China Initiates a New Integration Model with Taiwan, Starting with Gray Zone Tactics towards Kinmen

China Initiates a New Integration Model with Taiwan, Starting with Gray Zone Tactics towards Kinmen

China Initiates
China Initiates a New Integration Model with Taiwan, Starting with Gray Zone Tactics towards Kinmen

Cheng-fung Lu is an associate professor at the Department of International and Mainland China Affairs, National Quemoy University, Kinmen.

Many Taiwanese people believe that Xi Jinping’s “new paths for cross-Strait integration and development” (探索海峽兩岸融合發展新路) is an attempt at exploring a new approach to cross-Strait relations. But it is a different story for the residents of Kinmen (金門), an island situated roughly six kilometers opposite the city of Xiamen on China’s southeastern coast. In spite of the growing support for Taiwan from international allies such as the United States and Japan, Taiwan and its allies must also bear in mind and keep a close watch on China’s new gray zone tactics, including the “New Four Links” (新四通) (see further below). Increasingly, Beijing is undertaking a salami-slicing effort aimed at winning the hearts of Taiwanese people, starting with Kinmen.

Starting in mid-2018, strategic competition between the United States and China gradually escalated. Beijing has increased its gray zone operations toward Taiwan. Today, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) continues to scramble fighter jets to and from the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, while also sending flights into Taiwan’s ADIZ (air defense identification zone) almost daily, often in the middle of the night and at the break of dawn. In light of these actions, Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist, expressed concern that Beijing might invade the outlying islands of Kinmen or Dongsha (東沙島). Similarly, Oriana Skylar Mastro, a Chinese military expert at Stanford University, has argued that the PLA always has the option to seize Matsu (馬祖), Dongsha Island, Taiping Island (太平島), or Kinmen as part of a phased invasion of Taiwan. The Atlantic Council published an article titled “The Longer Telegram” anonymously, also arguing that the chances of Taiwan—and Kinmen, Matsu and other outer islands—being invaded and attacked by the PLA are growing. 

Recently, Beijing publicly stated that there was no middle line in the Taiwan Strait and emphasized that the Taiwan Strait is not part of international waters. The reality is, since Kinmen and Matsu are so geographically close to China, it is certainly a possibility for the PLA to take these two offshore islands. (Kinmen is only six kilometers away from Xiamen in China’s Fujian Province, while Matsu is only 12 kilometers away from the mouth of the Minjiang River.) As Kinmen is on the Chinese side of the “middle line,” and the PLA aircraft carrier Shandong recently sailed past the outskirts of Kinmen, it is highly likely that Kinmen will continue to face military threats from China. 

The “Mini Three Links”: The COVID-19 Threat Versus Economic Considerations

For the people of Kinmen, China’s military threat does not seem to matter much, since Kinmen has historically experienced regular bombardment from China, which only ceased after the United States and China established formal diplomatic relations in 1979. 

At the end of 2019, with the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, the global pandemic spread rapidly. In just two months, almost 40 major cities in China were shut down. As a result, since mid-February 2020 the number of passengers traveling via the cross-Strait “Mini Three Links” (小三通)—that is, transportation between Kinmen and Xiamen (廈門), Kinmen and Quanzhou (泉州), and Matsu and Huangqi (馬祖-黃岐)—has also dropped sharply, while shipping companies have requested that the government temporarily suspend flights based on revenue considerations. The Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) Administration also suspended the “Mini Three Links” in an effort to control the pandemic spread, while also taking into consideration Taiwan’s limited medical capacity should the situation escalate. 

Despite the risk of COVID-19, Kinmen Magistrate Yang Chen-wu (楊鎮浯), Kuomintang Legislator Chen Yu-jen (陳玉珍), and Kinmen-born Chairman of the New Party Wu Cherng-dean (吳成典) have all continued to urge the Tsai Administration to resume personnel exchanges between Kinmen and Xiamen as soon as possible. Their appeal was largely based on economic considerations, echoing the positions of their constituents. Furthermore, before Taiwan successfully procured enough COVID-19 vaccines, these leaders also urged the government to open up flights so that Kinmen residents could obtain vaccinations in Xiamen instead. 

Since their inception in 2001, the “Mini Three Links” have played a significant and positive role in the development of cross-Strait relations and stability. Over the course of more than 20 years of development, there have been 225,413 completed flights between Fujian and Taiwan’s offshore islands, transporting more than 22.08 million passengers. Specifically, the Xiamen-Kinmen routes have transported a total of over 19.81 million passengers; the Quanzhou-Kinmen routes have exceeded 1.39 million passengers; the Mawei-Matsu routes have serviced nearly 660,000 passengers; and the Huangqi-Matsu routes have carried more than 190,000 passengers.

Since the establishment of the “Big Three Links” (大三通) across the strait in 2008—consisting of direct postal connections, commerce, and transportation (兩岸直接通郵、通商與通航)—the number of people coming and going from Taiwan, Kinmen, and Xiamen have continued to grow steadily, making the connection a vital indicator of cross-Strait relations, as well as cross-Strait personnel and non-governmental exchanges. All of the above passenger figures indicate the vital role that the “Mini Three Links” play in solidifying the stability of cross-Strait relations at a people-to-people level. For Kinmen, these linkages form an indispensable aspect of its economic development, bringing about many business opportunities. It must be noted that with the lack of official interactions between Taiwan and China, the continued people-to-people engagement through the “Mini Three Links” is also highly valued by the Taiwanese government, both from the political perspective as well as for the sake of Kinmen’s economic development. 

Xi’s “New Four Links” Strategy towards Kinmen 

For some time, Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan has consisted of a mix of incentives and coercive measures, often implemented concurrently. Taiwan’s senior security scholars generally believe that both the degree of coercion and amount of incentives being doled out by China’s top leadership in response to Taiwan’s democratic development has only intensified. Beijing is worried that Taiwan is drifting away, especially following polling indicating that the number of Taiwanese people self-identifying as Chinese has also diminished considerably.

