Sino-Vietnamese War 1979

Sino-Vietnamese War 1979 by Wikipedia

The Sino-Vietnamese War, also known as the Third Indochina War, was a brief border war fought between China and Vietnam in early 1979. China launched an offensive in response to Vietnam’s invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 (which ended the rule of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge).

Viet canon
Vietnamese artillery pounds away at advancing Chinese troops on Feb. 23, 1979

Chinese forces entered northern Vietnam and captured several cities near the border. On March 6, 1979, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved. Chinese troops then withdrew from Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam claimed victory in the last of the Indochina Wars. As Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989, it appeared that China remained unsuccessful in its goal of dissuading Vietnam from involvement in Cambodia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Sino-Vietnamese border was finalized.

Although unable to deter Vietnam from Cambodia, China succeeded in demonstrating that its Cold War communist adversary, the Soviet Union, was unable to protect its Vietnamese ally. Following worsening relations between the Soviet Union and China as a result of the Sino-Soviet split of 1956–1966, as many as 1.5 million Chinese troops were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border in preparation for a full-scale war against the Soviets.


Sino-Soviet split

The Chinese Communist Party and the Viet Minh had a long history. During the initial stages of the First Indochina War with France, the recently founded communist People’s Republic of China continued the Russian mission to expand communism. Therefore, they aided the Viet Minh and became the connector between Soviets and the Vietminh. In early 1950, The Viet Minh fought independently from the Chinese Military Advisory Group under Wei Guoqing. This was one of the reasons for China to cut the arms support for the Viet Minh.

After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, relations between the Soviet Union and China began to deteriorate. Mao Zedong believed the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had made a serious error in his Secret Speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956, and criticized the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Marxism–Leninism, in particular Khrushchev’s support for peaceful co-existence and its interpretation. This led to increasingly hostile relations, and eventually the Sino-Soviet split. From here, Chinese communists played a decreasing role in helping their former allies because the Viet Minh did not support China against the Soviets.

Following the death of Mao in September 1976, the overthrow of the Gang of Four and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leadership would revise its own positions to become compatible with market aspects, denounce the Cultural Revolution, and collaborate with the US against the Soviet Union.


Although the Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge had previously cooperated, the relationship deteriorated when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot came to power and established Democratic Kampuchea on 17 April 1975. Communist China, in the other hand, also supported the Maoist Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol’s regime during the Cambodian Civil War and its subsequent take-over of Cambodia. China provided extensive political, logistical and military support for the Khmer Rouge during its rule (Storey, 2006). After numerous clashes along the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, and with encouragement from Khmer Rouge defectors fleeing a purge of the Eastern Zone, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on 25 December 1978. By 7 January 1979 Vietnamese forces had entered Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge leadership had fled to western Cambodia.

Ethnic minorities

China supported the ethnic minority United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races against Vietnam during the FULRO insurgency against Vietnam.

The Vietnamese executed collaborators who worked for the Chinese, regardless of ethnicity (O.’Dowd, 2007).

The Chinese received a significant amount of defectors from the Thu Lao ethnic minority in Vietnam during the war. During the war China received as migrants the entire A Lù based population of the Phù Lá ethnic minority. China received so many defectors from the ethnic minorities in Vietnam that it raised shock among Vietnam which had to launch a new effort re-assert dominance over the ethnic minorities and classify them (Masako Ito, 2013). Post Vietnam War, insurgency against Vietnam lasted among the indigenous Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesians of the Central Highlands (Masako Ito, 2013). Assistance was sought from China by the Hmong ethnic minority (O.’Dowd, 2007). The border was frequently crossed by Chinese, Lao, Kinh, Hmong, Yao, Nung, and Tai. The Laotian Hmong and FULRO were both supported against Vietnam by China and Thailand.

China attacks Vietnam

China, now under Deng Xiaoping, was starting the Chinese economic reform and opening trade with the West, in turn, growing increasingly defiant of the Soviet Union. On November 3, 1978, the Soviet Union and Vietnam signed a 25-year mutual defense treaty, which made Vietnam the “linchpin” in the Soviet Union’s “drive to contain China” (Scalapino, 1982).

In January 1979 Chinese Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping visited the United States, and told the American president Jimmy Carter that China planned a punitive action against Cambodia. On February 15, the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam.

The reason cited for the attack was to support China’s ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, in addition to the mistreatment of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands which were claimed by China. To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam’s behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the Soviet Union; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of its troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border (Chang Pao-min, 1985). In addition, the bulk of China’s active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China’s border with the Soviet Union.

Order of battle

Chinese forces

Although the People’s Liberation Army vastly outnumbered the Vietnamese forces, the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance compelled the Chinese to deploy the majority of their forces along China’s northern frontier with the Soviet Union (as well as, to a lesser extent, Soviet-allied Mongolia) as a deterrent to Soviet intervention.

The Chinese force that engaged the Vietnamese consisted of units from the Kunming Military Region, Chengdu Military Region, Wuhan Military Region and Guangzhou Military Region, but commanded by the headquarters of Kunming Military Region on the western front and Guangzhou Military Region in the eastern front.

Some troops engaged in this war, especially engineering units, railway corps, logistical units and antiaircraft units, had been assigned to assist North Vietnam in its war against South Vietnam just a few years earlier during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief that over 600,000 Chinese troops entered North Vietnam, the actual number was only 200,000, while 600,000 Chinese troops were mobilized, of which 400,000 were deployed away from their original bases during the one-month conflict.

Dan binh TQ tai thuong
A line-up of Chinese militiamen working as stretcher bearers during the war

The Chinese troop deployments were observed by U.S. spy satellites. In his state visit to the U.S. in 1979, the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was presented with this information and asked to confirm the numbers. He replied that the information was completely accurate. After this public confirmation in the U.S., the domestic Chinese media were finally allowed to report on these deployments.

* Guangxi Direction (East Front) commanded by the Front Headquarter of Guangzhou Military Region in Nanning.

+ North Group

– 41st Army

121st Infantry Division
122nd Infantry Division
123rd Infantry Division

   + South Group

– 42nd Army

124th Infantry Division
125th Infantry Division
126th Infantry Division

   + East Group

– 55th Army

127th Infantry Division
128th Infantry Division
129th Infantry Division
1st Artillery Division

   + Reserve Group

– 43rd Army

127th Infantry Division
128th Infantry Division
129th Infantry Division

      – 54th Army

160th Infantry Division
161st Infantry Division
162nd Infantry Division
50th Army Temporary
148th Infantry Division
150th Infantry Division

      – 20th Army (only dispatched the 58th Division into the war)

58th Infantry Division

   + Guangxi Military Region

1st Regiment of Frontier Defense in Youyiguan Pass
2nd Regiment of Frontier Defense in Baise District
3rd Regiment of Frontier Defense in Fangcheng County
The Independent Infantry Division of Guangxi Military Region

* Yunnan Direction (West Front) commanded by the Front Headquarter of Kunming Military Region in Kaiyuan

– 11th Army

31st Infantry Division
32nd Infantry Division

      – 13th Army

37th Infantry Division
38th Infantry Division
39th Infantry Division

      – 14th Army

40th Infantry Division
41st Infantry Division
42nd Infantry Division
149th Infantry Division (from Chengdu Military Region, belonged to 50th Corp)

   + Yunnan Military Region (as a provincial military region)

11th Regiment of Frontier Defence in Maguan County
12th Regiment of Frontier Defence in Malipo County
13th Regiment of Frontier Defence
14th Regiment of Frontier Defence
1st Garrison Division of Chengdu Military Region
65th Antiaircraft Artillery Division
4th Artillery Division
Independent Tank Regiment of Kunming Military Region

Vietnamese forces

The Vietnamese government claimed they only had a force of about 70,000 including several army regular divisions in its northern area. However, the Chinese estimates indicate more than twice this number. Some Vietnamese forces used American military equipment captured during the Vietnam War.

1st Military Region: responsible for the defense at Northeast region.

Main forces:

  • 3rd Infantry Division (Golden Star Division), at Dong Dang, Van Dang, Cao Loc and Lạng Sơn town of Lạng Sơn Province
  • 338th Infantry Division, at Loc Binh and Dinh Lap of Lạng Sơn Province
  • 346th Infantry Division (Lam Son Division), at Tra Linh, Ha Quang and Hoa An of Cao Bằng Province
  • 325th-B Infantry Division, at Tien Yen and Binh Lieu of Quảng Ninh Province
  • 242nd Infantry Brigade, at coastlines and islands of Quảng Ninh Province

Local forces:

  • At Cao Bằng Province: 567th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion, 1 battalion of air defense artillery and 7 infantry battalions
  • At Lạng Sơn Province: 123rd Infantry Regiment, 199th Infantry Regiment and 7 infantry battalions
  • At Quảng Ninh Province: 43rd Infantry Regiment, 244th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion, 4 battalions of air defense artillery and 5 infantry battalions
  • Armed police forces (Border guard): 12th Mobile Regiment at Lang Son, 4 battalions at Cao Bang and Quang Ninh, some companies and 24 border posts

2nd Military Region: responsible for the defense at Northwest region.

Main forces:

  • 316th Infantry Division (Bong Lau Division), at Binh Lu and Phong Tho of Lai Châu Province
  • 345th Infantry Division, at Bao Thang of Hoang Lien Son province
  • 326th Infantry Division, at Tuan Giao and Dien Bien of Lai Châu Province

Local forces:

  • At Ha Tuyen: 122nd Infantry Regiment, 191st Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 8 infantry battalions
  • At Hoang Lien Son: 191st Infantry Regiment, 254th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 8 infantry battalions
  • At Lai Châu: 193rd Infantry Regiment, 741st Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 5 infantry battalions
  • Armed police forces (Border guard): 16th Mobile Regiment at Hoang Lien Son, some companies and 39 border posts

In addition, Vietnamese forces were supported by about 50,000 militia at each Military Region.

Course of the war

Preparation of war

According to Trường Sơn (2015), since January 1979 Chinese forces performed numerous reconnaissance activities across the border and made 230 violations into Vietnamese land. To prepare for a possible Chinese invasion, the Central Military Committee of the Communist Party ordered all armed forces across the border to be on stand-by mode.

Chinese engagement

On 17 February 1979, a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) force of about 200,000 troops supported by 200 Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks entered northern Vietnam in the PLA’s first major combat operation since the end of the Korean War in 1953.

The PLA invasion was conducted in two directions: western and eastern

  • Western direction, to attack Cao Bằng, Lạng Sơn and Quảng Ninh Provinces.
  • Eastern direction, to attack Ha Tuyen, Hoang Lien Son and Lai Châu Provinces

Vietnamese counter-attacks

Vietnam quickly mobilized all its main forces in Cambodia, southern Vietnam and central Vietnam to the northern border. From 18 February to 25 February, the 327th Infantry Division of Military District 3 and the 337th Infantry Division of Military District 4 were deployed to join Military District 1 for the defense of northwestern region. From 6 March to 11 March the Second Corp (Huong Giang Corp) stationed in Cambodia was deployed back to Hanoi.

Soviet support to Vietnam

The Soviet Union, although it did not take direct military action, provided intelligence and equipment support for Vietnam (Trịnh Thái Bằng, 2013). A large airlift was established by the Soviet Union to move Vietnamese troops from Cambodia to Northern Vietnam. Moscow also provided a total of 400 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), 500 mortar artillery and air defense artillery, 50 BM-21 rocket launchers, 400 portable surface-to-air missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles and 20 jet fighters. About 5,000 to 8,000 Soviet military advisers were present in Vietnam from August 1979 to mid-1979 to train Vietnamese soldiers.

During the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Soviet Union deployed troops at the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolian-Chinese border as an act of showing support to Vietnam, as well as tying up Chinese troops. However, the Soviets refused to take any direct action to defend their ally (Elleman, 1996).

The Soviet Pacific Fleet also deployed 15 ships to the Vietnamese coast to relay Chinese battlefield communications to Vietnamese forces (Kelemen, 1984).

Soviet inaction

While the Soviet Union deployed naval vessels and supplied materiel to Vietnam, they felt that there was simply no way that they could directly support Vietnam against China; the distances were too great to be an effective ally, and any sort of reinforcements would have to cross territory controlled by China or U.S. allies. The only realistic option would be to restart the unresolved border conflict with China. Vietnam was important to Soviet policy but not enough for the Soviets to go to war over (Gaiduk, 2009). When Moscow did not intervene, Beijing publicly proclaimed that the Soviet Union had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam.

Another reason why Moscow did not intervene was because Beijing had promised both Moscow and Washington that the invasion was only a limited war, and that Chinese forces would withdraw after a short incursion. After moderation by the U.S., Moscow decided to adopt a “wait and see” approach to see if Beijing would actually limit their offense. Deng Xiaoping, because Vietnam’s anti-air capabilities were among the best in the world at the time and in order to reassure Moscow it was conducting a limited war, ordered the Chinese navy and air force to remain out of the war; only limited support was provided by the air force. When Beijing kept its promise, Moscow did not retaliate.


The PLA quickly advanced about 15–20 kilometres into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bằng, Lào Cai and Lạng Sơn. The Vietnamese avoided mobilizing their regular divisions, and held back some 300,000 troops for the defence of Hanoi. The People’s Army of Vietnam (VPA) tried to avoid direct combat and often used guerrilla tactics.

The initial PLA attack soon lost its momentum and a new attack wave was sent in with eight PLA divisions joining the battle. After capturing the northern heights above Lạng Sơn, the PLA surrounded and paused in front of the city in order to lure the VPA into reinforcing it with units from Cambodia. This was the main strategic ploy in the Chinese war plan as Deng did not want to risk escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. After three days of bloody house-to-house fighting, Lạng Sơn fell on 6 March. The PLA then took the southern heights above Lạng Sơn and occupied Sa Pa. The PLA claimed to have crushed several of the VPA regular units.

Chinese withdrawal

On 6 March, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved, although Vietnam’s present in Cambodia still continued for the next 10 years to help Cambodia from Khmer Rouge aggression. On the way back to the Chinese border, the PLA destroyed all local infrastructure and housing and looted all useful equipment and resources (including livestock), severely weakening the economy of Vietnam’s northernmost provinces. The PLA crossed the border back into China on 16 March. Both sides declared victory with China claiming to have crushed the Vietnamese resistance and Vietnam claiming to have repelled the invasion using mostly border militias. Henry J. Kenny, a research scientist for US Center for Naval Analyses, notes that most Western writers agree that Vietnam outperformed the PLA on the battlefield.


China and Vietnam each lost tens of thousands of troops, and China lost 3.45 billion yuan in overhead, which delayed completion of their 1979–80 economic plan (Anon., 1980). Following the war, the Vietnamese leadership took various repressive measures to deal with the problem of real or potential collaboration. In the spring of 1979, the authorities expelled approx. 8,000 Hoa people from Hanoi to the southern “New Economic Zones”, and partially resettled the Hmong tribes and other ethnic minorities from the northernmost provinces. In response to the defection of Hoàng Văn Hoan, a purge was launched to cleanse the Communist Party of Vietnam of pro-Chinese elements and persons who had surrendered to the advancing Chinese troops during the war. In 1979, a total of 20,468 members were expelled from the party (Szalontai, 2017).

Although Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia, China successfully mobilized international opposition to the occupation, rallying such leaders as Cambodia’s deposed king Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian anticommunist leader Son Sann, and high-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge to deny the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian People’s Party in Cambodia diplomatic recognition beyond the Soviet bloc. China improved relations with ASEAN by promising protection to Thailand and Singapore against “Vietnamese aggression”.

In contrast, Vietnam’s decreasing prestige in the region led it to be more dependent on the Soviet Union, to which it leased a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay (MacFarquhar, 1991). On 1 March 2005, Howard W. French wrote in The New York Times: Some historians stated that the war was started by Mr Deng (China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping) to keep the army preoccupied while he consolidated power… (French, 2005)

Chinese casualties

The number of casualties during the war is disputed. Vietnamese sources claimed the PLA had suffered 62,500 total casualties, including 550 military vehicles, and 115 artillery pieces destroyed (Anon., 2016); while Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng told western media in 1980 that the Chinese troops had suffered 9,000 dead and about 10,000 wounded during the war. Leaks from Chinese military sources indicate that China suffered 6,954 dead (Hancock, 2014).

According to Xiaoming  Zhang (2005), existing scholarship tends towards an estimate of as many as 25,000 PLA killed in action and another 37,000 wounded, while recently available Chinese sources categorize the PLA’s losses as 6,594 dead and approximately 21,000 injured, giving a total of 24,000 casualties from an invasion force of 200,000.

Vietnamese casualties

Like their Chinese counterparts, the Vietnamese government has never officially announced any information on its actual military casualties. China estimated that Vietnam lost 57,000 soldiers and 70,000 militia members during the war. The official Nhân Dân newspaper claimed that Vietnam suffered more than 10,000 civilian deaths during the Chinese invasion (Hoàng Thùy & Nguyễn Hưng, 2014) and earlier on 17 May 1979, reported statistics on heavy losses of industry and agricultural properties.


The Chinese held 1,636 Vietnamese prisoners and the Vietnamese held 238 Chinese prisoners; they were exchanged in May–June 1979 (Chan, 1989).

The 238 Chinese soldiers surrendered after getting separated from their main unit during the withdrawal from Vietnam and became surrounded by Vietnamese. After surrendering, they were transferred by the Vietnamese soldiers to a prison. The Chinese prisoners reported that they were subjected to torturous and inhumane treatment, such as being blindfolded and having their bodies bound and restrained with metal wire.

Sino-Vietnamese relations after the war

Border skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s.

Armed conflict only ended in 1989 after the Vietnamese agreed to fully withdraw from Cambodia. Both nations planned the normalization of their relations in a secret summit in Chengdu in September 1990, and officially normalized ties in November 1991.

In 1999, after many years of negotiations, China and Vietnam signed a border pact (Bennett-Jones, 2000). There was an adjustment of the land border, resulting in Vietnam giving China part of its land which was lost during the battle, including the Ai Nam Quan Gate which served as the traditional border marker and entry point between Vietnam and China, which caused widespread frustration within Vietnam. Vietnam’s official news service reported the implementation of the new border around August 2001.

