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Depending upon how one defines “recent,” there is no shortage of conflicts involving China. Beginning with the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during the 1930s, and ending with Japan’s defeat in World War II, China has been subjected to or involved in a number of conflicts over the years. The Chinese Civil War pitting the communists, led by Mao Zedong, against the Nationalists under the command of General Chiang Kai-Shek ended in 1949, with the communists controlling the whole of mainland China and the Nationalists retreating to Taiwan, which would begin one of the country’s longest and most dangerous conflicts. With Nationalist control of Taiwan, which mainland China views as a break-away province while the native population of Taiwan (formerly, Formosa) resists unification with the mainland, insisting that it is an independent nation, that small island remains one of the most dangerous flashpoints for a potential war in the world. The remnants of the Nationalists who fled to and took control of Taiwan agree with the Communist Party of China, which rules the mainland, that both territories are part of “one China,” which creates conflicts inside Taiwan between the indigenous population and the heirs to the Nationalist legacy regarding the island’s precise status. Major crises involving China and Taiwan, such as occurred in 1954-55, 1958, and again in 1996 have served to remind the world, including the United States, which has a treaty with Taiwan guaranteeing U.S. assistance in the island’s defense, of the precarious nature of that situation.
China was also a major combatant in the Korean War of 1950-1953, entering on the side of North Korea following the U.S. Army’s advance towards the Sino-Korean border, which followed the North’s invasion of the South. China supported with military weapons and advisors the North Vietnamese in its fight with the United States and South Vietnam, but was not as heavily or visibly involved in aiding the North as was the Soviet Union. Chinese support for Ho Chi Minh, however, was important to the North’s cause. China, ironically, invaded Vietnam in 1979 following the latter’s invasion of Cambodia, a Chinese ally, but the battle-hardened Vietnamese successfully resisted that incursion and remained in Cambodia until 1992.
Most recently, China has invested heavily in improving the quality of its armed forces with an eye towards control of the entire South China Sea region, which has brought it into conflict with other Asian countries that also claim sovereignty over numerous tiny islands, mainly the Spratley Islands, which are claimed by China, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam, and the Paracel Islands claimed by China and Vietnam. In addition, China is currently engaged with a dispute with Japan over control of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, a dispute that has turned violent and could contain the seeds of a major conflict. In the cases of all of these islands, each country maintains a historical claim, but the fact that the island chains are believed to hold vast deposits of oil and natural gas has made their control a very high priority for each claimant. As with U.S. security guarantees for Taiwan, U.S. mutual defense treaties with Japan and the Philippines could result in a major war between China and the United States. China’s massive military build-up is directed, in fact, at empowering it to take all of these disputed territories, including Taiwan, by force should it deem it necessary. For this reason, the South China and East China Seas (and each body of water has different names according to each individual country claiming them, as do the islands themselves, many of which are no larger than an office desk) are considered among the most dangerous regions in the world today.
China has a long history of conflict with Russia regarding their very long common border, but both countries recognize that it is not in either government’s interest to allow those border disputes, which did result in open combat during the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the 1969 battle, to flare up into open fighting again. Towards that end, Moscow and Beijing signed a treaty in 2004 formally ending the dispute.
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