On January 2, 2019, during a speech at a meeting commemorating the 40th anniversary of the issuance of the “Message to Compatriots in Taiwan,” Xi stated: “We on the two sides should promote connectivity wherever necessary, including trade and economic cooperation, infrastructure building, energy and resources development, and sharing industrial standards. We can start by supplying water, electricity, gas, and construction of sea-crossing bridges from coastal areas in Fujian province to Kinmen and Matsu in Taiwan.”

This is one of the paths of cross-Strait integration and development proposed by Xi, also known as the “New Four Links” (新四通)—consisting of water (通水), electricity (通電), oil (gas) (通油[氣]), and bridges (通橋)—between Fujian and Kinmen and Matsu. In March 2021, Xi emphasized during a visit to Fujian that the province should “take greater steps in exploring the new road of cross-Strait integration and development” and “highlight the promotion of integration through communication and the benefits of mutual benefits.” The 2022 Work Conference on Taiwan held in Beijing in January of this year also included proposals aimed at encouraging Fujian to explore new paths for cross-Strait integration and development, including the construction of a new demonstration zone.

Many Taiwanese people believe that these new paths are an attempt to explore a new tactic as cross-strait relations have entered a more contentious “deep water area,” as contrasted with the unprecedented path towards integration during the Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) Administration. However, in light of Beijing’s handling of COVID-19 and its crackdown in Hong Kong, China’s attractiveness to the Taiwanese people is rapidly diminishing nationwide. Under the Tsai Administration, Xi’s exploratory tactics are unlikely to have an immediate effect on cross-Strait relations in general.

Kinmen’s Perspective on Cross-Strait Relations

However, it is a different story for the residents of Kinmen. From August to October, 2021, our research team conducted on-site questionnaire distribution and interviews in Kinmen. [1] The results showed that the residents of the Kinmen seem to be positive about the prospect of “integrated development in a broad sense.” Based on the positive benefits of the “Mini Three Links” the residents of Kinmen have high expectations for integration, hoping that it could improve regional economic development and create job opportunities.

On the other hand, Kinmen residents have shifted in their sense of national identity. Middle- and senior-aged people still consider themselves Chinese, but younger people generally consider themselves Taiwanese. This shows that residents in Kinmen are growing immune to China’s united front efforts. However, regardless of age, residents in Kinmen think that integration in terms of infrastructure is attractive. In spite of the shift away from the Chinese identity, it remains to be seen whether the people of Kinmen will turn towards a more Chinese-oriented identity as a result of future economic linkages with China. As such, Kinmen should be closely observed and considered an important part of the development of cross-Strait relations. The Taiwan government should also continue to support Kinmen’s local economy and societal development. 

In response to one of our questions in the survey focused on “expectation[s] of future cross-Strait relations,” most Kinmen residents still prefer to maintain the status quo. This was followed by those who favor closer ties with China, with a third group favoring integration as soon as possible. As residents of offshore islands adjacent to China, maintaining the status quo is the most beneficial. Serving as a focal point between Taiwan and China, Kinmen can obtain the greatest benefit from both sides. Once the status quo cannot be maintained, it is obvious that the next best option is the economic integration of the two sides of the Taiwan Strait. This is a geographical necessity, and it is also seemingly inevitable for residents of Kinmen.

Kinmen as the New Battleground of Gray Zone Tactics

As the strategic competition between the United States and China expands, the scope of is also expanding. While the global efforts against China have intensified, China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy and coercive efforts against Taiwan and neighboring countries have continued to rise as well. Even though the United States and other democracies have emphasized “the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” the United States will continue to conduct arms sales to Taiwan in order to express its support for the island and strengthen its asymmetric warfare capabilities.

On the other hand, China has built a vast new international airport on Dadeng Island (大嶝島) and Xiaodeng Island (小嶝島) less than four kilometers away from Kinmen, and it is attractive for Kinmen to jointly use this airport to facilitate entry, exit, and travel. [2] This is an alternative to the construction of a hypothetical bridge connecting Xiamen and Kinmen, and serves as a clear example of Beijing’s aggressive attempts at gradual economic and infrastructure integration with Taiwan, starting with Kinmen. Despite the growing support for Taiwan from international allies, such as the United States and Japan, Taiwan and its allies must also bear in mind and keep a close watch on China’s new gray zone tactics, including the “New Four Links,” as Beijing continues its salami-slicing efforts aimed at winning the hearts of Taiwanese people, starting with Kinmen.

The main point: The Chinese government’s “new way of integrated development” is promoting closer commercial and infrastructure links between Fujian Province and Taiwan’s outlying islands. Opinion polling conducted on Kinmen in 2021 indicated that local residents are generally supportive of such links with China. 

[1] There were three types of survey implementation methods: (1) Filling out the questionnaire during face-to-face interviews (about 70 percent of the total); (2) Distribution through relatives and friends (about 25 percent); and (3) Distribution through Google Forms (about five percent). From the first questionnaire on May 20 to the last questionnaire on October 31, a total of 508 valid responses were obtained. During this period, researchers (professors and research assistants) personally walked into commercial areas to interview businesses and take questionnaires. Since the general public had little concept of the so-called “new way of integrated development,” the researchers provided a basic explanation. Some merchants could not answer the questionnaire on the spot, so the researcher provided a Google form for them to fill in later.

[2] “Xiamen to Build New International Airport,” China Daily, June 11, 2019; Dou Shicong, “Chinese City of Xiamen Starts Work on Second Airport Costing USD 9.7 Billion,” Yicaiglobal.com, January 4, 2022