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Taiwanese outpost reaps benefits of warming China ties

by Staff Writers
Kinmen, Taiwan (AFP) May 19, 2009
From the Taiwanese island of Kinmen, it is easy to see across the water to China's industrial and trading city of Xiamen, just a few kilometres away on the mainland.

For years, the mine-strewn island was a symbol of the tense relations between China and Taiwan, which split at the end of their civil war in 1949.

Chinese troops would fire shells across to the island, where Taiwanese forces laid anti-tank and anti-personnel mines to deter an invasion.

But now, a year after Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took power in Taipei, things look very different. Chinese visitors now routinely include Kinmen on their trips to Taiwan and work to clear the mines is well under way.

In the Chinning township, two busloads of tourists from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang swamp a shop selling knives recast from the remains of the shells fired onto the island by Chinese troops.

On the far side of the island, the site of a bloody battle in the dying days of the Chinese civil war between nationalist Kuomintang and communist forces, a team of Taiwanese soldiers have been clearing mines from the beaches.

Thousands of communist soldiers were killed during the battle for Kuningtou. Now many mainlanders include the village in their standard eight-day tour of Taiwan and what was once a trickle of tourists has become a flood.

They are among the more than 3,000 tourists to have been arriving in Taiwan from the mainland every day over the past few weeks -- something Ma says has benefited the island's sagging economy.

This week marks one year since Ma, from the China-friendly Kuomintang party, took office, and during that time great strides have been made in improving fractious ties between the historic rivals.

Three rounds of talks have led to a raft of agreements on regular direct flights across the Taiwan Strait, a steep rise in the number of Chinese tourist arrivals and greater economic and business cooperation.

Even though Taiwan lifted its ban on people travelling to the mainland in 1987, relations between Taipei and Beijing worsened dramatically when president Lee Teng-Hui took power the following year.

Ties soured even further under Lee's successor, Chen Shui-bian, who retired last year after eight years riling Beijing with what China considered his provocative pro-independence remarks.

But with ties warming, people from Kinmen have bought thousands of homes in nearby Xiamen on the mainland and the number of visits by businessmen and tourists is only expected to rise as more restrictions are lifted.

Even on the sporting side, there have been signs of positive change.

Authorities in Kinmen and Xiamen are planning a race on August 15, when 50 athletes will swim from Xiamen to cross the once restricted strait of water separating mainland China from the Taiwanese island of Little Kinmen.

Perhaps the most troubling and lingering legacy of the decades of tensions between the historic rivals is the mines littering Kinmen's beaches.

Taiwan passed a law in 2006 requiring the mines to be removed from the Kinmen island group, just eight kilometres (five miles) off China's coast.

Lieutenant General Lu Hsiao-rung, the chief officer in the Kinmen garrison command, said mine-clearance was straightforward, with more than 30 percent of 154 minefields on Kinmen and Liehyu, or Little Kinmen, already cleared.

He has promised to remove the remaining mines as well as other unexploded ordnance under a seven-year plan launched in 2007.

But Lu said hundreds of obstacles and spikes installed along Kuningtou's shoreline to deter a Chinese invasion would not be removed.

In an ironic twist of history, islanders asked for the obstacles to be left in place, saying they had become a popular attraction with visitors from the mainland.

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