In January 2009 the border demarcation was officially completed, signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Dung on the Vietnamese side and his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, on the Chinese side.

bridge Hekou-Kim Thanh
A new bridge spanning the Red River between Hekou and Kim Thành, on the main road between Kunming and Hanoi

The December 2007 announcement of a plan to build a Hanoi–Kunming highway was a landmark in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The road will traverse the border that once served as a battleground. It should contribute to demilitarizing the border region, as well as facilitating trade and industrial cooperation between the nations (Greenlees, 2007).


Battle at Lang Son on Vietnam border is reported begun

By Henry Kamm Feb. 25, 1979

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BANGKOK, Thailand, Feb. 24 — Western analysts said here today that a majoor battle between Chinese invaders and Vietnamese regular troops appeared to have begun around Lang Son, 85 miles northeast of Hanoi, and that action of similar scale appeared to be taking place near Lao Cai, northwest of the Vietnamese capital.

In Washington, however, United States officials said that while the Chinese appeared to have increased pressure near Lang Son, they had not joined the major battle they were believed to be seeking, mainly because the Vietnamese had not yet committed large regular army formations.

Hsinhua, the Chinese press agency, reported that Chinese troops had captured Lao Cai, which is just across the border from China’s Yunnan Province. Another agency dispatch said Chinese soldiers operating near the Vietnamese town of Cao Bang, north of Hanoi, had “recovered” an area belonging to China’s Kwangsi Chuang Autonomous Region that was said to “have been occupied by the Vietnamese for one year.”

Word From 2 U.S. Legislators

At the same time, at least two Soviet cargo planes have arrived in Hanoi after refueling stops in Baghdad, Iraq, and an undisclosed airport in India, according to the Bangkok analysts. More planes are reported on route. [In New Delhi, Government officials disclaimed any knowledge of Soviet planes refueling in India.]

Confirmation of the arrival of the Soviet planes in Hanoi came from an unexpected source—two members of the American House of Representatives who were taken Thursday by their Vietnamese hosts to the Lang Son and Lao Cai areas and, on leaving Hanoi today, for Bangkok saw the planes at the airport.

Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, Democrat of Brooklyn, who visited Lang Son, said the population and government had been evacuated from the city and battle seemed at hand. She said she had been within six miles of the fighting, within range of Chinese artillery.

Representative Billy Lee Evans, a Georgia Democrat, was taken as close to the captured town of Lao Cai as was safe. He said at an airport news conference here that a shell had struck within 125 yards of where he was standing.

The Bangkok analysts said both sides had moved reinforcements into the Lang Son and Lao Cai areas. The invading forces, which had encountered largely militia and regional part‐time troops since the incursion began a week ago, are now meeting regular troops, supported by artillery and tanks.

For the first time, Vietnam was reported to be moving significant numbers of fighter‐bombers from the south, where they have been engaged in the war in Cambodia, to within range of the northern front. Surface‐to‐air missiles are also being moved northward, and analysts believe that the air war, which so far has been limited, will soon be stepped up. Vietnam was reported to have moved bombs to northern airfields.

Representatives Holtzman and Evans said a Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister, Phan Hien, had told them that the war was no longer a border conflict but a war of aggression that Vietnam was prepared to resist for years if necessary.

Vietnamese Refugees Flee South

Mrs Holtzman said she had encountered “thousands and thousands” of refugees fleeing southward along the highway from Lang Son. They carried their possessions on their backs or on carts and were driving their cattle and pigs ahead of them. She said the refugees were camping out and there was no evidence of government efforts to assist them.

The two legislators said they were told this morning that Lang Son remained in Vietnamese hands and that Lao Cai was the only provincial capital seized by China. Miss Holtzman and Mr. Evans said their hosts, including Mr. Hien, had rejected any comparison between the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and China’s strike against Vietnam.

But Mr. Evans said Mr. Hien, while not acknowledging the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, did not deny it. Officially, Vietnam says that the ouster of the pro‐Chinese regime of Prime Minister Pol Pot in Cambodia was the work of insurgents. In view of continuing fighting in Cambodia, particularly in the west, where Vietnamese supply lines are most extended, analysts said, no Vietnamese troops have been siphoned off toward the Chinese front.

The analysts said that, in addition to the airlift of Soviet supplies and the presence in the Gulf of Tonkin of a Soviet command and control ship, there were no signs of Soviet preparations for possible retaliatory strikes along the Soviet‐Chinese border. The equipment on the command ship was described by a Western expert as highly advanced and capable of cont rolling an entire battlefield.

Mr. Evans and Miss Holtzman arrived in Hanoi Wednesday for a study mission on behalf of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Refugees, which Miss Holtzman heads. They were taken to the front at Vietnamese initiative. Not far from the areas of fighting, they said, rural life was continuing normally and no sign of war was evident in Hanoi.

Vietnamese officials said their tactics were to draw the Chinese into Vietnam in order to trap and outflank them. Mr. Hien, the Deputy Foreign Minister, said that if China was allowed to defeat Vietnam the world would see the “domino theory” in effect Peking’s goal, he declared, was to take over all of Southeast Asia.

U.S. Disputing Asian Analysts

Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON. Feb. 21 — United States officials said today that Chinese forces appeared to increase pressure against the Vietnamese near Lang Son.

These sources said it did not appear that the battle that the Chinese were believed to be seeking had begun, mainly because the Vietnamese had not committed large regular units to the fighting.

The Americans disputed reports from Western analysts in Asian cities that heavy fighting took place yesterday. They said fighting in the Lang Son area was heavier today, although it apparently was far from being the decisive test Peking is believed to seek. Lang Son itself, from which 40,000 residents have been evacuated, was said to be probably still in Vietnamese hands.

Washington sources said yesterday that the Chinese seemed to avoid population centers and to seek combat with Vietnamese troops in the mountainous countryside.

The increased pressure in the Lang Son sector was not believed to be of an intense nature. Four Vietnamese regular divisions arrayed north of Hanoi and Haiphong have apparently still not been committed to battle, the sources said.

However, the 75,000 to 100,000 Vietnamese troops now engaged include border security divisions with good training and equipment.

The informants here doubt reports from Asia that the Vietnamese had retaken the border town of Lao Cai, on the railroad from Hanoi to Kunming in China. The Chinese are now pushing southeastward from Lao Cai, the sources said.

The action in the Lao Cai area does not seem to be as important as that around Lang Son. The Chinese have deployed about 70,000 men in the Lang Son sector, the Americans believe.

The Vietnamese counterattack begun yesterday on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin may have recaptured the border town of Mong Cai. There have been intelligence indications that Chinese forces may even have been driven back into Chinese territory there. However, the size of the military units fighting in that sector seems to be relatively small.

It is still felt that the Chinese hope to initiate the main battle in the Lang Son area. Rut to do so they will need to find some way to draw in larger Vietnamese contingents.

China Said to Seek Border Shift

TOKYO, Feb. 21 (AP) — The Kyoto news agency quoted a Peking official as having said that the battle in Vietnam would continue until the border was drawn to China’s satisfaction.

When China started its invasion last Saturday, Peking said it did “not want a single inch of Vietnamese territory,” but there was speculation at the time that it would seek Vietnamese‐held land it claims is Chinese.

The official, who was not identified, was also quoted as having said that China’s “overall pullout won’t come today or tomorrow” because China needs to give “a bit more lessons” to Vietnam. He added that China’s troops would withdraw to “what China claims is the border line and nut the border line Vietnam insists upon.”

Kyodo said the disputed land apparently totaled ?? all along the Vietnamese‐Chinese border.

A version of this archives appears in print on February 25, 1979, on Page 1 of the New York edition with the headline: BATTLE AT LANG SON ON VIETNAM BORDER IS REPORTED BEGUN.

Sino-Soviet Relations and the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Conflict

by Bruce Elleman
20 April 1996

Gerald Segal, in his 1985 book Defending China, concluded that China’s 1979 war against Vietnam was a complete failure:

“China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from [Cambodia], failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.”

In an attempt to challenge this view that Beijing’s policy was a failure, this paper will strive to reevaluate the central role that Sino-Soviet relations played on China’s decision to attack Vietnam. Most importantly, it will try to show that the timing of China’s February 17th attack on Vietnam was linked to the 29th anniversary of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

One should recall that on February 14, 1950 Beijing and Moscow signed a 30-year treaty that included secret protocols supporting the USSR’s role as leader of the world communist movement. When Moscow later refused to renegotiate Sino-Soviet territorial disputes, this led to Sino-Soviet border clashes, most importantly during the late 1960s.

Western scholars have all too often overlooked that even during this period of Sino-Soviet tensions, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance remained fully in force throughout this entire period of unrest. From Beijing’s viewpoint at least, the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty was a major instrument through which Moscow had tried to exert its “hegemony” over China.

Moscow was clearly concerned what might happen when the Sino-Soviet treaty reached its 30-year term. Beginning in 1969, the USSR frequently urged China to replace the 1950 treaty with a new agreement. During 1978, Soviet forces were increased along the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian borders. Moscow also sought to force Beijing to come to terms by intensifying diplomatic relations with Hanoi, signing a twenty-five year defense treaty with Vietnam on November 3, 1978.

Instead of backing down, however, China announced its intention to invade Vietnam on February 15, 1979, the very first day that it could legally terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty and it attacked three days later. When Moscow did not intervene, Beijing publicly proclaimed that the USSR had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam. The USSR’s failure to support Vietnam emboldened China to announce on April 3, 1979 that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

Instead of working under the assumption that China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam was a complete failure, this paper will try to show that one of the primary diplomatic goals behind China’s attack was to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud. Seen in this light, Beijing’s policy was actually a diplomatic success, since Moscow did not actively intervene, thus showing the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese military pact. As a result, this paper will suggest that China achieved a strategic victory by minimizing the future possibility of a two-front war against the USSR and Vietnam and a diplomatic victory by terminating of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty.

This paper will also reevaluate Beijing’s claim that the USSR’s failure to intervene against China proved that it was merely a “paper polar bear.” Recently declassified archival documents from the USSR have tended to support China’s claim, raising the important question of whether by 1979 Beijing had already correctly identified Far Eastern symptoms of Moscow’s internal decay — the same decay that eventually brought the Soviet government down in 1991 — several years before similar evidence of this decay became widely available in the European theater. If so, then the possibility exists that the `beginning of the end’ of the Cold War actually occurred in Asia.

A Brief History of Sino-Soviet Relations Through the Late 1960s

Sino-Soviet relations through the late 1960s were marred not only by sharp disagreement over the status of Outer Mongolia, but also by numerous territorial disputes along the Sino-Soviet border. In fact, these conflicts had festered beneath the surface of Russo-Chinese relations for over a century, ever since Imperial Russia forced China to sign a series of treaties ceding it vast territories. According to S. C. M. Paine’s forthcoming book Imperial Rivals: “For China, the physical territorial losses were enormous: an area exceeding that of the United States east of the Mississippi River officially became Russian territory or, in the case of Outer Mongolia, a Soviet protectorate.”

Following China’s 1949 revolution, Mao Zedong journeyed to Moscow to negotiate a formal treaty with Stalin. After two months, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was completed and was signed on February 14, 1950. The duration of this treaty was thirty years, and clause number six specifically stated that if neither signatory announced their intention to terminate the treaty during its final year, then the alliance would automatically be extended for a further five years.

In fact, published versions of this Sino-Soviet treaty did not include many secret protocols. The Winter 1995 edition of Cold War International History Project Bulletin includes an account of Mao’s description of the secret Sino-Soviet negotiations:

During  the  negotiations, at Stalin’s initiative there was undertaken an attempt by the Soviet Union to assume sole ownership of the Chinese Changchun (i.e. Harbin) Railway. Subsequently, however, a decision was made about the joint exploitation of the … Railway, besides which the PRC gave the USSR the naval base in Port Arthur, and four joint stock companies were opened in China. At Stalin’s initiative, … Manchuria and Xinjiang were practically turned into spheres of influence of the USSR.

Thus, although the public sections of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty have long been known, an undetermined number of secret protocols were also signed; to date, copies of these protocols have never been published. (Bruce Elleman, “The End of Extraterritoriality in China: The Case of the Soviet Union, 1917-1960,” Republican China (forthcoming, Spring 1996)

On February 15, 1950, Mao also grudgingly agreed to recognize the “independent status” of the MPR. This admission was a far cry from recognizing Mongolia’s complete independence from China, however, since Mao firmly believed that the Soviet government had earlier promised to return Mongolia to China. Based on Mao’s later complaints, Mao must have received assurances from Stalin that Mongolia’s status, as well as the exact location of the Sino-Mongolian and Sino-Soviet borders, would be discussed at future meetings. Thus, it was Moscow’s refusal to open negotiations with Beijing eventually led to border clashes during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the Sino-Mongolian border was resolved in 1962, Mao publicly denounced Soviet encroachments on Chinese territory and he protested Soviet control of Mongolia: “[T]he Soviet Union, under the pretext of assuring the independence of Mongolia, actually placed the country under its domination.”

During the late 1960s, in a series of border incidents along the Ussuri and Amur rivers the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) showed surprising tenacity against the Red Army. These conflicts were small in scope and the outcome proved to be inconclusive, but they led to later territorial conflicts in Xinjiang along China’s border with the USSR.

Although tension in Sino-Soviet relations was so great that many Western scholars referred to it as a “split,” the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty continued to exist. In fact, this treaty, including both the publicly released terms and the secret protocols, was still the foundation on which Sino-Soviet relations rested. This foundation was unstable from the very beginning, however, since the USSR refused to return Tsarist Russia’s ill-gotten gains to China’s communist leadership. Arguably it was this issue, more than any other, that led China’s leaders to condemn Soviet “hegemonism” in the Far East. It was also this issue that was destined to sour China’s relations with Vietnam during the 1970s.

Sino-Soviet Relations During the 1970s

Sino-Soviet border disputes during the late 1960s were particularly disturbing to Moscow and Beijing, since both the USSR and China were now nuclear powers; apparently an informal consensus was reached that neither side would resort to air power. (Christian F. Ostermann, “New Evidence on The Sino-Soviet Border Dispute,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5 (Spring 1995), 186-193.)

These Sino-Soviet border conflicts had enormous social repercussions, however, forcing both countries to divert scarce resources to prepare for a possible nuclear war or for future military escalation along their mutual borders. The PLA’s new-found confidence that it could counter the Red Army also gave Beijing the opportunity during 1971 to adopt a new foreign policy initiative by promoting friendly relations with the United States.

In addition, China tried hard to improve its relations with Japan, signing a treaty in August 1978 which appeared to be critical of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy in Asia by specifically condemning “hegemonism.” Finally, Sino-Soviet tensions also spawned a number of Southeast Asian proxy wars, such as the late 1970s’ conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as forcing China to accept its role as a regional power, best shown by its 1979 invasion of Vietnam to undermine the USSR’s growing influence.

Throughout the 1970s, Sino-Soviet tensions remained high. During this period, Moscow tried to convince Beijing to negotiate a new agreement that would either support, or even replace, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. Beginning in 1969 and 1970, Moscow proposed that the two sides promise not to attack each other, and especially not to ever resort to the use of nuclear weapons. When Beijing did not show any interest in this accord, however, Moscow suggested in 1971 that the two countries sign a new treaty that would disavow force altogether. Thereafter, in 1973 Moscow showed its concern by specifically proposing that the two countries sign a non-aggression pact; Beijing continued to ignore Moscow’s advances.

As the end of the Sino-Soviet Treaty’s 30-year term neared, the USSR’s efforts to replace this treaty increased dramatically. For example, on 24 February 1978, Moscow publicly proposed that the two governments issue a statement of principles which would regulate Sino-Soviet relations. This statement of principles would include: 1) equality, 2) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, 3) noninterference in each other’s internal affairs, and 4) the nonuse of force. Moscow clearly hoped that such a statement could be used in place of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty to regulate Sino-Soviet relations. The ultimate goal of the USSR’s proposals, however, was clearly to limit, or perhaps even to reduce, China’s growing influence throughout Asia. (According to Chang Pao-min, this aspect of the Soviet policies towards China was most attractive to the the Vietnamese, even quoting one Vietnamese official as stating: “There is a tangibly strong Soviet interest coinciding with Vietnamese interests – to reduce Chinese influence in this part of the world.” Chang Pao-min, Kampuchea Between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1985), 46-47.)

Beijing refused all of Moscow’s proposals, however, and throughout the 1970s China’s condemnation of the USSR became more vocal. For example, during February 1974, Mao Zedong publicly called for a “third world” coalition against the so-called “first world,” in this case including both the USSR and the USA.

After Mao’s death, however, a 1 November 1977 issue of Renmin Ribao, identified the USSR as China’s most dangerous enemy while the United States was now considered an ally. All of the socialist countries — including especially Vietnam ( “The breakdown of Vietnam’s relations with China after 1975 and Vietnam’s current pro-Soviet alignment may be traced to Vietnamese resistance to Chinese pressures to take sides.” Ramesh Thaku and Carlyle Thayer, Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 287.) — were also considered potential allies in a proposed “united front” against the USSR. Finally, on 26 March 1978, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that Moscow, in addition to recognizing the existence of “disputed areas” along the Sino-Soviet border, must completely withdraw Soviet troops from the MPR, as well as pulling them back from along the entire Sino-Soviet border.

In response to China’s demands, Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, visited Siberia during early April 1978, and announced that new, more advanced equipment had been provided to missile units stationed along the Sino-Soviet border. These new weapons, Brezhnev announced, would be instrumental in “securing ourselves and our socialist friends against possible aggression, whatever the source.” Soon afterwards, on 12 April 1978, Ulan Bator also publicly protested Beijing’s demands, stating that additional Soviet troops had been stationed along the Sino-Mongolia border at Mongolia’s request in order to offset increased Chinese troop concentrations to the south of the border.

