China's imperialist ambitions in continuity with decades of militarism

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was founded on the basis of the partition between the PRC and Taiwan – each with their supporting bloc (the USA and Russia). The history of the PRC since its foundation has been marked by a series of military conflicts with its neighbours:

  • 1952: China was heavily involved in the Korean War. This was the first big clash between the USA and the Soviet Union and China on the Korean peninsula.

  • 1950-1951 Chinese troops occupied Tibet. Between 1956-59 there was prolonged fighting between the Chinese army and Tibetan guerrillas.

  • 1958: China bombarded Taiwan's Quemoy and Matsu islands.

  • 1962: China was involved in a border dispute with India in the Himalayas. Since then China has been a staunch defender of Pakistan in its stand-off with India.

  • 1963-64: After having been allies for more than a dozen years China and the Soviet Union split. While the Soviet Union was engaged in an arms race with the US bloc, an additional confrontation arose between China and the Soviet Union. In March 1969 a serious clash occurred at the Ussuri River with dozens of Russian soldiers killed or wounded. By 1972, 44 Soviet divisions were stationed along the 7000km border with China (Russia had “only” 31 stationed in Europe). One quarter of Soviet aviation was transferred to its eastern border. In 1964 the USA envisaged the possibility of a nuclear attack - together with Russia - against China. And in 1969 the Russians still had plans to launch nuclear missiles against China.1 The conflict between the USA and China ebbed in the early 1970s. After a long and bloody war trying to prevent South Vietnam from falling into Russian hands, in 1972 the USA succeeded in “neutralising” China, while the confrontation between China and Russia continued and took the form of proxy wars. Thus between 1975-1979, soon after the end of war in Vietnam, a first proxy war broke out between Vietnam (supported by Russia) and Cambodia (supported by China); others followed, particularly in Africa.

  • 1979: China fared disastrously in a 16-day war with Vietnam, where both sides mobilized between them more than one million soldiers and left tens of thousands of victims behind. The Chinese army's weaknesses were made glaringly obvious. In 1993 it abandoned the “people’s war” or “war of attrition” tactics, based on the sacrifice of an unlimited number of soldiers. The adaptation to war under high-tech conditions was initiated after this experience.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 the PRC entered a tri-partite alliance with the U.S. and Pakistan, to sponsor Islamist Afghan armed resistance to the Soviet Occupation (1979–89). China acquired military equipment from America to defend itself from Soviet attack. The Chinese People's Liberation Army trained and supported the Afghan Mujahidin during the Soviet o2.

Thus during the first four decades of its existence, the People’s Republic of China was involved in armed conflict with almost all of its neighbors: the Soviet Union, Korea and the USA, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India. And for many years during the Cold War, China clashed with both bloc leaders simultaneously. Of the fourteen separate nation states that border China, ten still have outstanding frontier disputes with it. Thus the present sharpening of tensions in particular with the USA is not new, it is in continuity with decades of conflict. That said, in recet years a new polarisation around China has emerged.

While for decades the PRC had its troops massed at the Russian border, concentrated its forces for protecting its coast line and maintained readiness to wage war with Taiwan, in the early 1990s the PRC systematically started to adapt to the new world situation created by the collapse of the USSR.