A letter from Taiwan’s Cold War ruins


IN the strictest sense, Matsu is not Taiwan. That much became clear as soon as I stepped off the ramp of the ferry. The Taiwanese soldiers that disembarked with me spoke Mandarin and their native language, a dialect descended from the one spoken in southern Fujian, where most Taiwanese can trace their ancestry. The locals, by contrast, spoke a language more similar to the dialect spoken in northern Fujian. The stark linguistic divide hinted at the fact that the residents of the Matsu Island group, situated between Taiwan and the Fujian Province of mainland China, have more cultural affinity with the Chinese in the city of Fuzhou just across the strait than with the Taiwanese.

It was the geopolitical maelstrom of the Chinese Civil War, from 1946 to 1949, that irreversibly broke Matsu’s traditional ties to the mainland and bound its fate to that of distant Taiwan. When Mao Zedong’s Red Army swept Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist-ruled Republic of China off the mainland in 1949, Chiang’s armies retreated to a chain of offshore islands that stretched from the coast of Zhejiang to Hainan Island. Matsu was soon transformed from a sleepy archipelago of no political significance to a major flashpoint of the Cold War.

Nine miles and four decades of separation

Even now ties Matsu is geographically and culturally distant from Taiwan. One of my Taiwanese friends casually estimated that 99.8 percent of Taiwanese had never even visited. The locals themselves were incredulous that I had come: “You flew all the way from the United States to see Matsu?” was their invariable reaction. For them, the idea that anyone would want to visit their tiny archipelago in the Taiwan Strait is a strange one.

During the Cold War, it was nothing but a hardship post dreaded by Taiwanese soldiers, far from home but close to the enemy. Separated from the mainland by only nine miles at its closest point, it was close enough for Nationalist and Communist gunners to lob shells at one another on alternating days of the week.

Today, a giant plaque still hangs over Matsu’s Fuao Harbor as a testament to the island’s military history. The inscription reads “Sleep on Spears and Await the Dawn”—written in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s own calligraphy in 1958. It would have been the first thing that a Taiwanese conscript would see upon arrival, warning them to prepare for the day when they would inevitably be called upon to reclaim the mainland for the Nationalist Party.

During the Cold War the Matsu Islands were extremely strategic for the Nationalists. They were some of the only territory Taiwan controlled outside the island of Taiwan, so they were key to preserving the fiction that the Republic of China ruled over the entire mainland. Along with Quemoy, another frontline archipelago off the southern Fujian coast, the island group was governed by the military as a part of a Taiwanese-administered Fujian province. In addition, Matsu and Quemoy also played a key military role—they were Taiwan’s first line of defense from a Communist attack, guarding against Communist forces in Xiamen and Fuzhou, the best harbors from which the mainland could prepare an amphibious assault on Taiwan. The Nationalists hoped to develop them into bases from which they could eventually recover the mainland.

The Communists frequently shelled the islands, most famously during the Second Taiwan Strait Crisis in 1958, which dragged the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war. Thereafter, “Quemoy and Matsu,” tiny islands that few American citizens could locate on a map, became key topic of contention in the 1960 Presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. For 40 years, Quemoy and Matsu stood as sentries on the fault line between the “Free World” and the Communist bloc, sleeping on spears and awaiting the dawn.

Scars of the Cold War

There is almost nothing in Matsu that the Cold War did not touch — virtually all of the island’s modern infrastructure was built with the military in mind. I found that many of the roads consisted of two parallel strips of concrete. There is little civilian traffic on Matsu, and indeed, these makeshift roads were not built for civilians at all. They were meant to facilitate the rapid movement of tanks.

While the main roads were carefully maintained (almost certainly for the benefit of visitors), a good number of the rougher, more utilitarian ones did not even appear on the maps available for tourists. More often than not, following these tank roads to their end would take me to the gate of some military facility, where I was invariably greeted by surly-faced guards carrying large clubs. Though the present garrison is only a tenth of its Cold War peak of 50,000, Matsu remains heavily militarized, especially considering that its civilian population is only about 12,000 (many of whom actually live in Taiwan).

