining Taiwan's political philosophy.

The tourists take pictures, and then the boat turns around and heads for Xiamen.

Kinmen, a historical oddity, is left alone until another day.

Related BBC sites