As these events quite clearly show, by 1978 Sino-Soviet border tensions had dramatically intensified, mainly due to increased Soviet troop concentrations along the Sino-Soviet border and in the MPR. To a large degree, this situation can be explained by Moscow’s continuing attempts to pressure Beijing not to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, which could be terminated for the very first time in 1979, or — better yet — to negotiate a new treaty which would outline principles on which future Sino-Soviet relations would be based. Brezhnev’s announcement that he intended to use Soviet forces against China on behalf of Moscow’s “socialist friends” was also a warning to Beijing to keep its hands off the MPR as well as Moscow’s allies in Southeast Asia.

China not only did not buckle under the USSR’s diplomatic and military pressure, but Beijing tried to exert diplomatic pressure on Moscow in turn by working hard to solidify its relations with both the United States and Japan. Arguably, Beijing’s policy was the more successful of the two, resulting in Beijing concluding landmark agreements with both Washington and Tokyo. To Moscow, it must have seemed clear that China’s new agreements were directed against the USSR, since — in the case of the Sino-Japanese treaty at least — the two sides specifically condemned “hegemonism,” the oft-used Chinese code word for Soviet expansionism. The USSR response was to strengthen its diplomatic relations with all of the Southeast Asian countries bordering on China, and most importantly among them, with Vietnam.

Sino-Soviet Relations and Vietnam Through February 1979

Although China may not have been a participant in the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s and 1970s, China’s economic and material support for Vietnam played a crucial role. Not only did China send troops to Vietnam to help maintain supply lines, but Beijing’s estimate of its support for Hanoi between 1950 to 1978 exceeded $20 billion. (King C. Chen, China’s War with Vietnam, 1979 (Stanford, CA, Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 27) It is not hard to understand, therefore, why Beijing might be miffed at improving relations between Moscow and Hanoi during the late 1970s.

This was especially true after the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty on 3 November 1978 that was specifically aimed at China. According to one scholar, this Soviet-Vietnamese alliance made Vietnam the “linchpin” in the USSR’s “drive to contain China.” (Robert A. Scalapino, “The Political Influence of the USSR in Asia,” in Donald S. Zagoria, ed., Soviet Policy in East Asia (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982), 71.) From Beijing’s perspective, therefore, Moscow’s attempt to surround China diplomatically appeared to be on the verge of succeeding. This realization sparked China’s invasion of Vietnam in February 1979.

Although diplomatic relations between Beijing and Hanoi during the 1960s and early 1970s were generally good, policy differences between China and Vietnam widened after the April 1975 fall of Saigon. In September of that year, Le Duan, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), traveled to Beijing and during the series of meetings that followed Le Duan’s arrival it became clear that China was very concerned about Vietnam’s close relations with the USSR. Although relations continued to worsen during the following years, the rift between China and Vietnam first became apparent only when thousands of ethnic Chinese began to flee Vietnam during the spring and summer of 1978. In addition, territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands, as well as over Vietnam’s recent invasion of Cambodia, also increased Sino-Vietnamese tensions.

Meanwhile, increasing signs of Soviet-Vietnamese cooperation also appeared during the summer of 1978, as Vietnam asked to become a member of Comecon. In addition, government sources in the United States reported that by August 1978 as many as 4,000 Soviet advisors were in Vietnam. During September 1978, the USSR began carrying out increased arms shipments to Vietnam, both by air and by sea, which included “aircraft, missiles, tanks, and munitions.” Finally, all of these signs of improving Soviet-Vietnamese relations came to fruition on 3 November 1978, when Vietnam and the USSR signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. There was no doubt that this treaty was aimed at China, since the sixth clause stated that Vietnam and the USSR would “immediately consult each other” if either is “attacked or threatened with attack . . . with a view to eliminating that threat.” Reportedly, this treaty also included a secret protocol granting Soviet military forces access to Vietnam’s “airfields and ports.” (Ramesh Thaku and Carlyle Thayer, Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 61.)

Although Vietnam claimed that it signed this treaty with the USSR to stop Chinese “adventurist” acts, Chinese leaders in Beijing undoubtedly saw this as part of Moscow’s efforts to pressure China into backing down and renewing the unequal terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. If the USSR were able to establish a foothold in southeast Asia, it could flank China on both its northern and southern borders. If successful, this policy might give Moscow sufficient leverage to force Beijing into renewing, or at least renegotiating, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty on Moscow’s terms. An early indicator of Beijing’s concern over the Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty was voiced by Renmin Ribao which warned that Moscow was using Vietnam against China as it had earlier tried — and failed — to use Cuba to exert diplomatic pressure against the United States. Beijing also warned that Moscow’s ultimate goal was to “bring the whole of Indochina under its control.”

By signing the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty on 3 November 1978, the USSR hoped to use its relations with Vietnam to outmaneuver and outflank China. China’s main concern was that if the USSR’s policies in Vietnam were successful, then the Soviet government might achieve a strategic and military stranglehold over China. Ever since the Sino-Soviet rift, and especially since the Sino-Soviet border conflicts of the late 1960s, Beijing’s primary goal had been to build up its own military potential in order to face off the Soviet Red Army, a goal which it had largely achieved during the middle to late 1960s, early 1970s, when the PLA’s strength reportedly reached 3.6 million men. Diplomatically, Beijing continued to try to flank Moscow by officially normalizing its relations with Washington on 1 January 1979. Ramses Amer has concluded that the USSR’s and China’s new alliances were closely linked: “Thus two strategic alliances had been created in the closing months of 1978, a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance and a Sino-American alliance, and they would prevail for about a decade.”

As a result of the Sino-American rapprochement in early 1979, Moscow’s concern about a two-front war with American-led NATO forces in the west and Chinese forces in the east was increased. This may have convinced Moscow to increase its support for Vietnam’s ongoing invasion of Cambodia, an event that Robert Ross has closely linked with China’s subsequent attack on Vietnam when he argued that the unraveling of China’s close ally in Cambodia greatly concerned Beijing. While Beijing was unwilling to intervene directly in Cambodia to stop Vietnamese encroachment, China’s military invasion into disputed Sino-Vietnamese territory was in fact closely “synchronized” with Vietnam’s invasion in Cambodia. Ross has further concluded that the ongoing disputes over Cambodia and the Sino-Vietnamese border had an “organic connection,” as Chinese leaders warned Vietnam not to mistakenly think that China was “weak and easily bullied.”

In the final analysis, however, Vietnam was a relatively small country both in terms of population and military strength, and it was probably the sudden arrival of large numbers of Soviet advisors — an estimated 5,000-8,000 by mid-1979 — and enormous quantities of military supplies that boded ill for China’s immediate strategic security; thus, according to King C. Chen: “Had there been no Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, the sixteen-day war between China and Vietnam might not have been fought.” In a clear admission that the USSR’s military cooperation with Vietnam deeply concerned China, Deng Xiaoping publicly acknowledged that this new Soviet-Vietnamese “military alliance” was really just part of the USSR’s long-time goal of wanting to “encircle China.”

Following the signing of the 3 November 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty, Beijing had to find a way to break this Soviet attempt to encircle China. Thus, it was fear of being outflanked by Moscow that was instrumental in pushing Beijing into action. Clearly, China’s first step was to test the USSR’s resolve to see whether it would stand by its treaty with Vietnam or whether it would back down and accept defeat. Deng Xiaoping even reportedly told President Carter in January 1979 that a war between China and Vietnam would “disrupt Soviet strategic calculations . . . “ As a result, even Ross has concluded that in the wake of Vietnam’s successful occupation of Cambodia, it was “the resultant Soviet encirclement of China [that] necessitated a limited invasion of Vietnam.”

The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

Chinese forces invaded Vietnam on 17 February 1979. Although the exact motives underlying China’s attack are still open to interpretation, Beijing’s concern that Moscow’s twenty-five year defense treaty with Hanoi might lead to the Soviet militarization of the Sino-Vietnamese border was certainly a major factor; Moscow probably also hoped that its treaty with Hanoi would divert Chinese troops away from the north, thus weakening China’s military defense along the Sino-Soviet border.

Moscow’s hopes were dashed, however, when Beijing decided to attack Vietnam. After only three weeks of fighting, China withdrew and disputes over the Sino-Vietnamese border remained unresolved. To most outsiders, China’s military action thus appeared to be a failure. But, if the real goal behind China’s attack was to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud, then the USSR’s refusal to intervene effectively terminated the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty. Thus, Beijing did achieve a clear strategic victory by breaking the Soviet encirclement and by eliminating Moscow’s threat of a two-front war.

On 15 February 1979, not only the 29th anniversary of the Mao-Stalin agreement on Mongolia but also the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam’s behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the USSR; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of her troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border.(Chang Pao-min, Kampuchea Between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1985), 88-89.)

In addition, the bulk of China’s active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China’s borders with the USSR. (Robert A. Scalapino “Asia in a Global Context: Strategic Issue for the Soviet Union,” in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA., Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 28.)

As promised, China’s military offensive against Vietnam began on 17 February 1979, within three days of the 29th anniversary of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. As Deng had announced, from the very beginning China conducted a limited action against Vietnam. Not only were many of China’s best troops stationed along the Sino-Soviet border, but Beijing decided not to deploy the estimated 500 fighters and bombers it had stationed in the area. In response to China’s attack, the USSR sent several naval vessels and initiated a Soviet arms airlift to Vietnam. On 22 February 1979, Colonel N. A. Trarkov, the Soviet military attaché in Hanoi, even threatened that the USSR would “carry out is obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty;” elsewhere, however, Soviet diplomats made it clear that the USSR would not intervene as long as the conflict remained limited. (John Blodgett, “Vietnam: Soviet Pawn or Regional Power?” in Rodney W. Jones and Steven A. Hildreth, eds., Emerging Powers Defense and Security in the Third World (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1986), 98). The USSR clearly had no intention of risking a full-scale war with China for the sake of Vietnam.

After three weeks of intense fighting, China could claim that it captured three of Vietnam’s six provincial capitals — Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai — that bordered on China. Although the Chinese forces totaled over a quarter million men, the Vietnamese turned to guerrilla tactics to rob China of a quick victory. When Beijing announced its intention to withdraw its troops on 5 March 1979, therefore, it appeared that the primary goals of this offensive had yet to be achieved; namely, Vietnam’s military potential had not been seriously damaged by China. Thereafter, the Sino-Vietnamese border remained tense when, after less than three weeks of fighting, China withdrew from Vietnam.

To many outside observers, it appeared that China’s attack against Vietnam was a complete and total failure. But, as Banning Garrett has correctly observed, the “Chinese demonstrated that they could attack a Soviet ally without retaliation from the `paper polar bear’.” (Banning Garrett, “The Strategic Triangle and the Indochina Crisis,” in David W. P. Elliott, ed., The Third Indochina Conflict, (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1981), 212.)

In fact, by proving that the USSR would not actively intervene on Vietnam’s behalf, China was convinced that its termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty would also not lead to war. As a result, on 3 April 1979, Beijing announced its intentions to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Thereafter, although Sino-Soviet negotiations were officially opened during October 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave China a pretense for calling off future meetings, thereby precluding any immediate need to negotiate a new Sino-Soviet diplomatic treaty.

Because the exact motives underlying China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam have remained unclear, scholars studying this conflict have proposed many plausible sounding theories. Perhaps the most common has been that China wanted to “punish” Vietnam for invading Cambodia, an area which had formerly been considered a tributary state to the Chinese empire. Other Sino-Vietnamese problems, such as territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands or the mass exodus of Chinese nationals from Vietnam, have also been portrayed as playing a major role. Most convincing, however, have been the relatively small number of scholars who have argued that Vietnam’s decision to promote closer relations with the USSR was the primary reason behind China’s attack.

Among those scholars who have hypothesized that China’s actions were a response to the 3 November 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty, there have been a wide range of interpretations as to whether China’s policy was a success or a failure. For example, according to Gerald Segal, China’s policy failed because it did not put the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty to the “ultimate test.” Robert Ross also concluded that China’s policy was a failure, although he was more positive than Segal by granting that the Sino-Vietnamese war was the first time since 1949 that China had used force when its territory was not directly threatened, thus proving that China was now capable of “acting like a regional power with regional interests.” Finally, Banning Garrett and Nayan Chanda have been more positive, at least acknowledging Chinese claims that the abortive Sino-Vietnamese war was a success because it proved that the USSR was a “paper polar bear” since Moscow refused to carry out its treaty obligation to intervene on Hanoi’s behalf.

Perhaps the most positive view of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict comes from Chang Pao-min. According to Chang, when one considers this conflict from Beijing’s point of view, then the 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty was a clear threat to China’s security. Not only did the USSR hope to use this treaty to set up an “Asian Collective Security System” aimed at China, but its military relations with Vietnam were described as an attempt to “threaten and attempt to pin down China from the south;” in this regard, Vietnam was described in later Chinese statements as “the knife the Soviet Union has at China’s back.” As Chang observed, therefore, the Sino-Vietnamese conflict must be seen as a reaction to the Soviet Union’s attempt to use Vietnam “to contain and encircle China in Southeast Asia . . . [thus posing] a serious threat to China’s southern flank.”

The arguments presented in this paper tend to support the view that China’s February 1979 war with Vietnam was a success. Once Beijing was convinced that Moscow would not intervene on Hanoi’s behalf, this emboldened Beijing to break with Moscow completely; this break can best be seen in Beijing’s 3 April 1979 announcement that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. As final proof that China’s policies in Vietnam were inextricably linked with the USSR, Amers has accurately noted that China’s 1988 decision to disengage its border relations with Vietnam from the issue of Cambodia corresponded almost exactly with Gorbachev’s attempts to normalize relations with China and improve the USSR’s relations with the ASEAN states. Thus, by breaking the Soviet encirclement and eliminating Moscow’s threat of a two-front war, China achieved a significant strategic victory against the USSR.

Was the USSR a “Paper Polar Bear”?

Western scholars have almost universally concluded that China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam was a failure. For example, according to Gerald Segal, “the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war was China’s most important foreign policy failure since 1949.” To a large degree Robert Ross agreed, stating: “The failure of Chinese policy underscores the ambiguous role of the regional power in contemporary international politics.” Most recently, Ellis Joffe, a specialist on the PLA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded: “China got burned by limited measures against Vietnam in 1979. China was going to teach Vietnam a lesson, but Vietnam taught China a lesson.” (“Strait of Uncertainty Taiwan braves increased pressure from China,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 8 February 1996, 20-21.)

These negative Western assessments are in sharp contrast to Beijing’s own claims that its 1979 war against Vietnam was a success, since Moscow’s decision not to intervene proved that the USSR was merely a “paper polar bear.” Beijing apparently was willing to back up this claim with action, when it not only announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty but then later delivered to Moscow three preconditions for improving Sino-Soviet relations. These three preconditions included: 1) withdrawing Soviet troops from the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolia, 2) withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and 3) stopping Soviet support for Vietnam’s incursion into Cambodia. (Yao Wengin, “Soviet Military Deployments in the Asia-Pacific Region: Implications for China’s Security,” in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA., Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 103.)

In addition to adopting a more assertive posture in its relations with the USSR, therefore, China’s southern neighbors have also been forced to treat her with more respect; according to one 1986 report, because Hanoi lost its 1979 gamble that Beijing would never actually attack, Vietnam, “chastened by the experience of 1979, now stations 700,000 combat troops in the northern portion of the country.” (Karl D. Jackson, “Indochina, 1982-1985: Peace Yields to War,” in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA., Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 206.)

China’s more assertive role in Asia during the 1980s suggests, therefore, that Beijing actually believed that it was victorious in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Thus, although Nayan Chanda and others have warned that Chinese claims that the USSR was merely a “paper polar bear” may simply have been propaganda, Beijing’s own actions indicate that they firmly believed this view. It is for this reason that recent discussions about when the Cold War really ended would appear to have a direct bearing on Beijing’s 1979 claim that Moscow was already too weak to fight. In fact, according to China’s view, the USSR’s failure to intervene on Vietnam’s behalf in 1979 was proof positive that Moscow no longer had the stomach to fight a major war; in other words, the most dangerous era of the Cold War was already over.

Until now, popular discussion of whether the Cold War was actually over earlier than the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall has revolved around statements made by retired four-star Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov, who was the former chief of staff of the Warsaw Pact during the early 1980s. Gribkov bases his arguments on the fact that by December 1981, the Soviet Politburo had clearly lost the political will to use force to keep their extended empire in line. This assessment was made based on the Politburo’s refusal to send troops to Poland to thwart a democratic takeover, a sign of weakness that Gribkov points to as evidence that the USSR actually “lost” the Cold War as early as 1981.(“The Two Trillion Dollar Mistake,” Worth, (February 1996), 78-83/128-129. )

Recently declassified minutes of a Soviet Politburo meeting from 10 December 1981 tend to support Gribkov’s claims, by showing that the option of sending troops against Poland’s “Solidarity” party was unanimously rejected by Moscow as too great a risk. (Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5 (Spring 1995), 135-137) In addition, these minutes reveal that the Politburo seriously considered backing down in the Far East by ordering the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia; if Moscow had actually carried out this plan, then it would have been acceding to one of Beijing’s three preconditions for improving Sino-Soviet relations.

These Soviet documents, and others like them, appear to support Gribkov’s claim that by 1981 the Soviet leadership had already lost the ability to use force in order to shore up the crumbling Soviet empire. This exact same reasoning could also be applied to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict, since China’s invasion of Vietnam clearly posed a real threat to the security and stability of the USSR’s sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. The very fact that the Soviet Politburo declined to carry through on its treaty obligations to Vietnam and refused to intervene against China would suggest that Gribkov’s argument that the Soviet Politburo had lost the political will to hold its empire together by force could be equally — if not better — applied to the outcome of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the USSR’s unexpected collapse in 1991 demands a new assessment of the impact of Sino-Soviet relations on the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict. One facet of this assessment must be to consider whether China’s 1979 claim that the USSR was already a “paper polar bear” now appears more plausible in light of the USSR’s subsequent dissolution. Although Gribkov’s claim that the Cold War was already over in 1981 may be far earlier than most Western scholars have been willing to accept, it is several years later than China’s view. In hindsight, China’s 1979 date not only appears plausible, therefore, but to future scholars the year 1979 may one day prove to be even more accurate than 1981. If so, then Beijing must be given proper credit for correctly identifying Far Eastern symptoms of Moscow’s internal weakness more than two years before similar indications became discernible in the West. This then raises the question of whether `the beginning of the end’ of the Cold War really took place in 1979, as a result of Moscow’s refusal to accept Beijing’s boldfaced challenge to the USSR’s military supremacy in the Far East.


