China military commemorates key 1955 victory over Taiwan forces

BEIJING (REUTERS) - As Taiwan prepares to usher in a new president in May, Chinese sailors this week threw flowers into the sea to mark a key but little-known victory against Kuomintang (KMT) forces, who fled to the island after a civil war defeat by the Communists in 1949.

China's military periodically likes to remind Taiwan it still considers the island one of its strategic priorities, and in September held three days of live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait.

China is deeply suspicious of Taiwan president-elect Tsai Ing-wen, whose Democratic Progressive Party espouses formal independence for the self-ruled island. Ms Tsai, who takes office in May, has pledged to maintain peace with China.

Beijing has never renounced the use of force to bring under control what it considers a wayward province, and in the 1950s, in particular, the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan was very real.

After 1949, the KMT retained control of several small island groups along the coast of eastern China, from where they launched guerilla raids into China and harassed Chinese shipping.

While most were later abandoned as being too distant to protect from Taiwan, some were taken by force by the Communists, including the Yijiangshan Islands, which fell in 1955 in a crucial psychological defeat for the KMT.

In a statement late on Monday, China's Defence Ministry showed pictures of sailors throwing flowers into the sea near the islands and bowing their heads in memory on the deck of a warship, ahead of next week's traditional tomb-sweeping holiday.

"The naval ship Dabieshan carried out a solemn ceremony to remember the martyrs who gloriously sacrificed themselves in the battle for the Yijiangshan Islands," the ministry said.

Taiwan still controls three island groups off China's south-eastern province of Fujian, though these days they are tourist attractions for visitors from China, among others, besides their role as military outposts.