The war in Ukraine echoes on Taiwan’s “frontline of democracy.”

Dongyin native Tsai Pei-yuan chats with other co-founders of Salty Island Studio in Dongyin
Dongyin native Tsai Pei-yuan chats with other co-founders of Salty Island Studio in Dongyin, Taiwan March 15, 2022. Photo taken March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Ann Wang

March 25, 2022

By Sarah Wu

DONGYIN/NANGAN, Taiwan (Reuters) – Lin Jih-shou was making tea at his popular breakfast spot last month when he heard the rumble of an airplane – a rare sound on the remote, Taiwanese-held island of Dongyin near the Chinese coast, which is what the case does not have an airport.

Lin, 64, rushed outside but saw only the shadow of what the government later described as a small, propeller-driven Chinese plane, most likely testing Taiwan’s military response.

It was a stark reminder to residents of Dongyin and Taiwan’s other islands off China’s coast of the threat posed by their giant neighbor, who sees Taipei’s democratically elected government as illegitimate and Taiwan as a rogue province to be taken by force if necessary.

The Matsu Islands were regularly bombed by China at the height of the Cold War, and the history of the conflict has drawn attention to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and whether they might meet the same fate.

“When we see Russia and Ukraine fighting, our hearts ache,” Lin told Reuters. “War is too scary. It is not necessary.”

Taiwan has raised its alert level since the invasion but reported no signs of an impending attack.

Matsu, which has been held by Taiwan since the defeated ROC government fled to Taipei in 1949 after defeat in the Chinese Civil War, would likely be an immediate target for Beijing in a conflict, particularly Dongyin’s missile base.

But despite increasing military pressure from China in recent years, the archipelago has seen the emergence of trendy shops and a burgeoning arts scene.

On the main island of Nangan, former military brothels and underground bunkers are home to exhibitions that opened last month as part of the inaugural arts festival of the Matsu Biennale.

“It’s a way to relabel and retell the stories of Matsu,” said Lii Wen, who founded the local branch of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in 2020.

Taiwan’s offshore islands, long known as military strongholds, can be reshaped as a “frontline of democracy,” Lii said as a Ukrainian flag fluttered outside his office window. Though their regional contexts differ, Lii said Taiwan stands in solidarity with Ukraine as a smaller democracy facing a possible invasion.


Born in 1993, a year after the end of Matsu’s strict military rule, Dongyin native Tsai Pei-yuan belongs to a generation for whom war feels far away. Two years ago, Tsai and two former classmates founded Salty Island Studio, a café and community center that hosted art workshops and plays.

“It’s more urgent to preserve our culture, which is disappearing,” Tsai said ahead of a wine tasting event last week.

The Ukraine war is a frequent topic of conversation for some – including jokes about where to hide if China invades.

“When we explore forts, we ask if a war really starts, which nearby fort would we walk to?” said Chung Jing-yei, 26, who runs Xiwei Peninsula restaurant in Nangan.

Chung said it was only after she moved to Nangan that she understood why so many here want to maintain the status quo.

“I firmly believe that we should be an independent country, but at the same time I don’t want war,” she said.

Bunkers dot the islands’ rugged shores, abandoned or converted into tourist destinations and boutique hotels.

Elderly Matsu residents have vivid memories of hiding from Chinese fire in shelters and not being allowed to own basketballs for fear they might float them over to China.

“I don’t think the two sides will fight,” said Lucy Lin, a 62-year-old taxi driver and bakery owner, while listening to a Chinese radio station in her car. “As long as you don’t step over the red lines.”

Shih Pei-yin, who worked as an urban planner in Taipei before founding Xiwei, would like to do her part to improve the lives of Matsu’s people.

“As long as we can, we hope to work with islanders to improve this place,” Shih said. “Even if it’s short term, that’s okay. At least we tried our best.”

(Reporting by Sarah Wu. Editing by Gerry Doyle) The war in Ukraine echoes on Taiwan’s “frontline of democracy.”

Bobby Allyn

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