TAIPEI (AFP) – Ever since Communist China and Taiwan broke away from each other at the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 the waterway separating them has been a tense geopolitical flashpoint.

Just 130 kilometres wide at its narrowest point, the Taiwan Strait is a major international shipping channel and all that lies between now democratic, self-ruled Taiwan and its giant neighbour.

Beijing has responded furiously to this week’s visit to Taiwan by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, issuing increasingly bellicose threats and announcing a series of military drills in the waters surrounding the island.

Historians pinpoint three previous moments when tensions within the Taiwan Strait boiled over into an acute crisis.

First Taiwan Strait Crisis

At the end of the Chinese Civil War, Mao Zedong’s communist forces had successfully pushed out Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who relocated to Taiwan.

Two rivals stood on each side of the strait – the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.

The First Taiwan Strait Crisis broke out in August 1954 when the Nationalists placed thousands of troops on Taiwan-ruled Kinmen and Matsu, two small islands just a few miles from the mainland.

Communist China responded with artillery bombardments of the islands and the successful capture of the Yijiangshan Islands, about 400 kilometres north of Taipei.

The crisis was eventually defused but nearly brought China and the United States to the brink of direct conflict.