Previous studies of the 17 February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict have generally portrayed China’s actions as an absolute failure. This paper, by contrast, has attempted to reevaluate the Sino-Vietnamese war in terms of Sino-Soviet relations by linking this conflict to the 29th anniversary of the signing of the 14 February 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. As a direct result of the USSR’s decision not to intervene on Vietnam’s behalf, China became convinced that the USSR lacked the political will to resort to war in order to sustain the Soviet sphere of influence in Asia. This conviction led Beijing to inform Moscow on 3 April 1979 that China intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty upon reaching its 30-year term in 1980.

From 1950 through until 1979, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was the foundation on which Sino-Soviet relations rested. Although the published sections of this treaty have long been available, the exact content of the secret protocols that were attached to this treaty are still largely unknown. That these secret protocols related to Sino-Soviet territorial disputes is fairly clear, however, and during the 1950s and 1960s frequent border disputes between the USSR and China reflected the degree of tension that these secret protocols produced. Although none of the Sino-Soviet border conflicts were allowed to escalate into all-out war, Beijing was continually testing the USSR’s resolve to see whether it would resort to force to uphold the terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. Thus, from Beijing’s point of view, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty was the major tool through which Moscow tried to exert its “hegemony” over China and throughout the rest of Asia.

Moscow, by contrast, was clearly concerned what might happen when the Sino-Soviet Treaty reached its 30-year term. Beginning in 1969, the USSR frequently urged China to replace this treaty with a new agreement. To force Beijing to retreat, Moscow not only fortified the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian borders, but it also exerted pressure on China from the south, by completing a treaty of alliance with Vietnam. Thus, the improvement in Soviet-Vietnamese relations, culminating in the signing of the 3 November 1978 Sino-Vietnamese defense treaty, can be directly linked to China’s worsening relations with the USSR during the late 1970s. Instead of backing down, however, China invaded Vietnam on 17 February 1979, just three days after the 29th anniversary of the signing of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. When Moscow refused to intervene on Hanoi’s behalf, Beijing decided that the Soviet Politburo would not resort to war to force China to retain the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty and so was emboldened to announce on 3 April 1979 that it intended to terminate this treaty.

One of Beijing’s primary goals in attacking Vietnam was to insure that China was not surrounded on both the north and south by Soviet forces. China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam, for all of its obvious failings, did achieve this strategic objective since the USSR’s refusal to intervene on Vietnam’s behalf undermined the threat of a two-front war with the USSR and Vietnam. Diplomatically, China also won a clear victory against Soviet attempts to pressure her into signing a new treaty to replace or augment the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance of 14 February 1950. Finally, in hindsight, China’s claim that the USSR was really just a “paper polar bear” appears to have been fairly accurate, and thus represents perhaps the first outside indicator that the Soviet empire was threatened by internal collapse, a collapse that only became evident ten years later with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR.

To What Extent was the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Border War about Cambodia?

Harry Booty, Sep 21 2012

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The Sino-Vietnamese War of February to March 1979 is a period of conflict that is somewhat overlooked by considerable elements of Western memory and academic thought.  The conflict – despite lasting slightly less than a month – caused massive devastation across a North Vietnam already mauled by decades of war and resulted in the death or wounding of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people.  However, these two bitter foes of the late 1970’s had earlier in the decade been supposedly ‘closer than lips and teeth’ (Chen. 1987. 9), to use an oft utilised diplomatic phrasing of the time.  What drove them apart?  Among several arguments put forward the idea that it was due to the December 1978 Vietnamese invasion and subsequent occupation of Pol Pot’s Cambodia has gained credence as the primary factor that caused the conflict.  However there were other forces at work – both particular to the region and further afield – that most certainly had an impact upon the two nation’s march to war, and discerning the extent to which the invasion of Cambodia was directly causative of the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese conflict is the purpose of this essay.  This will be done by studying various secondary source materials to gain a better understanding of the argument for the importance of Cambodia as well as of the other factors at play, and how these acted in concert to force the two nations from allies to enemies in a relatively short space of time.

It is sensible therefore to add some grounding to the argument that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was the major cause for war between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV).  There is a good case to be made.  Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was as a direct response to incessant and increased provocations on the border by Pol Pot’s regime.  Beginning on Christmas Day 1978, the battle hardened Vietnam People’s Army (VPA) quickly uprooted the loosely organised Khmer Rouge, installing its own government in Phnom Penh.  However –somewhat ironically considering Vietnam’s recent history – this conflict mutated into an insurgency that continued throughout the 1980’s.  Members of the PRC were quick to denounce the SRV’s actions.

Since coming to power in 1975 the Chinese had been rightly considered to be the ‘most trusted and powerful of friends’ (Chen. 1987. 31) of the Khmer Rouge, providing material and diplomatic assistance to that embattled and backward state.  This was largely due to an enduring and major Chinese strategic fear of a powerful neighbour on its southern flank as a serious secondary threat to the Russians in the north, and in the newly reconstituted Vietnam, like with the US before it, members of the Politburo in Beijing saw a potential realisation of this threat.  It thus sought a policy of a fragmented Indochina ‘in which Laos and Cambodia retained some autonomy vis-a-vis Hanoi’ (Lawson. 1984. 4).  The former had already drifted towards Vietnam, signing a ‘Laos-Vietnam Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation’ in September 1977 (Ross. 1988. 147) and now the massive and sustained VPA incursion into its neighbour was seen as a step too far.  This was the main reason given by the PRC as its justification for war and almost undeniably the most immediate cause.

However, to attribute the Sino-Vietnamese War in its entirety to the Cambodian issue is fundamentally misguided.  As Anne Gilks persuasively argues, the invasion – rather than being a base cause of conflict for these two countries – merely ‘reinforced the tensions and pressures playing upon the fragile Sino-Vietnamese relationship’ (Gilks. 1992. 169).  To put it another way, it is arguable that had the SRV and PRC been on better terms then Beijing would have been much less concerned about a Vietnamese predominance of power on its southern flank.  It was precisely because this hitherto ally was now seen as a threat rather than a friend that the Cambodian incursion was seen as a justification for war.  Thus it can be argued that whilst the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a major short term cause for the ensuing Sino-Vietnamese War, a more substantial and in-depth analysis of the other structural and underlying deficiencies in the wider Sino-Vietnamese relationship is a prescient prerequisite to gaining the best understanding of their subsequent hostilities.

Foremost amongst the factors affecting the Sino-Vietnamese relationship was the wider schism in the global communist movement between its two great powers of China and the USSR.  This Sino-Soviet split – beginning in the early 1960’s and increasing in importance throughout that decade – had a massive effect upon communism itself and the wider Cold War.  The split was not amicable, and almost led to full-scale war between the two nations.  This meant that for emergent Socialist countries, there was now a choice that was not only available but had to be made – to tilt towards either the Soviets or the Chinese for aid and favour.

This is exactly what happened with Vietnam following reunification.  Facing a stark choice between their oft threatening northern neighbour and the monolithic Soviet Empire, Hanoi opted for the latter for the political and material value they could add as compared to the PRC; for example, it is estimated that ‘the USSR…was supplying as estimated $500 million annually in economic aid’ (Gilks. 1992. 183) to Vietnam in the mid 1970’s.  As Westad argues, ‘the Vietnamese challenges…in the Cold War would not have been possible for the Sino-Soviet split of the early 1960’s’ (Westad. 2005. 158) as Vietnam’s own international clout could do little to affect Chinese global strategy.  Furthermore, as the Sino-Soviet split became increasingly entrenched in international politics, China began to feel arguably just as threatened (if not more so) by the intrusive ‘hegemon’ that was the USSR as it was by the USA.  Subsequently those fears led to a view that states that followed the Soviet path were inherently agents of Moscow, and thus threatening to the Chinese brand of communism, and the Vietnamese – who gradually became seen as the ‘Cuba of the East’ (Ross. 1988.173) were chief among them.   Therefore it can be reasonably be argued that with regards to the Sino-Vietnamese relationship ‘the downward momentum…stemmed largely from the relationship of Vietnam and the USSR’ (Gilks, 1992. 169).  Consequently we can see a better justification for the Chinese objection to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, as this would have had a ‘dramatic effect on the balance of power in Indochina’ (Hood.  1992. 59) which in itself may not have been seen as a threat but due to ‘Vietnam’s increasing dependence upon the USSR’ that made an ‘Indochina under Vietnamese domination unacceptable’ (Lawson. 1984. 4).  This adds both some depth and a distinct alternative to the original assessment of Cambodia as the primary impetus for war.  It was not merely a Vietnamese domination of Cambodia that Beijing feared, but was rather a concern that an increasingly aggressive Vietnam, acting as an arbiter of a hostile Moscow’s foreign policy could gradually transform the strategically vital Indochinese peninsula into a serious southern flank threat to the PRC.   Thus this conclusion evidences the value of King C. Chen’s suggestion that ‘had there been no Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, the war between China and Vietnam might not have been fought’ (Chen.  1987. 28).

Another aspect of the relationship that caused geo-strategic tension were the territorial disputes that affected both nations.  These long running disagreements largely concerned three geographically distinct areas: ‘the 797-mile borderline, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Spratly islands’ (Chen. 1987. 39).  Largely apolitical in nature, they concerned the boundaries, both at land and sea, that the SRV (as a new nation) laid claim to.

These issues had existed before the end of the war in 1975 but their antagonistic potential had been subsumed for the greater cause of combating the American forces in the region.  Now these disputes were frequently used by both sides as evidence of and justification for increased aggression between them.  To use a statistical example, by Vietnamese accounts the number of border incidences between the two nations in 1974 stood at 117.  By 1978 however, this figure had increased to 2175 (Chen. 1987. 50).  Considering the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia came at the very end of that year, attributing this increased tension purely or even majorly towards that event does not adequately justify all that came before it.

However, equally it is difficult to effectively utilise the territorial disputes between the two nations as a serious cause for the specific 1979 war itself.  It is undeniable that these issues were a significant source of tension; however, to argue that they were anything more than a reactive source of tension is difficult to substantiate.  It is noted by several scholars that ‘incidents along the border continued to increase as tension mounted’ (Gilks.  1992. 227).  This crucial distinction – ‘as tension mounted’ – rightly implies that these underlying issues were pre-existent but eminently acceptable if there was no other source of tension separate from the border disputes themselves.  Indeed, as Chen argues, ‘territorial disputes only began to occur after the Sino Vietnamese relationship had turned sour’ (Chen. 1987. 39).  Thus with regard to the territorial disputes between these two nations we can legitimately consider that ‘this aspect of the dispute was overshadowed by other elements of the conflict’ (Hood. 1992. 123), and although being a very public and frequent cause of tension between the two countries they were predominantly more symptomatic rather than diagnostic with the relation to the strains experienced in Sino-Vietnamese relations in the run up to their eventual war.

There were also several non-geo strategic areas of friction between the PRC and SRV that can now be looked at.  Primary among these was the issue of the large minority of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam.  Known as the Hoa, this group was a substantial minority in Vietnam for much of its history, with a seemingly uncanny ability to dominate the economy that many ethnic Vietnamese had long resented (Hood. 1992. 140).  From the middle of the 1970’s onwards Hanoi began to systematically limit and persecute the Chinese resident in Vietnam through both law and neglect in a conscious strategy to subvert their influence into a greater Vietnamese society.  Despite this reason being seemingly of little impact in relation to the pragmatic realism that Beijing is oft known for, the PRC’s reaction was not negligible.  It is in fact argued that ‘the first serious signs of strain between Vietnam and China came…when Beijing expressed concern over the mistreatment of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam’ (Hood. 1992. 135).  Throughout 1977 and 1978, as Hanoi’s political attacks on the Hoa got ever more draconian Beijing got increasingly agitated, repeatedly warning Hanoi ‘that its ethnic Chinese policy might elicit a sharp response’ (Ross. 1988. 155).  Hanoi was not deterred and continued to exclude the Hoa to the margins of Vietnamese society, leading to the argument that it was this policy that served to ‘break the final strands of its cooperative relationship with Vietnam’ (Gilks. 1992. 192).

However, as with all the other factors outlined in this essay, it is impossible to view this argument in isolation from its context.  It is not suggested or implied in any of the source material that this was seen or meant to be received as a purely isolated incident evidencing some new-found ethnic intolerance on the part of Hanoi.  Beijing quickly got the impression that this policy and its seemingly rapid implementation ‘evidenced Hanoi’s alignment with the USSR’ (Ross. 1988. 198) as Hanoi felt it had to place itself firmly in the Soviet camp by ‘counterbalancing any possible pressure from China’(Chen. 1987. 66) it sought to curtail the independence and (informal) power of the Hoa community in Vietnam.  Thus the issue was not just a human one to the PRC Politburo but a realist one, as here was further evidence of the increasingly antagonistic approach that Hanoi was taking in comparison to Beijing, and another instance of ‘Soviet meddling’ (Ross. 1988. 165) in the Indochinese peninsula.  As a final caveat that may help show the rational calculation under Beijing’s seemingly ‘emotional response’ (Chen. 1987. 68) was the issue of the ethnic Chinese in Cambodia.  Among the estimated two million killed during the Khmer Rouge’s short time in power an estimated ‘200,000 ethnic Chinese died’ (Ross. 1988. 186) – showing that Beijing could and did ignore the issue of its ‘ethnic brethren’ when raison d’état demanded.  Thus the only viable conclusion available is that the strong Chinese reaction to the treatment of the Sino-Vietnamese in Vietnam was a combination of the very public mistreatment of the Hoa with a growing PRC belief that this was further indication Vietnam was increasingly acting in concert with the USSR to undermine vital strategic interests of the PRC.

A final area to be looked at concerns both the ancient and modern historical legacies and themes surrounding the Sino-Vietnamese relationship.  Whilst this area is perhaps a more permissive and pervasive factor than what has been discussed up to now; it is nevertheless relevant as, like Eugene Lawson states: ‘Sino-Vietnamese relations were shaped in the crucible of history’ (Lawson. 1984. 1).

Consequently, it is chronologically sensible to begin with the extant and enduring relationship that the historic Chinese and Vietnamese peoples created in the centuries before the modern nations themselves arose.  Long known to itself and others as ‘the Middle Kingdom’ the Chinese nation in its various entities had long sought to secure its sovereignty by dominating its peripheries – and Vietnam was no exception.  Through invasion, subversion and diplomacy ‘China … pervasively and continuously influenced Vietnam for 2000 years’ (Lawson. 1984. 17).  Indeed, it has even been argued that ‘the North Vietnam government…inherited the ancient ambivalent view towards its Northern neighbour’ (Ibid.).  Whilst this view may seem to a point transient and irrelevant, its veracity can be seen in the culture of conflict that arose in the 1970’s.  For example, with regards to the territorial disagreements, a major sticking point on the part of Hanoi was a fear that ‘once territory agreement had been established the PRC would put forward even larger demands’ (Ross. 1988. 153) – a sure indication that Hanoi was exercising, at least in part, its inherent mistrust of Beijing.

The impact of the decades running up to the descent into conflict of the 1970’s is important too.  Despite being relatively firm allies throughout the US intervention, Hanoi on more than one occasion charged China with attempting to ‘prevent Hanoi from fully liberating the South’ (Chen. 1987. 21) – which was in large part true, and evidence of China’s aforementioned policy to keep Indochina fragmented politically.  On Beijing’s side, many in the Politburo felt that ‘as US influence faded the Soviet Union moved to fill the vacuum’ (Lawson. 1984. 32) which, as well as showing its concerns about the incipient threat of the USSR implicitly acknowledges the idea that it, rather than any competitor, is the sole master of its own borders and the nations directly beyond them.  Accordingly this analysis of the (both ancient and modern) historical culture of mistrust between the two nations gives far greater substance to the innate atmosphere of mistrust that pervaded Sino-Vietnamese relations, providing a fertile breeding ground for the disputes that were to mark their road to war.

Consequently, in conclusion to the issues discussed above, it can be seen that the motives for war surrounding the commencement of the month-long Sino-Vietnamese conflict of early 1979 are much more interlinked and multi-faceted than one may suppose.    It is correct that the PRC saw a fragmented Indochinese peninsula as key to their strategic security – and the newly unified and aggressive Vietnam was seen as a major threat to that.

However to understand why Vietnam – a similarly avowedly Communist state – was seen as a threat a deeper analysis is required.  In essence, the Sino-Vietnamese relationship is a clear and stark example of and warning for the dangers an unchecked security dilemma spiralling upwards in intensity can pose to international stability.  Once relations began to sour each reaction on the part of one came to seen as hostile pro-action by the other, necessitating a sharp response that perpetuated the cycle.  This raised the tension to a level where the only remedy lay in war.  A historical Vietnamese mistrust of the ‘Middle Kingdom’ and the power vacuum in Indochina following the US withdrawal set the scene for conflict.  The expansion of Soviet interests there meant that, due to the significantly hostile Sino-Soviet relationship China felt threatened by Vietnam as an arbiter of Moscow’s foreign policy.  This hostility drove Vietnam further towards the USSR and away from China, resulting in the persecution and expulsion of overseas Chinese in an attempt to neutralise some of a growingly hostile Beijing’s influence.  This was viewed by the PRC as an emotional and provocative move that only served to entrench their perception of Vietnam as a hostile Soviet client.

This climate of distrust and dislike existed separately from the Cambodia-Vietnam-China triangle; however Vietnamese aggression there was seen by Beijing as the final straw, and was directly resultant in the conflict that began three months later.  It would be wrong to fully discredit the idea that the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia was a major cause of war; however equally it would be inaccurate to portray it as the stand-alone pivotal factor that necessitated conflict; a broad Constructivist picture of the entire condition of Sino-Vietnamese relations is a prerequisite to understanding their gradual descent into war.


