Taiwan’s Offshore Islands: Assessments Of Support For Integration

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 1

Shi Islet (獅嶼), with anti-landing spikes on Lesser Kinmen (小金门) in the foreground, and Xiamen (厦门) in the background. (Source: Wikipedia)

Kinmen County (金门县) and Lienchiang County (连江县; also referred to as Matsu (马祖)) are a crucial site of activity for cross-Strait relations. Over the last year, Beijing has renewed its calls for using the islands to promote “cross-Strait integrated development (两岸融合发展)” (Taiwan Affairs Office, September 12, 2023). It has also expended considerable effort pushing to integrate the islands, which sit just off the shore of Fujian Province, with its own economy through a range of commercial and infrastructural initiatives (China Brief, July 2, 2021). Meanwhile, politicians in Taiwan who support a return to greater engagement with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have put forward plans to deepen ties between the islands and the PRC, while Taipei has stressed national security concerns (Taipei Times, August 23, 2023; Mainland Affairs Council, June 21, 2022).

China will want to see greater cross-Strait engagement following Taiwan’s elections on January 13. This is a very real possibility, as all candidates have expressed openness to allowing some degree of increased cross-Strait integration. As such, the outcome of the election could herald changes for the islands, potentially advancing the PRC’s influence over these two Taiwan constituencies. The islands’ ties with the PRC and recent developments on further integration since the pandemic are therefore important to consider.

Kinmen And Matsu in Cross-Strait Relations

Kinmen and Matsu have historically played an outsized role in cross-Strait relations. On January 1, 1979, Beijing signaled a major shift in its Taiwan policy by officially declaring an end to its decades-long shelling of the islands. In 2001, Kinmen and Matsu became the sites of the first direct transportation, trade, and postal links—known as the “Mini Three Links (小三通)”—between the Republic of China (ROC) and the PRC. More recently, Beijing and politicians in Taiwan who favor deeper ties with China have promoted water, electricity, natural gas, and transportation infrastructure links—the “New Four Links (新四通)” or “Mini Four Links (小四通)”—between the islands and the PRC’s nearby Fujian Province (China Brief, August 31, 2020). Xi Jinping himself has advocated for the infrastructure projects (Taiwan Work Office, April 12, 2019). With Taiwan’s 2024 elections approaching, Beijing issued a policy document in September 2023 on promoting Fujian Province as a core location for cross-Strait integrated development, in which the offshore islands and the infrastructure projects featured prominently (State Council Information Office, September 12, 2023).

Taiwanese opposition politicians have, like Beijing, called for lifting the restrictions on cross-Strait tourism that Taipei imposed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic: These restrictions have had a significant impact on Kinmen and Matsu. [1] Some Taiwanese politicians have also sustained old ideas about integrating the offshore islands with Fujian Province, goals that can only be realized with the support of Taiwan’s next administration.

Tourism and Cross-Strait Integrated Development

On February 2, 2020, China began limiting ferry service between its Fujian Province and the offshore islands in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Soon thereafter, Taipei announced that all PRC nationals would be temporarily prohibited from entering Taiwan as a precaution against the pandemic. [2] Beijing has since criticized Taipei for obstructing cross-Strait travel (Taiwan Affairs Office, September 16, 2020).

In mid-December 2022, Chen Fu-hai (陳福海) and Wang Chung-ming (王忠銘), the magistrates-elect of Kinmen County and Lienchiang County respectively, traveled to Xiamen, Fujian Province. They went to discuss China’s recently imposed ban on Taiwanese imports and the resumption of the Mini Three Links with Chinese officials. On December 22, 2022, the ROC’s Mainland Affairs Council (MAC) announced the “Lunar New Year Charter Ferry Program for Kinmen and Matsu,” the first major relaxation of cross-Strait travel restrictions. The program allowed residents of Kinmen and Matsu and their PRC spouses to travel between the offshore islands and China from January 7 to February 6, 2023. The “guiding principle” of the program was to resume “passenger transportation under the Mini Three Links in a gradual and orderly manner premised on keeping the risks of the pandemic under control” (Mainland Affairs Council, December 22, 2022). The MAC defended its cautious approach to restoring the Mini Three Links against critics who argued for further relaxation of travel restrictions (Mainland Affairs Council, December 24, 2022).

