By Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang
KINMEN, Taiwan (Reuters) - Maintaining peace needs a powerful defence, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen said on Wednesday, as she made a rare visit to a frontline island located right next to China, to mark the anniversary of a key military clash with Chinese forces.
China has stepped up military activity to try and force democratically-governed Taiwan to accept Beijing's sovereignty, despite strong objections from the government in Taipei.
Tsai laid a wreath and bowed her head in respect at a memorial park on Kinmen island, at its closest less than 2 km (1.2 miles) away from Chinese-controlled territory, for the 65th anniversary of the start of the second Taiwan Strait crisis.
"Our position on maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is very firm," Tsai told veterans at a lunch, adding that there would be no Taiwan today if they had not prevailed during the crisis in 1958.
The crisis was the last time Taiwanese forces joined battle with China on a large scale.
"However, to maintain peace, we must first strengthen ourselves," Tsai added.
"We must thus continue to implement national defence reforms, promote defence self-sufficiency, and continuously improve the combat power and resilience of national defence."
In August 1958, Chinese forces began more than a month of bombardment of Kinmen, along with the Taiwan-controlled Matsu archipelago further up the coast, including naval and air battles, seeking to force them into submission.
Taiwan fought back at the time with support from the United States, which sent military equipment like advanced Sidewinder anti-aircraft missiles, giving Taiwan a technological edge.
The crisis ended in a stalemate, and Taiwan observes Aug. 23 every year as the date it fended off the Chinese attack.
It was only Tsai's third visit as president to Kinmen to mark the anniversary, following a visit in 2020 when she was accompanied by the de facto U.S. ambassador to Taipei.
Formerly called Quemoy in English, Kinmen today is a popular tourist destination, though remnants of past fighting such as underground bunkers scatter the island, and Taiwan maintains a significant military presence.
Taiwan has controlled Kinmen and Matsu since the defeated Republic of China government fled to Taipei in 1949 after losing a civil war with Mao Zedong's communists.
(Reporting by Fabian Hamacher and Ann Wang; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)