Chen, King C. (1987) China’s War with Vietnam 1979

Gilks, Annie (1992) The Breakdown of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance

Hood, Steven J. (1992) Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War

Lawson, Eugene (1984) The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict

Ross, Robert S. (1988) The Indochina Tangle: China’s Vietnam Policy, 1975-79

Westad, Odd Arne (2005) The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of our Times

Written by: Harry Booty
Written at: Kings College London
Written for: Dr Peter Busch
Date written: 29/03/2012

The last time China got into a fight with Vietnam, it was a disaster

By David Stout  May 15, 2014

Smoldering nationalist anger in Vietnam exploded into frenzied violence in the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City this week as thousands of rioters swept through industrial parks north of the city’s commercial hub, razing any factory believed to be Chinese owned. After more than two decades of peace, Beijing and Hanoi are at odds again.

China’s decision earlier this month to deploy a colossal, state-owned oil rig in fiercely contested waters off the Vietnamese coast appears to have succeeded in derailing the delicate relations between the countries.

The Chinese state press lashed out publicly at its southern neighbor on the heels of several maritime skirmishes last week, with one hawkish editorial calling on Beijing to teach Vietnam the “lesson it deserves.” The language closely resembled Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 vow to teach Hanoi a “lesson” — and the echo is most unfortunate, because on that occasion the result was tens of thousands of deaths.

Like many Vietnamese of her generation, 75-year-old Dim remembers the conflict well. During the early hours of Feb. 17, 1979, she was asleep with her husband and children in their stone cottage in farmlands outside the northern city of Cao Bang, when the sky opened up with artillery shells.

“We didn’t have time to grab anything,” says Dim. “I just ran.”

It was the beginning of two years of homelessness and hunger as the starving family wandered through the mountains, begging and looking for refuge. Although decades have passed since the war’s end, she still shudders with loathing of the Chinese.

“Oh! I still hate them,” says Dim. “I’m still scared of the Chinese people, even now. I don’t know when I’ll next have to run.”

Official memories in Vietnam, however, are far more selective. While the country proudly celebrates its victorious wars against French and American forces, Hanoi remains largely quiet about the Sino-Vietnamese War. (China’s official stance is even more muted.) But that hasn’t kept the Vietnamese people from simmering with animosity toward their historic foe.

In the years following the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina, relations among the socialist nations of Southeast Asia violently deteriorated. Pogroms conducted against Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese community, and the overthrow by Vietnamese forces of Pol Pot — Beijing’s ally — set the stage for a showdown, as did Vietnam’s alliance with China’s great rival, the Soviet Union.

In the winter of 1978, when Deng Xiaoping made his threat of a “lesson,” more than 80,000 Chinese troops were sent across the border into Vietnam. Chinese Deputy Defense Minister Su Yu boasted of being able to take Hanoi in a week, but the untested and under-equipped People’s Liberation Army (PLA) met fierce resistance from battle-hardened Vietnamese forces deployed across the frontier’s limestone karsts. The Chinese were slaughtered by local militia from positions that had been utilized for centuries against invaders from the north.

“More Chinese soldiers were getting killed because they were fighting like it was the old times,” says Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Huu Hung, who witnessed the PLA’s human waves being mown down near the city of Lang Son. “They were in lines and just keep moving ahead … they didn’t run away.”

It would take just six weeks for Beijing to call off its “self-defensive counteroffensive.” Teaching the Vietnamese a lesson turned out to be a costly affair. Official casualty statistics have never been released by either Beijing or Hanoi; however, analysts have estimate that as many as 50,000 soldiers died during the confrontation.

“I heard that [China] said they wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson, but I can’t see what the lesson was,” says Hung. “Our job was to fight against them. But the losses, to be honest, were huge.”

When the Chinese began their pullout in early March, the retreating troops implemented a barbaric scorched-earth policy. Every standing structure in their path was destroyed. Any livestock they encountered were killed. Bitterness was sown.

Much like Dim, 59-year-old Nhung fears that someday the Chinese may return. Illiterate and impoverished, the ethnic Tay native remembers how Chinese troops gathered all the food stocks from surrounding villages and set their provisions ablaze. “It didn’t stop burning for 10 days,” she says. After the invasion commenced, Nhung took shelter in musty limestone caverns that housed the surviving members of 14 local villages just a few miles south of the Chinese border. From time to time they would sneak out to forage for food.

“If they saw someone on the road, [the Chinese] would fire at them,” says Nhung, who now sells roasted sweet potatoes and bottles of tea to the occasional tourists who visit the caves she once cowered in.

By 1991, Vietnam was five years into its nascent economic reforms and in desperate need of friends. The Soviet Union was falling apart and the Americans were still holding firm to their embargo against the country, but China was rising. Hanoi repaired ties with Beijing, and for the past two decades the country’s ruling Communist Parties have largely remained as “close as lips as teeth,” as the old socialist slogan goes.

“They face similar challenges,” Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Asia office, tells TIME. “I think there’s quite considerable empathy between them in that they’re both trying to manage a transition to economic and social modernity.”

However, one irritant in the relationship continues to fester — Beijing’s ambitious claim over a lion’s share of the South China Sea. With an estimated 24.7 trillion cu. ft. of proven natural gas and 4.4 billion barrels of oil waiting to be tapped, Vietnam’s economic future is dependent on having access to its share of those waters.

“What’s the party got? It’s not popular vote. It’s not the charismatic leadership of Ho Chi Minh,” says Carlyle A. Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales and a Vietnam specialist. “It has the vestiges of nationalism and standing up to foreign aggressors and it has economic growth.”

Sporadic protests against China have been increasingly common in the country in recent years, and when the government’s response to Chinese aggrandizement is viewed as weak, a new crop of rebel netizens harasses the party online for kowtowing to Beijing.

“If [the leadership is] shown to actually be compromising on national sovereignty for the sake of ideological solidarity with China, that is a very, very grave criticism of the party,” says Nayan Chanda, editor in chief of YaleGlobal online magazine.

In 2013, the Vietnamese government arrested more than 40 bloggers and activists for making such criticisms, among other things. Over 30 are still behind bars, according to Reporters Without Borders.

But following last week’s clashes over the oil rig, the Vietnamese government has taken a decidedly harder line with Beijing. During the ASEAN Summit in Burma, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung blasted the Chinese for “slandering” Vietnam and escalating tensions in the region. “National territory is sacred,” the Prime Minister told fellow heads of state. “Vietnam vehemently denounces acts of infringement and will resolutely protect our national sovereignty and legitimate interests in conformity with the international law.”

Large officially sanctioned demonstrations have also been allowed across the country, and the state press has, for the first time in recent memory, followed the unrest closely. On social media, users are decrying Chinese arrogance and some are calling for Chinese blood.

Veterans like Hung, however, show a little bit more caution. He knows only too well what happens when both sides push each other to the brink.

“I don’t think the rest of the society, especially young people, know enough about [that war],” says Hung.

But even Hung, who now has business in southern China, and who admits that politics hardly interests him, says he would pick up arms without hesitation if the Chinese ever came knocking again.

“Of course,” he says with a steady voice. “Because I’m Vietnamese.”

China’s Vietnam veterans fighting new battle

by Tom Hancock, Agence France-Presse
Posted at 06/10/2014 2:08 PM

YIYANG – Marginalized and misunderstood, Chinese Vietnam veterans — who fought in a little-celebrated war against their southern neighbors — risk beatings and prison in a new battle with government officials.

Teng Xingqiu is one of thousands of retired Chinese soldiers staging an increasing number of protests over unpaid benefits and unnerving Communist authorities.

“The police told me they hoped I’d die in jail,” said Teng, whose activism resulted in him being sentenced to three years in prison in 2009. A thin man whose body bears scars he says result from police violence, the 56-year-old scanned the streets for surveillance cameras before choosing a run-down restaurant as a safe meeting spot.

The current tensions over Beijing’s deployment of an oil rig to disputed waters are only the latest strain between the Communist neighbors.

Teng was posted to the border area during a brief but bloody war in January 1979 – China’s last major land conflict – launched by Beijing to punish Hanoi for invading Cambodia and overthrowing the genocidal Pol Pot, a Chinese ally.

“As Chinese citizens, of course we wanted to go to the front. A lot of my army friends were killed. Many members of my platoon were shot dead,” he said.

China reportedly acknowledges it lost 6,954 soldiers. Other estimates place its toll at more than 20,000, with even higher figures for Vietnamese casualties.

No national memorial to the conflict exists, and Beijing rarely mentions it, even when denouncing Hanoi.

The war was “deadly and atrocious on the ground,” according to US historian Xiaoming Zhang.

“Ordinary Vietnamese worked in secret with the army, old men and women would even shoot at us, it was really terrifying,” Teng said.

Beijing declared victory and withdrew its troops less than a month after they reached an outpost near Hanoi.

Vietnam also regards it as a success, saying it repelled Chinese forces.

Threat to social stability

The US has produced hundreds of films and novels about its own Vietnam war, but China’s experience there is rarely spoken about, and first-hand accounts are heavily censored.

Around the same time, China began the landmark reform drive that partially replaced its state-planned economy with free markets.

Leaving the army, Teng was assigned a job in a state-run firm, but was later laid off and could only find work as a rubbish collector.

Soldiers of the time were “left behind” by change, said Neil Diamant, a professor at Dickinson College in the US who has studied veteran activism, and now many are “living hand to mouth with mounting medical expenses”.

China often vows aid for its veterans — estimated to number millions — but rules conflict and are poorly enforced.

Teng says he makes about 1,000 yuan ($160) a month from odd jobs but thinks the government should find him a wage matching the approximately 2,800 yuan average income in his home town of Yiyang, in the central province of Hunan. He was sentenced to more than three years in jail for “assembling to disturb order in a public place”, after banding together with other former soldiers who donned army uniforms to protest outside government offices.

China sees hundreds of demonstrations involving thousands of veterans every year, according to rights groups, with more than 10,000 reportedly doing so in 11 provinces late last month. Such demonstrations are one of the biggest threats to social stability in the country, Xue Gangling, dean of the China University of Politics and Law, told Chinese media outlet Caixin last year.

China’s President Xi Jinping has in the last year vowed to cut army personnel as part of sweeping military reforms aimed at creating an army oriented towards sea and air combat — raising the possibility of further veteran unrest. But authorities view any organised dissent as a risk, and crack down harshly.

Significantly, any suggestion of disloyalty in the military — a pillar of Communist control — is anathema to China’s rulers, who constantly stress the need for the People’s Liberation Army to follow Party orders.

Censors block news of military-linked protests, Chinese reporters told AFP. “Army topics are sensitive and people sense danger so it’s particularly hard for veterans to mobilise outside support,” said Diamant. “Orphans can do it, environmentalists can do it, but not veterans.”

“We’ll beat you to death”

Teng has repeatedly tried appealing to central authorities in Beijing, but local officials detained him in illegal “black jails”, a common fate for protesters. He suffered daily beatings during his prison term, he says, and guards forced him to eat food scraps off his cell floor.

“They said, if you don’t admit guilt, we’ll beat you to death,” he told AFP. Now his communications are monitored and police — who installed a surveillance camera outside his home — detained him for 24 hours after he was contacted by AFP, warning him not to speak to the media.

Yiyang officials refused to comment on Teng’s case when contacted by AFP.

Wang Guolong, a fellow protester who spent 14 years in the army, said: “They arrested Teng as a warning to stop us uniting, but our situation is the same… There are millions of veterans like us across the country.”

The ex-soldiers infuse their rhetoric with nationalism, with one group in neighboring Hubei province singing a “battle hymn” pledging to “smash US imperialism” at a recent protest.

Teng is still a staunch supporter of Beijing’s assertive foreign policy, and uses the name “South Sea Warrior” online.

“Defending your rights is more dangerous than fighting a war,” he said. “You can be arrested at any time.”

Ask the Vietnamese about war, and they think China, not the U.S.

May 1, 2015

Michael Sullivan

Phan Thi KyPham Thi Ky (right) and her family pray at the grave of her brother-in-law, who was killed in the 1979 border war with China. Every year, the family goes to the cemetery on the anniversary of his death. Vietnam and China have been adversaries for centuries and the friction continues to this day. Michael Sullivan for NPR

In one of the many war cemeteries in Lang Son, a city in northern Vietnam, Pham Thi Ky and her family light incense and offer prayers for her brother-in-law, who died 36 years ago in Vietnam’s brief but bloody border war with China. That 1979 war left more than 50,000 dead. There are other graves here, too. They fought and died against the French occupiers, then the Americans. But relative to China, those were brief battles.

No country weighs on Vietnam like China, and it has been that way for centuries. Has the conflict with China ever really ended, I ask Pham Thi Ky as she lights another candle.

“No,” she says. Her daughter agrees. Her sister is even more emphatic. “It will never end. With the Chinese, how can it ever end?”

Vietnam’s 2,000 year history with its northern neighbor is complex. There have been countless conflicts as well as shared culture. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi is a good example. It was built by the Vietnamese King Ly Thánh Tông in 1070 to honor the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The teachings on the walls are written in Chinese characters. China is also Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

The two countries share a communist ideology shaped in part by their shared history, an ideology largely abandoned by the rest of the world. That helps explain why the 1979 border war is something neither government likes to talk about. But Nguyen Duy Thuc, a veteran of that war, is happy to.

“On the morning of the attack, February 17th, we were sleeping when the Chinese artillery started, then we all ran to our posts,” he says. “Some were dressed, others didn’t even have time to put their pants on, they just ran to their posts to fight.”

Vietnamese forces Vietnamese forces travel toward the country’s northern border during a brief, bloody war with China in 1979. Alan Dawson/Bettmann/CORBIS

At least 200,000 Chinese troops poured into northern Vietnam all along the border. China was aiming to punish Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia the month before to oust the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge. There were so many Chinese attacking, Nguyen Duy Thuc remembers, that the soldiers in his bunker “fired our AK-47s until the muzzles turned red and they couldn’t fire anymore.” But the Chinese kept coming; eventually his bunker was overrun. The Chinese, he says, pumped gas into the ventilation system. There were 800 people, including soldiers, women and children, who fled the fighting in his bunker, Nguyen says.

Only he and two others managed to escape. After nearly a month, the Chinese withdrew, though border clashes continued for the next decade. And Nguyen Duy Thuc hasn’t forgotten. If he catches his wife trying to watch a Chinese movie, he turns it off.

Memories of that war, and the many other bouts of invasion, occupation and retaliation throughout history, color Vietnam’s relationship with China. That’s especially true now, with the two countries at odds over what Vietnam views as Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. When China parked an oil rig in contested waters last year, Vietnam upped its official anti-China rhetoric.

And anti-China rioting left at least a dozen dead, including four Taiwanese mistaken for Chinese. As tension grew, and Chinese and Vietnamese boats played a dangerous game of chicken near the rig, some in the border town of Lang Son grew worried. They feared a repeat of what happened in 1979.

“Last year, we were very frightened. We started stockpiling rice and food. I was very worried that there would be war,” says Pham Thi Ky, the woman at the cemetery.

Back in 1979, she says she was forced to flee with nothing but the clothes on her back, so this time she wanted to be prepared. She even went to the bank to withdraw a large sum of money, just in case. But the bank wouldn’t give it to her, apparently fearing a run.

Vietnam isn’t the only one worried.

The Obama administration’s “pivot toward Asia” is prompted, in part, by the idea of trying to contain China’s expansionism, which has its Southeast Asian neighbors and Japan worried.

In the South China Sea, China continues to build on several disputed islands and reefs. In April, satellite photos revealed China was constructing a 2-mile-long, military-grade runway on Fiery Cross Reef, prompting howls of protest from the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which claim the island as their own.

“We think this can be solved diplomatically, but just because the Philippines or Vietnam are not as large as China doesn’t mean that they can just be elbowed aside,” President Obama said.

Duong Trung Quoc, a member of Vietnam’s National Assembly and editor of the magazine Past & Present [Xưa và Nay], says, “I think China is not only Vietnam’s problem, but the world’s problem right now.” Duong says he admires how China appears to be the only civilization in history to have forced its way back onto the world stage after an interregnum. “It didn’t happen with Greece, or India,” he says. “But China has a chance.”

And that’s a problem, he contends, because China still thinks the way it used to back when it was on top. “China thinks it is at the center. The conquerer. It wants to turn everybody else into its subordinates,” he says. Don’t believe China, Duong says, when it appears to be playing nice. It’s a trap. The Vietnamese, he says, should know.

nguoi dan Lang SonVietnamese in the northern province of Lang Son seek refuge after Chinese forces crossed the border and entered Vietnam in February 1979. AFP/Getty Images

“After the war, the Vietnamese and the Americans could reconcile. Vietnam and France can reconcile. Veterans from both sides can sit down together and talk. Vietnamese and Chinese veterans hardly ever sit down together,” he says.

Why is this?

“The Vietnamese have had too much experience with the Chinese. The Vietnamese can’t trust the Chinese. We’ve had too much practice,” he adds.

Few in Vietnam’s government talk so openly about the perceived threat from their northern neighbor. They’re wary of igniting more protests, like those last year. And Vietnam’s Communist Party still looks to China as a model of how to keep an authoritarian state in power in the Internet age. But anti-Chinese sentiment among ordinary Vietnamese continues to grow.

Vo Cao Loi lives about a mile from the South China Sea — which the Vietnamese simply call the East Sea — in the central Vietnam city of Danang, where the first U.S. combat troops landed in 1965.

He says he’s a survivor of a massacre next to My Lai, one that claimed 97 lives, including his mother. He no longer considers the Americans enemies, but rather as friends. Allies, even, against Vietnam’s longtime enemy. He believes the Chinese have taken something that belongs to Vietnam.

Ky Cuong RiverVietnamese cross the Ky Cuong River on a temporary floating bridge in August 1979. The main bridge was destroyed by the Chinese during a brief border war several months earlier. Vietnam and China have been rivals for centuries and the friction continues to this day. Bettmann/CORBIS

“The Spratly and Paracels (islands) are still partly occupied,” he says. “Of course at some point we have to put our differences aside, but we have to get those islands back first. Because it belongs to our ancestors.”

It doesn’t take him long to acknowledge that probably won’t happen.

“They want to spread their control. They will never give back what they took,” he adds. “Vietnam wants to take it back, but the Chinese are strong. So our struggle will last a long time. How long? I can’t tell.”