Though Matsu never faced another attack from the mainland as intense as the bombardment of 1958, threats from China never entirely faded. Between 1958 and 1979, the People’s Liberation Army would fire salvoes of propaganda rounds across the strait on odd-numbered days. Locals soon learned to gauge the impact zone of approaching propaganda shells given the sound they made in flight. While these were rarely lethal, they did demonstrate that China could strike nearly every exposed point of the island. To deal with this threat, the Nationalist army built the densest concentration of tunnels in the world, including massive underground harbors hewn out of solid granite.

In preparation for full-fledged amphibious invasion, the Nationalist army spent decades constructing a dense network of fortified fighting positions (according to some rumors, with the aid of the Japanese advisers who had planned the defenses of Iwo Jima).

Pillboxes guarded major intersections, their drab concrete standing out like scars in the traditional villages of stone and timber nestled in Matsu’s many coves. The hillsides were dotted with artillery revetments. The craggy coastline was ringed with forts, guarding against threats from the water. These lonely outposts in turn were exposed to threats from Communist frogmen, who swam ashore to conduct reconnaissance. Stories of enemy frogmen entering pillboxes and slitting the throats of Taiwanese guards may sound almost mythical, but the glass shards that the Nationalist army embedded in the cliffs are a reminder that the threat was very real indeed.

The empty fortress

Most of Matsu’s vast defense network now stands empty. In 1992, martial law was lifted on the island group, five years after it ended on Taiwan. With no more impending war against China and with Taiwan giving up its interest in recovering the mainland, there was simply no need to maintain a large garrison. Matsu’s military government was dissolved, and most of the troops were withdrawn from the islands. The fortresses they manned were abandoned.

The elements have taken their toll on these fortifications. My explorations of these desolate outposts were the most haunting experiences of my trip. Almost always, I was the sole human in sight, stepping over the rubble of collapsed pillboxes and crawling through forts that once housed entire companies of men. While the most obvious reason for their disrepair was simply a lack of funding, this ultimately traces back to political calculations that wartime readiness was no longer a priority.

Based on the signs of neglect, it may be that Matsu alone no longer occupies a privileged position in Taiwan’s strategic calculus. Perhaps for the Taiwanese, an Iwo Jima-style island defense is hopelessly outdated in the age of advancing precision strike. However, I saw fortifications in similar decay on Taiwan itself. My sense is that the decay is symptomatic of the overall Zeitgeist in Taiwan rather than a simple shepherding of military resources into other directions. Most people I talked to spoke of war as a zero-probability event. This would be in keeping with Taiwan’s well-documented difficulties meeting manning requirements for its planned transition to an all-volunteer force. Gone are the days when war seemed about to break out any moment.

Then again, those days could return. Attitudes may be changing in Taiwan. The opposition Democratic Progressive Party appears likely to wrest both the presidency and legislature from the ruling Nationalist Party in the 2016 general election. Because Mainland China views the Democratic Progressive Party as being in favor of Taiwanese independence, cross-strait military tensions may ratchet up in the wake of the election. After eight years of deepened economic integration with the cooperation of the Nationalist Party, the mainland may begin instead to emphasize military coercion.

But even if the Taiwanese begin to change their threat assessment of China and a new administration ramps up readiness, there are limits on how quickly Taiwan can rebuild its capabilities. The defense networks on Matsu and the main island of Taiwan took decades to construct. They have had more than two decades to fall into ruin. In that time they have been explored and mapped by curious tourists and spies, alike.

I noted that most military installations I came across, abandoned or otherwise, were stenciled with some sort of alphanumeric code. I inferred that this meant that somewhere, the Taiwanese military has an inventory of all of its defenses on the islands. This suggests that the Taiwanese plan to quickly return them to service if necessary. But the ability to do so, given the state of decay that has set in, is questionable. Threat perceptions change quickly, but crumbled concrete cannot be pressed back in service overnight.



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