In late January 2023, Chen Fu-hai, former KMT presidential candidate Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), and KMT legislator representing Kinmen County Chen Yu-jen (陳玉珍), traveled to Xiamen to meet with the head of the PRC’s Taiwan Affairs Office Song Tao (宋涛). The primary purpose of the trip, at least from Beijing’s perspective, was to discuss fully restoring the Mini Three Links (Taiwan Affairs Office, February 1, 2023). A few days after the trip, the MAC announced that the charter ferry program for Kinmen and Matsu would be normalized and the number of routes and voyages would be increased (Mainland Affairs Council, February 4, 2023).

Prospects for fully restoring the Mini Three Links appeared to dim in April 2023. ROC President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy while transiting through the United States, upsetting Beijing (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, April 6, 2023). While Tsai was in the United States, China’s Fujian Maritime Safety Administration announced plans to conduct on-site inspections of direct cross-Strait cargo ships, as well as Mini Three Links cargo and passenger ships. This subsequently drew a rebuke from the MAC (Mainland Affairs Council, April 5, 2023). The council also took issue with Beijing’s unilateral decision the following month to allow group tours from Taiwan to visit China but maintain restrictions on Chinese tourists visiting Taiwan (Global Times; Mainland Affairs Council, May 19, 2023). At the time, Taipei still banned cross-Strait group tours.

Taipei has continued to urge Beijing to allow Chinese tourists to travel to Taiwan while gradually lifting its own restrictions on cross-Strait tourism (Mainland Affairs Council, August 24, 2023). Initially, ROC officials insisted that the restoration of cross-Strait tourist travel should be based on the principle of reciprocity (Central News Agency, March 13, 2023). Beijing has rejected that claim (Taiwan Affairs Office, August 25, 2023). In November 2023, ROC Transportation Minister Wang Kwo-tsai (王國材) told Taiwan’s legislature that the government intended to lift its ban on China-bound Taiwanese tour groups and other cross-Strait travel restrictions on March 1, 2024. Wang noted that the change in policy was made out of consideration for domestic travel agents who had complained about the negative effects the travel ban had wrought on their businesses (Focus Taiwan, November 3, 2023).

Taipei’s plan appears subject to change. Wang Kwo-tsai has indicated that it could be impacted by the result of the ROC’s presidential election (Focus Taiwan, November 3, 2023). And there have been conflicting statements from ROC officials as to whether the number of Taiwanese group tourists allowed to travel to China each day will be capped at 2,000, as originally planned (Radio Taiwan International, November 13, 2023; Taipei Times, November 24, 2023). Taipei hopes that Beijing will eventually respond favorably to its unilateral moves to restore tourism ties (Radio Taiwan International, November 6, 2023).

Politicians from Kinmen and Matsu have continued to venture across the Taiwan Strait to implore Chinese officials to loosen the PRC’s travel restrictions and promote their territories’ economic interests in China (Kinmen Daily News, April 18, 2023; Matsu Daily News, December 14, 2023). Chen Fu-hai and Wang Chung-ming, as well as other opposition politicians, have kept alive old plans for greater cross-Strait integration involving the offshore islands. Under former ROC President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) (2008-2016), Taiwan and China worked together to develop a “common living circle (共同生活圈)” between the offshore islands and Fujian Province. This was centered on Kinmen and Xiamen, referred to as the “Two Gates (兩門),” and Matsu and Mawei District, Fuzhou City, known as the “Two Horses (兩馬)” (Executive Yuan, September 4, 2008). The integration process, of which the Mini Four Links were intended to be a key component, has slowed under Taiwan’s current government. Chen and Wang, however, have declared their support for building a common living circle with the PRC and pushing ahead with the Mini Four Links (China Times; Matsu Daily News, September 14, 2023).

Chen Fu-hai has made some progress in the last decade. During his first term as Magistrate of Kinmen County (2014-2018), Kinmen and Xiamen completed a major water transfer project. Chen also expressed interest in establishing electricity and bridge linkages with Xiamen before losing his reelection bid in 2018 (Central News Agency, August 4, 2018). Since regaining his position in December 2022, he has reaffirmed his commitment to the projects. Chen addressed the first meeting of the Kinmen County Kinmen-Xiamen Bridge Construction Promotion Association that month, vowing to promote the Kinmen-Xiamen bridge project once he assumed office (Central News Agency, December 17, 2022). Since retaking office, he has argued that Beijing and Taipei should devolve more power to local authorities to advance the Mini Four Links projects (Kinmen Daily News, September 15, 2023). In September 2023, the Kinmen County government agreed to forward a referendum proposal to construct the Kinmen-Xiamen Bridge to the Executive Yuan to determine whether the proposal falls within Kinmen’s jurisdiction and can therefore be decided through a local referendum (Central News Agency, September 20, 2023). However, ROC Deputy Minister of the Interior Wu Rong-hui (吳容輝) has suggested that the matter is not a local issue and, if formally proposed, may need to be decided through a national referendum (Central News Agency, October 11, 2023).