How China wins: A case study of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

Gin, C.M. (2015)


The withdrawal of PLA forces from the three Vietnamese provincial capitals did not end the hostilities between the two countries. China and Vietnam would remain at odds in the international arena until at least 1989, when Vietnam finally withdrew all its forces from Cambodia, and the Chinese and Vietnamese governments signed the Paris Peace Accords normalizing relations in 1991. It would be yet another decade until the two sides signed a land border treaty in December 1999. Though official documents stating a victory are difficult to obtain, China’s internal and external rhetoric point to a belief that their action in Vietnam, in fact, secured their ultimate goal of an improved strategic position. From the Chinese point of view, despite the operational difficulties, a strategic victory was readily apparent following the 1979 war.

Domestically, Deng confirmed that his leadership style of appearing open to debate, allowing some internal dissention, then ultimately directing a path of his own design allowed him to control Beijing’s decision-making process throughout his tenure as China’s leader, from roughly 1978 to 1994. Although the war involved units from throughout China, an American delegation travelling to Beijing in April 1979 noted two interesting observations. First, there was no cultish adoration of Deng, as there had been of Mao, but the people appeared to recognize him as their supreme leader. Second, there was very little news reporting or evidence to the general public that a bloody border war had just taken place. The CCP appeared to have kept the populace in the dark about the military action, as life carried on in the capital and throughout the country. The lack of domestic backlash from the people or the party, coupled with Deng retaining and expanding his high-level positions until 1989, argues that the war can be considered at least strategically useful, and over the longer term, ultimately successful.

Internationally, Deng’s estimate that the Soviet Union would not intervene was correct. In the months following, China would further seek to isolate Vietnam from the international community, while seeking détente with the Soviet Union. China’s position in Southeast Asia improved in the sense that it reaffirmed its position as the leading regional power willing to endure―and inflict―casualties to achieve its stated strategic objectives. The war with Vietnam effectively served as a warning to other states to think twice before challenging China’s place in Southeast Asia. In the immediate aftermath of the war, China achieved its goal of isolating Vietnam internationally, and even received assistance from the international community to further prod Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia.

With regards to its relationship with the United States and Japan, China adroitly played its new friends. It estimated that the United States would object to actions against Vietnam, but not strongly enough to derail the progress of normalization. Because U.S. policymakers were preoccupied with expanding the Sino-American relationship in areas like the economy, technology, and even cooperative intelligence collection against the Soviet Union, China’s limited war against Vietnam was an inconsequential concern. In sensitive talks about how the Carter Administration should respond, NSA Brzezinski made the U.S. Government’s position clear, stating, “While we should criticize the Chinese, we should not create a situation in which we adversely affect our bilateral relations or through our criticism give the Soviets a justification for harming our [American] interests.”

Normalization between China and the United States was the overriding interest in this period, and China emerged “satisfied” with the U.S. Government’s response to the Sino-Vietnamese War. However, the war was not without cost to the United States. By failing to deter China, the United States lost some political face with the Soviets. At the outset of fighting, President Carter sent messages to President Brezhnev urging both sides to exercise restraint, so as not to encourage the war to escalate. Brezhnev offered a blunt rebuke, telling President Carter that China had taken the United States for a ride at a cost to America’s own interest.

On the other hand, the Sino-American relationship and China’s war with Vietnam achieved the effect that throughout the rest of the Cold War, the United States would view China as an undermining force against the Soviets’ desired world order. Sino-American relations would find cooperation in a growing number of fields throughout the 1980s, at least until the Tiananmen Square incident cooled relations again. Working from an anti-Soviet common ground with the United States afforded China the secure space it needed to modernize areas integral for its explosive growth throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and into the 2000s. Further analysis by some PLA officers indicates that operational shortcomings, such as the poor use of combined and joint arms and the outmatched technology, underscored the need for modernization.9 Deng Xiaoping did not have to press hard in the aftermath of Vietnam to convince the Party to increase defense spending in order to support his vision for China’s secure future.

The war had a negative net effect on Sino-Asian regional relations. The Japanese, in particular, likely felt that China unfairly sullied Japan’s international reputation by attacking Vietnam, since Deng’s visit shortly before the war gave the appearance of Tokyo’s acquiesce. Japan also feared that the Soviet Union ultimately benefitted in the region because of the war because it could shift the claim of hegemony from itself to China.

Additionally, there was a renewed possibility of the Soviet Union expanding military bases in Vietnam to prevent future Chinese aggression, which could further destabilize the region. However, one positive result, according to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, was that socialist political parties in Japan’s anti-war environment were likely to suffer at the polls amidst the backdrop of communist countries warring with each other.10 China accomplished its mission by backing up its warnings with military action in order to defend its national interests, but its method was much to the chagrin of its neighbors. Japan, like the ASEAN members, grew increasingly wary of Deng’s future intentions after witnessing the Sino-Vietnamese War. China’s actions led Asian countries to more fear, than respect, China, and encouraged many to strengthen ties with the U.S.-led international system founded on international laws to hedge against future Chinese threats.

Following the war, Vietnam saw itself as victorious, as well. It repelled the eleven Chinese armies hurled into its sovereign territory, and forced the PLA to withdraw without having to divert forces from defense of Hanoi or occupation of Cambodia. However, Vietnam did sustain significant losses, and remained antagonistic to China throughout the next two decades. A stalemate continued along the border with sporadic artillery and infantry skirmishes occurring throughout the 1980s―the most notable actions being the Vietnamese surprise capture of Long Shan Mountain in 1984, and the 1988 Spratly naval battle that resulted in close to eighty Vietnamese casualties.

The USSR and Vietnam remained allies after the war, despite the Soviets’ unwillingness to militarily intervene. An agreement signed on 12 October 1979 committed Soviet aid to help Vietnam recover from war damages. China never paid war reparations. The Vietnamese, accustomed to fighting for their national interests, remained undeterred in the immediate aftermath of the war, but their strategic position was no better off for the price they paid in the war with China, or their extended occupation of Cambodia. Ultimately, throughout the 1990s, the Sino-Vietnamese relations slowly returned to a new normalcy involving reciprocal recognition of sovereign territory, as well as new economic opportunities.


Based on the historical record and evidence examined in this study, the main conclusion to draw about how the PRC uses war is that it is willing to use military force to protect its stated strategic interests, even beyond its own borders, and even when unprovoked by a direct military assault. The leaders of the PRC do not share America’s aversion for high casualties to achieve ends, and China is capable of enduring significant troop and material losses in order to achieve its strategic interests. A key difference from an American, or western, way of war is that the Chinese leadership pride themselves on directing a coherent, political-military endstate before the start of hostilities. This behavior indicates a possible cultural way of war that opponents should consider if hostilities arise. Oral history interviews with combat veterans who ascended to senior leadership positions in the PLA did not reveal much personal remorse that so many Chinese died teaching Vietnam a lesson. The reason for this acceptance of losses was that prior to the fighting, operational losses were realistically factored in and accepted by both politicians and ground commanders. When combat commenced, the army was trusted to achieve its operational objectives without having to incessantly answer to the Party, or the people, about its operational plans or its casualty counts.

China attempted to signal its intentions and assuage international fears by making a diplomatic case for pending action in 1978 to 1979 before invading Vietnam. Transparent political signaling before taking unilateral action likely holds true for today’s CCP, and China’s potential adversaries ought not misinterpret signals for bluffs. However, signaling the international community does not equate to a mandate for China to gain international endorsement before acting in its own interest. If the Chinese feel there will be too much international opposition to an action, it may still exercise force without international endorsement. Though urged by the United States and others to conform to norms of diplomacy and restraint in 1979, Deng was not bound enough by the international system to compromise with a non-military solution.

However, China’s current integration into the capitalist world market makes resolving inter-state issues through non-military means much more attractive and beneficial to maintaining the CCP’s political primacy, and a secure environment for protecting its interests. The CCP’s willingness to use military force before exhausting other options must be tempered by its present, objective reality. The striking difference between 1979 and today is China’s economic power that is fundamentally tied to the global, capitalist market system. In 1979, China was not nearly as developed or wealthy as it is today, nor had the ideological clash of a Communist versus Capitalist world order reached resolution. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Deng’s economic reforms charted a new course for the Chinese―one, which is still being realized today as millions rise out of abject poverty. By 2013, The World Bank statistics ranked China as second only to the United States in terms of its Gross Domestic Product. With such wealth came a corresponding increase to China’s political position in the international community, far greater than it enjoyed in 1979.18 Although it continues to grow its military capabilities, China’s preferred primary means to punish other states to protect its strategic interests in the future will likely come in areas of national power other than the military.

Another conclusion from this case study is that China’s military rise over the last forty years can be directly tied to the 1979 war with Vietnam. As early as 1975, Deng began openly calling for a streamlining of the Army, adoption of a new education system, and an ushering out of the older generation in order to best prepare for modern war.19 Upon ascending to national leadership before the Sino-Vietnamese war, Deng sought to further his aim of creating a modern defense force because he felt the PLA had atrophied during the Cultural Revolution into a weak force, overzealous with Maoist ideology.20 The long-lasting effect of the war’s operational shortcomings underlined the need for a more streamlined, modern defense force that could rely on its quality as opposed to quantity. Reflecting on the war a year later, Deng bluntly stated:

Can our army fight? Can it deal with any emergency? I don’t mean an emergency like the self-defense counterattack on Vietnam. That kind of incident is easy to cope with. What I mean is: If we should be confronted with a more powerful adversary than Vietnam, how reliable would our fighting be? Of course, we will still have many disadvantages.

The emphasis on the Army’s professional military education and training became paramount in the decades to follow as the PLA implemented Deng’s decree to streamline and modernize, while state funds flowed more heavily into other areas of civil reform. Gradually, investment in advanced technology and a downsize of its top-heavy cadre force structure resulted in a leaner force. The PLA managed to reduce its Mao-era “bloatedness” and increase the implementation of joint and combined arms warfare.

After nearly forty years, China’s defense spending now ranks second in the world behind the United States. An official Chinese White Paper from 2013 states that China’s current development and modernization of the PLA aims to protect against threats to national unification, territorial integrity, and development interests. While these mission sets encompass continuities from the Deng era, one key difference between the late 1970s and present-day is the lack of emphasis on ideological training. The rhetoric that married the PLA to the Party in 1979 is replaced by the PLA’s current charter to adhere to the constitution of the republic.

Skeptics might see this as merely semantics, since the CCP is still the only political party in China, but this subtle change in emphasis may reflect a conscious effort to depoliticize the armed forces. With respect to China’s concern for facing informationized opponents, the decline of ideological training after the Sino-Vietnamese war is another way the PLA streamlined training so its members could concentrate on developing the practical knowledge to “win local wars in an informationized world.” PLA modernization is a continuous process and will surely impact regional stability. Exactly how that process evolves and integrates into the existing security structure is beyond the scope of this thesis, but merits further analysis.

A key question from this study of the Sino-Vietnamese war is that the CCP has not changed its centrist and uncompromising nature with regards to its ultimate authority. Domestically, recent crackdowns of political protests in Hong Kong and targeted anti-corruption campaigns are ominous indications that the Party leaders will not tolerate challenges to their political power. Internationally, only in the last 175 years of their 2,000-year dynastical and modern history have the Chinese been anything but the central power in Asia. The Chinese offer cooperation and agree to international norms when they perceive their shi is comparatively weak. However, once in a position of equal or greater relative power, the CCP may be eager to change the environment with some disregard for international norms.

The assumption of skillful strategic patience often attributed to China’s geopolitical strategists is misleading. Impulsiveness and displays of strength may be more likely traits if and when the CCP views its shi as relatively stronger than others’. In the next fifty years, the author assesses that China’s holistic shi will grow. CCP leaders, in order to retain legitimacy and project confidence, will likely test the international system’s status quo more often. Recent examples include the establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013 as a military means, and the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015 as an economic means to challenge the status quo. Unlike 1979, the CCP has learned to assert influence simultaneously through various elements of national power, instead of primarily pursuing its national interests with military force.

War of the Dragons: The Sino-Vietnamese War, 1979

By Peter Tsouras
4/11/2016 • Military History Magazine

China determined that Vietnam, heady with its victory in the American War, must be taught a lesson.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s diminutive leader, had good reason by late 1978 to view Vietnam’s victory in the American War (1959-75) as a threat to China’s security. Vietnam had clearly chosen the Soviet Union – China’s main enemy – as its patron, was actively oppressing Vietnam’s Chinese minority, had committed violent border provocations, and in November had invaded Cambodia to eradicate China’s Khmer Rouge clients. Meanwhile the USSR was massively building up forces on China’s northern border.

For Deng, this situation – although ominous – was ripe with opportunities. A punitive strike against Vietnam would make the Vietnamese more reasonable, show Soviet patronage to be worthless, and expose the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership as hopelessly inadequate. Deng’s well-reasoned strategy to modernize China required the removal of obstructionist Maoist PLA cadres. He scandalized the Maoists by asking, “What does a dead 19th-century German Jew [Karl Marx] have to teach China?” Combat with the Vietnamese would be the PLA’s blood test.

In early January 1979 Deng visited the United States, verifying that the Americans would stand aside in case of a Sino-Vietnamese conflict. Events in Cambodia dictated the timing. The Vietnamese took Phnom Pen on January 7, and on January 14 they reached the Thai border. On February 15 China abrogated its 30-year alliance with Vietnam and announced its intention “to teach Vietnam a lesson.” Two days later the PLA poured across Vietnam’s northern border.

The timing of the attack favored China: It was just before the rainy season blanketed the Vietnamese border, and nearly coincident with the spring thaw in China’s north that mired Soviet mechanized armies massed there. Deng had balanced the PLA’s infirmities against the fact that most of Vietnam’s field army, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), was in Cambodia. Only 70,000 soldiers in a few regular and border guard divisions remained in Vietnam; however, as many as 100,000 troops in 3,500-man reconstruction divisions were also in the country, and these were toughened combat veterans.

In the pre-dawn hours of February 17, the spearheads of a PLA force of 200,000 men in 20 divisions supported by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces attacked in the direction of five regional capitals. Fully aware of Vietnam’s combat experienced modern air defense system, the PLA kept its aircraft grounded.

It was very much a conventional operation, with the Chinese attacking down major roads, overrunning population centers, and seizing the controlling high ground. The PLA relied on human wave attacks, likely losing 3,000 men in the first few days as the Vietnamese infiltrated and raided behind PLA lines. In one example of the deadliness of these tactics, a Vietnamese female sniper killed eight PLA tank commanders. When the commanders’ outraged crewmen caught her, they pinned her to the ground and crushed her beneath the treads of their tanks.

Chinese artillery was outranged and outfought by the more modern and experienced (Soviet-manufactured) Vietnamese guns that pounded PLA troop concentrations and slowmoving columns. The PLA lost at least 100 tanks to the enemy’s advanced Sagger antitank guided missiles. As if the attacking Chinese did not have enough problems with outmoded equipment, tactics and doctrines, they also suffered great friction caused by the absence of a clearly identified rank structure – a holdover of Maoist People’s War doctrine.

The PLA modified its operational goals to concentrate 70,000 men against the regional capital of Lang Son, a strategic point controlling access to the Red River Delta and Hanoi. (See “History’s Top 10 Forgotten Victories,” March 2010 ACG.) Defending Long Son was the Vietnamese 3d Gold Star Division. The PLA drove the division back toward the city, which had been fortified for just such an event. On February 27 the PLA seized the dominant terrain north of Lang Son with a tank-infantry assault preceded by a massive artillery strike. Within a few days the Vietnamese were surrounded, and on March 2 the PLA closed in for the kill. During three days of ruthless house-to-house fighting, the Chinese wiped out the Gold Star Division and reduced Lang Son to rubble. On March 5 the capture of the high ground south of the city opened up the vital Red River Delta to invasion. Beijing, however, then announced that enough punishment had been administered and ordered a withdrawal that was completed in 10 days.

Neither side advertised its casualties. The PLA admitted to 7,000 dead and 15,000 wounded, but Western estimates ran as high as 28,000 Chinese dead and 43,000 wounded. Vietnam did not release casualty figures other than widely publicizing 100,000 Vietnamese civilian deaths. The PLA’s “scorched-earth” campaign that left a swath of destruction in its path gave some credence to Vietnam’s claimed civilian toll.

Although the Vietnamese remained pugnacious – a national trait – the war made clear that their Soviet patron would not fight to defend them. The USSR’s only contribution to the conflict was a supply airlift. Deng had bluffed and called, and the Soviets folded.

Obviously the PLA accomplished its mission, but the Vietnamese had taught the Chinese a lesson on the battlefield – one that Deng used for his own larger purpose. The lessons of the war allowed Deng to sweep out the ossified Maoist old guard and embark on the modernization and professionalization of the PLA. The result today is technologically advanced, operationally sound and strategically sophisticated Chinese armed forces to match the country’s emergence as an economic giant.

Peter Tsouras is a military intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the author/editor of 24 books.

Remembering Vietnam’s bloody border war with China

By Hoang Phuong   February 17, 2017

Many children, pregnant women and senior citizens died in the sudden Chinese onslaught of February, 1979.

On February 17, 1979, a force of over 600,000 Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border, kicking off a 17-day attack.

Military newspaper Quan doi nhan dan reported that Chinese forces launched a fiery artillery attack at around 4 a.m., when residents living along the 600-kilometer border were still asleep.

Casualties were reported in Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lai Chau, Lang Son, Lao Cai and Quang Ninh.

The conflict claimed thousands of lives on both sides, but hasn’t received the same attention as similar fights against the French and Americans. The history of Vietnam’s battle against western colonial aggression remains a major part of the country’s national curriculum, but Vietnam’s fight against the Chinese only began receiving renewed media attention following the escalation of tensions in the East Sea, internationally known as South China Sea.

Memories of the war in Cao Bang were captured by Tran Manh Thuong, a photographer for the Van Hoa Publishing House.

