Tsai renews her pledge to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense during her visit to war memorial

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen renewed her pledge to strengthen Taiwan's self-defense on Wednesday as she visited a war memorial from the last time Taiwan and China battled.

Tsai, visiting the outlying islands of Kinmen where the conflict was fought 65 years ago, commemorated those who died. She was accompanied by Minister of Defense Chiu Kuo-cheng and the head of the National Security Council, Wellington Koo.

“In order to keep the peace, we need to strengthen ourselves,” said Tsai. “As such, we need to continue to reform the national defense, push for self-reliance, strengthen our defense capabilities and resilience.”

Taiwan’s government on Monday revealed plans for the 2024 budget that had a 3.5% increase in the defense budget, a record $606.8 billion New Taiwan Dollars ($19 billion), according to the semi-official Central News Agency. The proposed budget must be submitted to the Legislature for approval.

In recent years, China has stepped up its military activity in the waters and skies around Taiwan, sending fighter jets and navy vessels near the island or to encircle it.

On Wednesday, China's Fujian Maritime Safety Administration issued a warning for ships to stay out of an area called Xinghua Bay just off the coast of southern Fujian province as it would hold live-fire drills there starting Thursday and ending on Friday.

Tsai's words have particular resonance as Kinmen sits in the Taiwan Strait, the narrow strip of ocean that divides Taiwan and China. At its closest points, the southern Chinese city of Xiamen is visible to the naked eye from Kinmen.

In 1958, China began shelling Taiwan’s outlying islands of Kinmen and Matsu, which sit geographically closer to China’s southern coast than they do Taiwan. The campaign sent hundreds of thousands of shells raining down on the islands, while China's People's Liberation Army also fought naval and air battles with the army of the Kuomingtang.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory. The Kuomingtang was the political party that fled to Taiwan after fighting and losing a civil war to the Communist Party in China.

Today, Kinmen and Matsu have become domestic tourist destinations, and the former military barracks and lookout points that once dominated the islands are now stops on tour bus routes. Taiwan's military still keeps a few active sites on the islands, although they are greatly reduced in number compared with the presence in the latter decades of the 20th century.

The islands are also well connected to China, through a ferry system.

The opposition Kuomingtang's presidential candidate, Hou Yu-ih, also attended the memorial.

“The fires of war are merciless, and there are no winners in war,” said Hou in a statement. “(We must) ease tensions across both sides, and maintain the peace and the stability of the Taiwan Strait.”