Wang Chung-ming has been equally supportive of constructing a bridge between Matsu and Fuzhou. In May 2023, he led a delegation to Fuzhou for a conference with local officials. During the conference, officials from the two sides reached agreements on a variety of issues and formed a consensus on promoting the Mini Four Links (United Daily News, May 20, 2023). The issue of deepening transportation ties was a special concern to both sides. At the start of the conference, the Lienchiang County government met with senior Fuzhou municipal officials to discuss building a bridge between Matsu and Fuzhou. The two sides ended up agreeing on a tentative route for the bridge (Matsu Daily News, May 17, 2023).

Post-Election Possibilities

Lai Ching-te (賴清德), Taiwan’s current vice president and the ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s presidential candidate, has indicated that he might maintain a similarly cautious approach toward the offshore islands if elected. Amid renewed talk in 2023 of turning the offshore islands into permanent demilitarized zones and centers for engagement with China, Lai argued that peace with sovereignty is real peace and that peace is maintained through strength (Kinmen County Council, February 22, 2023; Central News Agency, May 30, 2023). However, Lai said that he is open to working with China on mutually beneficial projects on the basis of equality and dignity (Central News Agency, May 30, 2023).

The KMT’s presidential candidate Hou You-yi (侯友宜) has proposed deepening integration by turning Kinmen into a cross-Strait economic pilot zone and transportation hub. He is a proponent of letting the offshore islands move forward with the Mini Four Links projects and is in favor of holding a referendum on the Kinmen-Xiamen bridge project. Hou has added the caveat, however, that his support is based on the assumption that the projects do not negatively impact Taiwan’s national security (Taipei Times, August 23, 2023).

Taiwan People’s Party presidential candidate Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) is a staunch supporter of the Kinmen-Xiamen bridge project and the other Mini Four Links (Radio Taiwan International, June 20, 2022). He supports deciding the fate of the bridge project through a referendum, and appears open to letting it be decided through a local referendum (Central News Agency, December 14, 2023).


Taipei has gradually relaxed its cross-Strait travel restrictions since the end of the pandemic while injecting a sense of caution into the debate about the offshore islands’ engagement with China. It has warned that Beijing’s schemes for deepening the offshore islands’ ties with Fujian Province are “part of the CCP’s united front campaign against Taiwan to ‘promote integration and unification’” (Mainland Affairs Council, September 14, 2023). President of the Executive Yuan Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) has argued that there is no urgency to move forward with the Mini Four Links as Taipei is already helping the offshore islands meet their needs for water, electricity and natural gas (Central News Agency, October 6, 2023).

Surveying the three presidential candidates’ positions, however, suggests that these territories’ future remains unclear. No matter who becomes Taiwan’s next president, he will have to analyze the current state of cross-Strait relations and determine how to balance the offshore islands’ opening up to China with maintaining Taiwan’s national security.



[1] See Mainland Affairs Council, “Table 17 Mini-Three Links: Number of Visitors Arrivals at/Departures from Kinmen” and “Table 18 Mini-Three Links: Number of Visitors Arrivals at/Departures from Matsu,” Cross-Strait Economic Statistics Monthly, No. 368 (December 2023), https://www.mac.gov.tw/News_Content.aspx?n=2C28D363038C300F&sms=231F60B3498BBB19&s=08DD23979F2878D5. According to ROC government statistics, the number of visitors arriving in Kinmen from China dropped from more than 403,000 in 2019 to 0 in 2021 and 2022, and had only increased to approximately 2,000 a month as of October 2023. The number of visitors arriving in Matsu from China dropped from more than 11,000 in 2019 to 0 in 2021 and 2022, and had only increased to approximately 100 a month as of October 2023.

[2] Kristian McGuire, “Post-COVID-19 Cross-Strait Maritime Transportation Trends” (Global Taiwan Brief, October 19, 2022), https://globaltaiwan.org/2022/10/post-covid-19-cross-strait-maritime-transportation-trends/.