Cao Bang to wasteChinese forces left laid the eponymous capital of Cao Bang Province to waste


young girl & infantA young girl helped her infant brother flee the assault. Thuong says he still wonders what became of the pair whom he said were tired and hungry that day.


soldier & little girlA soldier helped this little girl join the fleeing crowds after a bullet injured her mother. “Everyone was confused and shocked,” Thuong said.


iron bridge destroyedAn iron bridge was destroyed by the Chinese army


The ruins of a kindergartenThe ruins of a kindergarten


Nong Van AtNong Van At cried as he recounted to a foreign journalist how Chinese soldiers killed his pregnant wife and their four children, aged 3-10, and threw their bodies into a well


Nong Thi TyNong Thi Ty tells a journalist from the Czech Republic how 43 children, pregnant women and old people died in an assault on her village because they could not run fast enough


Vietnamese defenseThe Chinese attack occurred when Vietnam’s main forces were tied up battling the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; a force of around 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers were sent north to battle a Chinese invasion force 12 times its size.


disabled Chinese tankVietnamese soldiers stand on a disabled Chinese tank. According to Quan doi nhan dan, 12,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and 140 Chinese tanks were destroyed during the first five days of the onslaught.


Volunteers load up bed mats for the soldiers at the frontVolunteers load up bed mats for the soldiers at the front


Food for the frontFood for the front

It remained tense near the northern border over the next decade, particularly at the Vi Xuyen Front in Ha Giang Province. Between April 1984 and May 1989, China sent more than 500,000 soldiers to the Vietnamese border district, killing thousands of Vietnamese soldiers but failed to penetrate further into Vietnam.

The Bitter Legacy of the 1979 China-Vietnam War

Officially, both sides have tried to forget the bloody conflict. Unofficially, bitterness still runs deep.

By Nguyen Minh Quang
February 23, 2017

Almost 40 years after a short yet devastating war launched by China in 1979, there has been not any official commemoration of the war in Vietnam. The fierce fight from February 17 to March 16, 1979, claimed tens of thousands of lives, soldiers and civilians alike, in Vietnam’s border provinces, but the conflict hasn’t received the same level of attention as wars against the French and Americans.

Yet since the escalation of tensions with China in the South China Sea in recent years, the Sino-Vietnamese war has begun receiving renewed media attention. For this year’s anniversary, Vietnamese people used social media to vocally commemorate martyrs and civilians who died in the war, followed by debates criticizing the government for remaining silent and neglecting the war in high school history textbooks.

The Road to War

On February 17, 1979, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border to invade the country, waging a bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. From the standpoint of historians, China’s month-long invasion of Vietnam is understood to as a response to what China considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies undertaken by Hanoi.

Historically, China had previously given Hanoi steadfast support against U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. But their comradeship swiftly began to deteriorate in the mid-1970s, especially when Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR) – then China’s greatest rival – in 1978. China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East,” pursuing hegemonistic “imperial dreams” in Southeast Asia.

In December 1978, Vietnam began a full-scale counter-attack against Kampuchea (today’s Cambodia), whose armed forces had launched a number of unilateral clashes along the Cambodia-Vietnamese land and maritime boundaries between 1975 and 1977, leaving more than 30,000 Vietnamese civilians dead. Vietnam’s incursions into China-friendly Kampuchea, which quickly eradicated the genocidal pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge regime, coupled with its intimacy with the Soviet Union, which was massively building up forces on China’s northern border, appeared to threaten China’s security and interests in the region. Thus, China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, had good reason to urge the government to teach a proper lesson to the Vietnamese.

It’s worth noting that, even prior to the war proper, incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border had increased in frequency and violence since mid-1978 when Deng came to power and began consolidating his paramount leadership by creating an effective tripod – control of the state, control of the Communist Party, and control of the military. Deng had seen off the rival threat posed by the ultra-Maoist Gang of Four (headed by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing) and his well-reasoned strategy to modernize China required the removal of obstructionist Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadres. Thus, some historians have speculated that a war was necessary to support Deng’s modernization plans by highlighting the technological deficiencies of the PLA and keeping the army preoccupied. The war brought Deng precious time in his first full year in charge to cement his own power in Beijing, eliminating leftist rivals from the Maoist era. Combat with the Vietnamese proved to be the PLA’s blood test.

On August 25, 1978, Chinese troops crossed the border to Vietnam to assault officers, women, and local people. Le Dinh Chinh, a local policeman, fought back with his bare hands and was stabbed to death by a group of Chinese. Chinh is thus known as the first Vietnamese soldier who fell in Vietnam’s fight against the Chinese invasion. This incident sent an ominous signal of a looming armed conflict between the two brothers. After a few months of serious and careful preparation for a military ground campaign against Vietnam, in the pre-dawn hours of February 17, Chinese spearheads, supported by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces, concurrently attacked in the direction of Vietnam’s border provincial capitals, when residents living there were still sleeping.

Owning to its large population and the huge disparity in economic and military capacity vis-à-vis Vietnam, the PLA relied on “human waves” of ragtag soldiers, a tactic used nearly three decades before during the Korean War, and a “scorched-earth” policy to conquer Vietnam. These tactics enabled Chinese soldiers to completely destroy everything in their paths, overrun population centers, and occupy strategically important mountainous areas and high spots along the boundary. These areas then became sites of low-profile yet deadly conflicts, which took place throughout the following decade.

In early March 1979, China suddenly declared its “lesson” to Vietnam was finished and began to withdraw completely on March 16. But, in fact, its campaign was not over. Right after the war, China launched another semi-public campaign that was more than a series of border incidents and less than a limited small-scale war. On the one hand, the PLA maintained a level of steady harassment through artillery fire, intrusions by infantry patrols, naval intrusions, and mine planting both at sea and in inland waterways. On the other hand, China pursued psychological warfare operations to sabotage Vietnam’s attempts to restore its war-torn border economic centers by igniting anti-Vietnamese sentiments among the border ethnic minorities and encouraging them to engage illicit activities like smuggling.

The 1979 war and armed clashes that flared over border disputes in the subsequent years resulted in a heavy toll in terms of both casualties and economic losses for  both sides. Though neither side publicized its casualties and the exact figures remain unclear, Western estimates run as high as 28,000 Chinese dead and 43,000 wounded, while the number of Vietnamese dead were estimated at under 10,000.

Post-War Era: Trying to Forget a Tragic Past

Since the full normalization of the China-Vietnam relationship in late 1991, though Hanoi and Beijing both claimed victory, state media on both sides have remained quiet on the war, barely mentioning it on commemorative occasions and seeking to deflect questions. But historians, diplomats, veterans, and local civilians in both sides have not forgotten. Despite official silence, every February debates about the conflict still rage online in both China and Vietnam. In China, some social media users question whether it was worth sacrificing thousands of Chinese lives to support the Khmer Rouge butchers. Other ardent Chinese nationalists downplay the Khmer Rouge factor and instead justify the war by citing Vietnam’s oppression of Hoa people (ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam), and Hanoi’s supposed hegemonic dreams of dominating Indochina with the backing of the USSR.

In Vietnam, low-profile anniversaries of the fierce fight against the Chinese invasion are organized each year in local cemeteries in the northern border provinces while small-scale demonstrations have occurred in Hanoi. Vietnamese veterans, military enthusiasts, historians, and diplomats have also urged the government to reconsider their decades of deliberate silence; such advocates call on Hanoi to highlight the facts of the war to help people all over the world, including the Chinese, fully understand what really happened. In 2013, Major-General Le Van Cuong, former director of the Strategy Institute under the Ministry of Public Security, and other retired politicians told state media it was time to review the official commemorations of this war. In particular, the government must include the war in textbooks.

“Thousands of people have lost their lives to protect the land in the north. Why do we have no words for them? It’s late and can’t be later… We cannot have a vague view or ignore this historic issue,” Cuong said.

Duong Danh Dy, first secretary of the Vietnamese embassy in China in 1979, wrote that Vietnam’s reticence to discuss the war was motivated by the greater cause of fostering amity between the neighboring nations. The government’s silence is “not because we were not on the right side, and not because the Vietnamese people are scared or quick to forget,” he explained.

But young academics are deeply concerned that a majority of students today do not know about this war. “While information about Vietnam’s just defensive war against China’s 1979 aggression remains little and vague, the Vietnamese youth have long been surrounded by movies that advertise and diffuse Chinese culture and history. It will be the government’s responsibility if this situation lasts longer,” said Pham Duc Thuan, a 30-year-old history lecturer at Can Tho University.

Apparently, both the Vietnamese and Chinese publics are looking forward to clear and straightforward information about the nature of the war from their respective governments. For the Chinese people, they need to know the actual ambitions behind a war that seems motivated much more by the Deng-led government’s political interests than the excuses offered by pugnacious nationalists. For the Vietnamese, they want “justice” for those martyrs who lost their lives in the tragic defensive fight, but have since been forgotten by the government.

It’s understandable that neither state wishes to stoke any expressions of strident nationalism among their people. Both China and Vietnam are keen to confine the period of unhappiness to their past while creating a bright future together by deepening bilateral economic interdependence. In 1999, eight years after full normalization, the Sino-Vietnamese land border disputes were successfully settled by the Treaty of Land Border signed in December. That same year, leaders of both nations agreed on the “16-golden-word motto” that would guide relations between the two countries: “long-term stability and future orientation, friendly neighborhood, comprehensive cooperation.” In 2000, China’s then Communist Party Chief Jiang Zemin explained that the motto, among other things, means both sides should close down the sad past and look forward to a brighter future for China-Vietnam ties.

Whose Victory, Whose Responsibility?

However, while the Vietnamese government has seriously committed to this pledge by suppressing memories of the war, the Chinese population and leadership, after decades of miseducation, seem convinced that China was on the right side in the 1979 war. China claims the war as “a victory,” with all missions completed. This view is not supported by evidence and analyses undertaken by outside observers and strategists. Scholars like Gerald Segal, Bruce Elleman, and Carlyle Thayer agreed that China’s 1979 war was a complete failure. First, Deng and his generals failed to induce Vietnam to withdraw regular forces from Cambodia and thereby relieve pressure on the Khmer Rouge. Second, Beijing also sought to engage main force Vietnamese units near the border and destroy them. But Vietnam largely held its main forces in reserve and mainly used its militia and local forces to defend against China; thereby China further failed to dispel its image as a paper tiger. Third, it also failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.

Two other major goals behind China’s attack were to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud and ruin Vietnam’s northern defense system and economic infrastructure. In this respect, Beijing’s policy was actually a diplomatic success, since Moscow did not actively intervene, thus showing the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese military pact. It also succeeded in totally destroying most of villages and major provincial capitals such as Lao Cai, Cao Bang, and Lang Son, but not in a few days as anticipated and scheduled by Deng and his men. It took three weeks of heavy fighting and severe casualties. With the conflict viewed in this light, Thayer told BBC Vietnamese that China was the aggressor, not Vietnam, in the 1979 war.

Final Remarks

Almost four decades on since China waged a massive and costly invasion of Vietnam on February 17, 1979, the deliberate oblivion of this history by both Hanoi and Beijing has triggered growing public disapproval in both countries. Though both governments claimed victory, the war was a chastening experience for all involved.

Chinese people’s misunderstanding of the nature of the war, mainly caused by Beijing’s steely and unrelenting efforts to control information, and history in particular, appears to be a major obstacle to resolving the debates and alleviating mutually hostile sentiments between the two peoples.

Since the conflict was fought entirely on Vietnamese territory, it runs contrary to the ruling Communist Party’s prevailing narratives of a China that never threatens or attacks its neighbors. China’s propaganda machine has attached an ungainly and unconvincing name to the conflict, the “Self-Defensive Counterattack Against Vietnam.” It is also generally held by outside scholars that if the war did not produce an outright defeat for China, it was a costly mistake fought for dubious purposes, including Deng’s political ambitions, and a desire to punish Vietnam for overthrowing Pol Pot, a Chinese ally who was one of the world’s bloodiest tyrants. Thus, the difficulty for China is how to commemorate the controversial war without raising questions about the veracity of Deng’s claim of having achieved all China’s goals.

For Vietnam, even though it has witnessed some relative stability and economic improvement in its war-torn northern border provinces thanks to strongly growing cross-border trade revenue, it pays to remain vigilant. Because of geographical proximity, the Vietnamese people have been forced to cope with repeated Chinese invasions, followed by centuries-long suzerainty, in the course of history. Thus, the 1979 border war, once again, reminded the country to keep in mind who the permanent, ominous foe is.

However, remembering the forgotten war in 1979 does not have to mean igniting national hostilities. Rather, commemorations should provide justice for those soldiers and victims of both sides who lost their lives due to misjudgments and miscalculations of ambitious leaders.

Accordingly, China and Vietnam should both pigeon-hole their tragic past and seriously study the dear lessons drawn from the 1979 war to avoid the same mistakes in the future. More importantly, once the actual facts and nature of the war are acknowledged with constructive and sympathetic perspectives from both sides, the two sides can consider the use of “historical compensation” to adjust public opinion towards each other. As long as the mutual suspicion between the two peoples remains unsettled, China-Vietnam bilateral ties will be unable to develop substantially and smoothly, no matter how much official jargon glorifies the relationship.

Nguyen Minh Quang is a lecturer at School of Education, Can Tho University, focusing on conflict studies and Mekong Delta environmental security issues. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of Can Tho University.

27 days of hell: When China and Vietnam went to war

February 26, 2017

by Xuan Loc Doan

Several of Vietnam’s state-controlled news outlets have in recent days recalled the country’s 1979 border war with China, until now a strictly taboo topic. Such a recollection may signal that the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam has finally eased censorship of the short-lived but bloody military conflict.

The war between the two communist neighbors broke out in the early hours of February 17, 1979, when China launched a full-scale military invasion into Vietnam’s northernmost provinces. Though the skirmish lasted only 27 days, the devastation it caused was colossal. Casualty figures are still in doubt, as they have never been released by either Beijing or Hanoi. Some have estimated that Chinese casualties ranged anywhere between 21,000 and 63,000. It is also thought that tens of thousands of Vietnamese died and suffered, most of them civilians because the war was fought exclusively on Vietnamese soil.

The brief but fierce war heralded a decade of hostilities between the ideological bedfellows. Besides numerous skirmishes on their shared border, a one-sided naval encounter in 1988 resulted in the death of 64 Vietnamese sailors and China’s occupation of several islets and rocks in the Spratly Islands.

After Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia and the collapse of the Soviet Union and other communist regimes in Europe in the early 1990s, Hanoi and Beijing sought to end their animosity. In 1990, they held a secret summit in Chengdu, China, and formally reestablished diplomatic ties the following year.

As with the 1988 massacre, the 1979 border conflict was subsequently no longer taught in schools, raised in political discourse or mentioned in Vietnam’s highly censored state-dominated media. Vietnamese leaders decided to cast aside historical grievances and hostilities, and concentrate political and economic cooperation with Beijing.

China’s official stance on the border conflict was even more muted because Beijing had greater reasons to forget the war, some analysts have argued. In an article in The New York Times in 2005 entitled “Was the war pointless? China shows how to bury it,” journalist Howard French reflected on China’s many losses in the conflict:

“China initiated hostilities [… and] if the war did not produce an outright defeat for China, it was a costly mistake fought for dubious purposes, high among them punishing Vietnam for overthrowing the Khmer Rouge leader of Cambodia, Pol Pot, a Chinese ally who was one of the 20th century’s bloodiest tyrants.”

Until now, Hanoi and Beijing have maintained an official wall of silence on the war, a joint bid to erase a painful chapter in the two communist countries’ history. That’s included sharp crackdowns on any attempt to stir memories of the war. When a group of Vietnamese citizens in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City attempted to gather to mark the event’s 38th anniversary last Friday, they were forcibly dispersed by police. (A small commemorative event was allowed in Hanoi on the anniversary.)

Unlike in previous years, the military combat has been recalled by a number of Vietnam’s leading state-controlled media outlets, including Thanh Nien, VietnamNet and VnExpress. Though the country’s top newspapers, notably Nhan Dan, the Party’s official mouthpiece, still remain silent on the war, it is notable that others have been allowed to address it. Such an editorial shift would only have been possible with the pre-approval of the Party’s top hierarchy. This new permissiveness reflects a gradual but notable recent change in Hanoi’s attitude toward past conflicts and present relations with China.

Like the 1979 border war, the 1988 naval skirmish had been tightly censored. On its 28th anniversary last March, however, memorial services for the 64 fallen sailors were organized across the country. Vietnamese news outlets, including Nhan Dan, recalled the sea clash, explicitly depicting it as a battle against “Chinese invasion forces” while respectfully referring to its casualties as “heroes” or “martyrs.”

Beijing’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea in recent years and growing pressure from the Vietnamese public to assert sovereignty over contested maritime territories are no doubt key push factors behind the changed narrative. The easing of censorship is welcome to many Vietnamese, even though for some it is too little, too late to address the war wounds. By publishing photos, stories and interviews with veterans, witnesses and experts about Vietnam’s border war with China, Thanh Nien, VietnamNet and VnExpress not only recalled the conflict but emphasized that it must be remembered.

Under the Party’s leadership, Vietnam fought wars against Japan (1945), France (First Indochina War, 1946-1955), and America (Second Indochina War, 1954-1975). While the country proudly celebrates its war wins against foreign invaders, it had been mostly silent on its 1979 conflict with China, known as the Third Indochina War.

While Vietnam’s battles against Japanese, French and American aggression feature prominently in the country’s national curriculum, its fights against the Chinese, including the 1979 war, are still remarkably absent. There are only 11 lines about the war in state-censored high school history textbooks.

Given its omission from official memorials and historical texts, as noted by VnExpress, the war remains unknown to many Vietnamese, particularly among the younger generation. There were more than 500 comments as of February 21 on one of VnExpress’ articles about the military confrontation. Many of the posters thanked news outlets for publishing the piece with photos from the war, which many indicated they were unaware of. Others called for it to be included in history textbooks. They also expressed their gratitude to those who fought in the confrontation with China.

