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Ukraine war reverberates on Taiwan's 'frontline of democracy'

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People wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, March 24, 2022. 

People wear face masks to protect against the spread of the coronavirus in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, March 24, 2022.  (AP photo)

DONGYIN/NANGAN, Taiwan, March 25 (Reuters) - Lin Jih-shou was brewing tea last month in his popular breakfast joint when he heard the buzz of a plane – a rare sound on the remote Taiwanese-held island of Dongyin near China's coast, which does not have an airport.

Lin, 64, rushed outside, but only saw the shadow of what the government later described as a small, propeller-driven Chinese aircraft that most likely was 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 from their huge neighbour, which considers Taipei's democratically elected government illegitimate and Taiwan a rogue province to be taken by force if needed.

The Matsu islands were regularly bombarded by China at the height of the Cold War, and the history of conflict has focused minds on Russia's invasion of Ukraine and whether the same fate may befall them.

"When we watch Russia and Ukraine fighting, our hearts hurt," Lin told Reuters. "War is too scary. There's no need."

Taiwan has raised its alert level since the invasion, but has not reported any signs of imminent attack.

Held by Taiwan since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taipei in 1949 after losing the Chinese civil war, Matsu would probably be an immediate target for Beijing in a conflict, especially Dongyin's missile base.Read full story

Yet even with China's increased military pressure in recent years, the archipelago has seen trendy businesses and a nascent art scene spring up.

On the main island of Nangan, former military brothels and underground bunkers house exhibits that opened last month as part of the inaugural Matsu Biennial art festival.

"It's a way to rebrand and retell the stories of Matsu," said Lii Wen, who established the local branch of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party in 2020.

Taiwan's outlying islands, long known as military strongholds, can be reframed as "a frontline of democracy," Lii said, as a Ukrainian flag fluttered outside his office window. Although their regional contexts differ, Lii said, Taiwan stands in solidarity with Ukraine as a smaller democracy facing potential invasion.

BUNKERS AND WINE EVENINGS

Dongyin native Tsai Pei-yuan, born in 1993, the year after Matsu's strict military rule ended, is part of a generation for whom war feels distant. Two years ago, Tsai and two former classmates co-founded Salty Island Studio, a cafe and community hub that has hosted arts workshops and plays.

"More urgent is trying to preserve our culture, which is disappearing," Tsai said before a wine-tasting event last week.

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

"When we explore strongholds, we ask, if a war really starts, which nearby stronghold would we run to?" said Chung Jing-yei, 26, who manages Nangan's Xiwei Peninsula restaurant.

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

"My belief that we should be an independent country is resolute, but at the same time, I don't want war to happen," she said.

Dotting the islands' rugged coastlines are bunkers, abandoned or transformed into tourist destinations and boutique hotels.

Older Matsu residents have vivid memories of hiding in shelters from Chinese shelling and not being allowed to own basketballs for fear that they may use them to float across to China.

"I don't think the two sides will fight," Lucy Lin, a 62-year-old taxi driver and bakery owner, said as a Chinese radio station played 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 starting Xiwei, is keen to play her part in bettering the lives of Matsu's people.

"For as long as it is possible, we hope to work with the island's residents to improve this place," Shih said. "Even if it is short-term, that is okay. At least we tried our best."

(Reporting by Sarah Wu. Editing by Gerry Doyle)