It is often said that the Vietnamese government does not mark – or allow the people to commemorate – the event because such an action could irk China and harm Vietnam’s relations with its giant neighbor. Despite its commemoration and celebration of war victories against the Japanese, French and Americans, Vietnam’s relations with these three powers today are largely unaffected by the nationalistic events. Like China, Japan and the US are among Vietnam’s top partners. As such, the Party’s negligence of the devastating border war has led some Vietnamese to believe that their leaders are submissive to Beijing. This, in turn, has fuelled antipathy towards both the regime and China and wholly failed to ease or heal the pain the conflict caused.

While the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war was deadly, Vietnam’s war against the US was much worse in terms of damage wrought and lives lost. Still, American officials and leaders do not ignore the war in their current relations with Vietnam. In his address to the people of Vietnam during a visit to the country last May, Barack Obama spoke about the deadly and lasting consequences of the war.

In recalling the long conflict and the damage it caused, Obama, who was just 13 years old when US forces left Vietnam in 1975, reminded that “war, no matter what our intentions may be, brings suffering and tragedy.” He added: “Even if we disagree about a war, we must always honor those who serve and welcome them home with the respect they deserve.”

The US and Vietnam have largely overcome their past conflict through frequent symbolic exchanges between their respective war veterans. As noted by the New York Times in a 2015 article,  war veterans have played a leading role in reconciling the two former adversaries. Among the American veterans who have driven the reestablishment and advancement of bilateral relations are former US Secretary of State John Kerry and incumbent Senator John McCain.

There are no known similar exchanges of veterans between China and Vietnam. In an interview with Thanh Nien, a Vietnamese academic suggested that scholars from both sides should hold a joint conference on the war. He suggested that scholarly exchanges and open debate would help the two sides understand the causes of the war and avoid similar future conflicts.

While there have been numerous academic studies on the war, many still question why the two neighbors and comrades, which were said to be “as close as lips and teeth” just a few years before the war, could engage in what has been regarded by some as the bloodiest military conflict ever waged between members of the communist world.

In the context of current tensions in the South China Sea, an honest discussion on the causes and consequences of the war would also help both sides realize that there are seldom lasting military solutions to bilateral disputes.

If Vietnam and China truly aim to build a better and more peaceful relationship, as cadres on both sides often profess, sooner or later they must confront painful memories. The sooner they reconcile the past, the stronger their relationship will be. Vietnamese media coverage of the war is a welcome first step.

Red against Red – China’s failed 27-day invasion of Vietnam

Jun 6, 2017
Shahan Russell

In 1979, China invaded Vietnam because Vietnam had invaded Cambodia, whose rulers were backed by China. The conflict lasted a month and resulted in tens of thousands of casualties. The Chinese army withdrew from Vietnam but despite this, China claimed a victory.

To understand this, we have to go back in time and further north. China and Russia used to be friends, so when the Vietnam War broke out in 1955, they supported the communist North against the capitalist South. By the time it ended in 1975, however, the Chinese and the Soviets were at each other’s throats.

The Soviets were exhausted from decades of war, so they wanted peace with the West. But Mao Zedong (China’s leader) wanted a more aggressive approach toward “decadent” capitalist nations, which is why he attacked Taiwan from 1954 to 1955, and again in 1958.

The US went to the Taiwan’s aid, but the Soviets didn’t want to get involved. This angered Mao. Then in 1959, the Soviets offered moral support to Tibetan rebels after the latter’s failed uprising against China. The following year, Mao and Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev were yelling at each other at the Romanian Communist Party Congress. Still, they needed each other, so they kept their alliance.

Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. With the world’s focus on Cuba, China invaded and occupied India’s Aksai-Chin province. And what did the Soviets do? They withdrew their missiles from Cuba and sold weapons to India. For Mao, that was the last straw. Soviet capitulation to the US was bad enough, but what kind of ally sells weapons to your enemies? Sino-Russian relations took a nose dive.

By 1969, they were having skirmishes along their borders. Realizing he couldn’t confront the Soviets and the Americans at the same time, Mao began wooing the Americans. It worked. President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and reestablished diplomatic ties.

The Chinese and the Soviets were now engaged in their own Cold War within the communist world. In 1975, Vietnam and Laos sided with the Soviets, so China reached out to Cambodia. Mao died in 1976, but the Sino-Soviet Cold War continued.

Vietnam and Cambodia had had border skirmishes since 1975, so the Vietnamese decided to end it once and for all. On 3 November 1978, they signed a 25-year mutual defense treaty with the Soviets, then invaded Cambodia on December 25. By 7 January 1979, they took the capital at Phnom Penh and drove the Khmer Rouge out.

With the Soviets to their north and the Vietnamese to their south, the Chinese felt trapped. China (now under Deng Xiaoping) visited the US on January 1 and told President Jimmy Carter that Vietnam needed to see a show of force to prove that China could protect her client states.

The next day, he told Moscow that China was ready for a war with Russia. To prove it, some 300,000 Chinese civilians were evacuated from the Sino-Soviet border, while the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) were massed along its length.

For justification, Deng claimed that ethnic Chinese were being mistreated in Cambodia and that Vietnam’s occupation of the Spratly Islands was illegal since it was Chinese territory. With hundreds of thousands of PLA forces massed on the Sino-Vietnamese border, a “limited invasion” was declared on February 15.

Progress of the conflict by the end of February 1979
Progress of the conflict by the end of February 1979

On February 17, General Xu Shiyou ordered 200,000 soldiers into Vietnam in 26 teams from west to east. Their goal was to take the northernmost Vietnamese provinces of Lai Châu, Lào Cai, Hà Giang, Cao Bằng, Lạng Sơn, and Quảng Ninh.

But the Vietnamese were ready [sic]. The Chinese had been saber-rattling along their border since January, so they evacuated their northern towns and cities, let the Chinese advance, and then picked them off with guerilla tactics.

The Chinese had counted on superior numbers, but it didn’t help. Much of their equipment was outdated, and few had any war experience. Many of the Vietnamese, however, were war veterans with some of the weapons and equipment the Americans had left behind.

Russia had also given them 400 tanks, 800 anti-tank missiles, 400 surface-to-air missiles, and 20 jet fighters (but these were mostly used for reconnaissance). They also had between 5,000 and 8,000 Russian “military advisers,” while 15 ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet were off the Vietnamese coast decoding Chinese communications.

To make sure the remaining PLA troops didn’t cross over, the Soviets deployed their military along both the Sino-Soviet border and the Mongolian-Chinese border. Faced with the possibility of an additional battle-front, China kept its reserve force back. The PLA wanted to draw the People’s Army of Vietnam (VPA) out into open combat, but the Vietnamese would not take the bait.

Meeting the Chinese were local militia forces of about 100,000 focused on four locations: (1) at Lạng Sơn on Highway One – the traditional Chinese invasion route into Vietnam, (2) the northwestern coast along Haiphong, (3) the Red River, which leads to Hanoi, and (4) the Black River, which also leads to Hanoi.

The 26 Chinese attack prongs began joining up into larger groups, but except for tank battles, they rarely saw their enemies. By the end of February, the VPA still hadn’t committed most of their regular divisions, but their largely guerilla tactics had ground down the Chinese. By early March, most of the fighting was limited to Lào Cai, Cao Bằng, and Lạng Sơn.

Deng never intended to occupy Vietnam. He wanted to: (1) scare the Vietnamese out of Cambodia, (2) do it quickly to avoid outright conflict with the Soviets and avoid alienating the West, (3) show that Russia couldn’t protect its friends, (4) demonstrate Chinese military might, and (5) prove to the communist bloc that they made better allies than the Soviets.

But they weren’t making any headway. To save face, Deng claimed that the PLA had cleared the way to Hanoi, so their objectives had been met and they could withdraw. They did so on March 6th and destroyed what remaining local infrastructure they could. Buildings, houses, railroads, and communication infrastructure were all destroyed, further impoverishing northern Vietnam. Ten days later, there were no more Chinese in Vietnam.

Having expelled the Chinese, Vietnam also declared a victory. No one really knows how many died. It’s estimated that Vietnam lost some 26,000 to 60,000 people, while China lost between 6,954 and 50,000. Sino-Vietnamese skirmishes continued till 1989 when Vietnam finally pulled out of Cambodia.

When the Vietnamese think of war, they think of China first, and America second.

In the Sino-Vietnamese war in 1979, was China the aggressor?

Andrew Dang, studied at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology (2012)
Answered Jun 9, 2017

Yes, obviously China was the aggressor to Vietnam at that moment. However, in China, thanks to the propaganda machine, this war has been officially labeled as the war of “self-defense and counterattack”. Let’s think about an army of more than 200,000 troops, 550 tanks, 480 artillery and 1500 mortars crossing into your peaceful homeland. Without any reason, they fired, shelled, bombarded and destroyed town by town, house to house, massacring innocent civilians [1]. This was not the act of “self-defense” anymore, but the act of AGGRESSION.

On the other hand, it is very ridiculous that many Chinese in Quora tried to whitewash this historical truth. They accused Vietnam for the “invasion of Cambodia” – when Vietnamese started the offensive to overthrow genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge – and China only wanted to “teach Vietnam a lesson” in this so-called “Self-defense and counterattack”, or the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Actually, they tried to equate these two different wars into the same meaning, while one side conducted the “liberation war” and the other was the the “war of aggression”. These two wars are definitely different and not comparable !

In fact, the bloody and genocidal regime of Khmer Rouge were strongly supported by Chinese government at this moment, economically and militarily [2]. More than 2 millions of Cambodian people were perished in death camps, as well as ten thousands Vietnamese people living along Vietnam – Cambodia border were also killed by the Khmer Rouge soldiers (The Ba Chuc Massacre in An Giang province of Vietnam is one of the best example) [3]. Hence, by the end of 1978, a grand and strategic Vietnamese offensive cannot be avoided to eliminate this kind of genocidal regime, just like what the Allied did in Second World War to Nazi Germany. The communist China at this time, however, still supported the Khmer Rouge regime and waged a war against Vietnam.

The results of these two conflicts can be seen by this picture: In Cambodia, the Vietnamese People’s Army finally won the hearts and minds of the Cambodian people. They peacefully withdrew their forces from Cambodian soil, then, the monument of Cambodian-Friendship was built to commemorate the Cambodian and Vietnamese soldiers who fought together against Khmer Rouge and for the rebuilding of a country. Until 2017, this highly respected monument still stands at one of the most beautiful area of Phnom Penh. Let’s see, if Vietnamese army was the “invader”, the “aggressor”, do the people in Phnom Penh treat them in this kind of respectful manner?

In contrast, Chinese army and soldiers who participated in the so-called “self-defense and counterattack” were negatively viewed by Vietnamese people as the real bloody invaders and brutal aggressors. They have to pay their bills and there is no “commenmorative monument” for them in both China and Vietnam. Poor them!

[1] Eng, P. (1987). A Village Recalls Alleged Massacre.

[2] Hunt, L. (2011). What was China’s Khmer Rouge Role?

[3] Pringle, J. (2004). MEANWHILE: When the Khmer Rouge came to kill in Vietnam.

Fang Deng
Updated Mar 7, 2017

To some degree, I am more inclined to the answer from Jingjing Xia: “China was the aggressor in the sense that Vietnam didn’t invade China.Vietnam was the aggressor in the sense that Vietnam invaded China’s ally.In general, I would say China was more of an aggressor than Vietnam was qualified to be.”

As both governments have decided to seal the real reasons of that conflict, I can only make some senses indirectly from other sources.

My take is, Vietnam serviced as a proxy of USSR to strangle China, at least China believed so. Vietnam got caught in the middle of the fight between China and USSR in Cold War era. However, for the situation deteriorating to the point of having a war, I believe it’s directly due to the death of both Mao Zhe-Dong and Ho Chi Minh.

The war would NEVER have happened if both Mao and Ho were alive, or one of them were alive, as they were such good friends…

Below video shows that Ho stepped out of an airplane and kissed Mao warmly. Ho was arranged to stay in Zhong Nan Hai/中南海, the place Mao lived. This was a very special arrangement, as all other foreign guests stayed in hotels. Mao and Ho were like brothers, a young brother visited his elder brother and stay in the elder brother’s home. But, Ho died in 1969, too early.

In Asia, North Korea survived the fight between China and USSR, I think it’s because Kim Il-sung out lived the Cold War, died in 1994. The military conflict could have been avoided if Ho had lived that long. Like Kim, Ho was more experienced and sophisticated to handle the situation; on the other hand, China would have viewed the situation differently when the old friend were still alive.

It’s very unfortunate to have a war with Vietnam; many Chinese felt deeply disturbed by this.

Maxim Kazhenkov
Answered Feb 22, 2017

Quite clearly, yes.

If you put nationalistic pride aside and assess the situation rationally, China had no business invading a sovereign country. If you oppose aggressive wars like the Japanese invasion of China or the US’ invasion of Iraq, you’d also have to oppose this one, else you’re just a hypocrite rationalizing any action by your country.

In some rare circumstances an aggressive war can be justified, like in WWII to prevent genocide on the scale of tens of millions of people in Eastern Europe and East Asia, though this has also turned into an all too common excuse to start wars.

But in the case of the Sino-Vietnamese war the opposite was true; Khmer Rouge was probably the most vile communist government ever in existence, having killed 10% of the total population under their control.

The casualties inflicted, both military and civilian, were on the order of 100,000, which is quite significant for a country like Vietnam, so the grievances are real unlike the previous border conflicts China has been involved in like the Sino-Indian war or the Sino-Soviet border conflict.

I think this war has seriously stained China’s image as an anti-imperialistic nation and a political blunder overall. It’s highly unrealistic to expect China to apologize in the near future, such an action would be seen as treachery and an insult to all the Chinese soldiers who fought and died for their country.

The best we can hope for is for both countries to sweep this issue under the rug and not use it to agitate nationalistic feelings domestically, especially given the current situation of South China Sea disputes. An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Sino-Vietnamese War, 1979

By James H. Willbanks
4/11/2017 • HISTORYNET

On February 17, 1979, troops from the People’s Republic of China attacked the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in what became known as the Sino-Vietnamese War. Although for many years China and the regime in Hanoi had been allies, “as close as lips and teeth,” this “marriage of convenience” slowly began to fall apart beginning in the 1970s when China was unable to match the Soviet Union in military support to Hanoi.

During the First Indochina War (1946-54), Chinese military advisers had played an important role in the Viet Minh victory over the French. With the beginning of the Second Indochina War (1956-75), Hanoi accepted support from both China and the Soviet Union in its struggle to reunify North and South Vietnam by force of arms. During the war in Southeast Asia, China also supported the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (as well as the Pathet Lao in Laos). The Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge normally cooperated during the war, but there were, nevertheless, a number of border clashes between Vietnam and Cambodia dating back to 1971.

The Vietnam-Cambodia border conflicts continued sporadically until 1975, when relations began to deteriorate after Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia, which was renamed Democratic Kampuchea after the fall of Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge demanded that certain areas of land along the Cambodia-Vietnam border be returned to Cambodia and that all Vietnamese leave these areas that the Khmer Rouge claimed Vietnam had taken centuries earlier. Vietnam refused, claiming that this territory had always been part of Vietnam dating back nearly three centuries.

In May 1975, naval patrols from Cambodia and Vietnam clashed in the vicinity of Phu Quoc Island, on their sea boundary. The next month, the Vietnamese attacked the Cambodian bases on Poulo Wai Island. This situation was somewhat diffused when both sides agreed to negotiate; however, the talks accomplished little and the subsequent lull in the conflict was short-lived.

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Hanoi had increasingly turned to the Soviet Union for support. In the midst of the ongoing Sino-Soviet split, China was very concerned about this development. The leaders in Beijing were worried about the growing Soviet influence in the region. Accordingly, China increasingly leaned toward Cambodia as a counterweight to the Soviets and Vietnamese in Southeast Asia, ultimately sending military advisers to work with the Khmer Rouge forces.

The border dispute between Vietnam and Cambodia reached a new pitch in April 1977 when Khmer Rouge forces attacked towns in six Vietnamese provinces that bordered Cambodia. At one point, the Cambodians drove four kilometers into Vietnam and occupied part of An Giang province. The Cambodians continued their raids and artillery attacks on Vietnamese towns and villages for the rest of the month and into May. The Vietnamese responded by moving troops into the area to combat the Cambodian troops. In June, the Vietnamese proposed negotiations, but the Cambodians responded with a counterproposal. Each side ignored the other’s call for talks and both continued their military preparations.

In September 1977, Cambodian forces increased their raids into Vietnam, attacking six villages in Dong Thap province while three divisions from the Cambodian Eastern Military Region pushed into Tay Ninh province to a depth of 10 kilometers. There they massacred more than a thousand Vietnamese civilians. Vietnam responded with a counterattack that pushed the Cambodian forces several kilometers back into Cambodia.

In December 1977, Vietnam launched a limited attack against the Cambodian forces that occupied Vietnamese territory. The Vietnamese forces, numbering more than 30,000 troops, pushed the Cambodian forces back, but failed to retake all the occupied area. Cambodia responded by suspending diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

Meanwhile, Vietnam stepped up its support for the Cambodian guerrilla army of Heng Samrin (the Kampuchean National United Front for National Salvation, KNUFNS), which was trying to overthrow the Pol Pot regime. This only increased the tensions between Hanoi and Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh completely broke off diplomatic relations with Hanoi, and each side resorted to a war of words against the other. At the same time, the conflict between Vietnam and China grew.

Vietnam began a new collectivization scheme in March 1978 that led to the exodus of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, angering Beijing. Meanwhile, a series of disputes and confrontations occurred between China and Vietnam along their common border. The rift between the two increased as Vietnam tilted toward more cooperation with the Soviets. In the summer of 1978, Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) and signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. These events further angered the Chinese, who claimed that the new treaty was a military alliance and part of the Soviet global strategy to marginalize China’s influence. At the root of the conflict between China and Vietnam was China’s concern about Vietnam’s ambitions in Southeast Asia and its growing reliance on the Soviet Union. China branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East” and denounced the Vietnamese as “tools of Soviet hegemonism.”

Meanwhile, the normalization of relations between China and the United States worried the Vietnamese, who were afraid that the new relationship gave the Chinese confidence to stand up to the Vietnamese and their Soviet patrons. Vietnam saw China as a growing threat to Vietnamese interests in the region. It believed that China would reinforce the military potential of its adversary in Cambodia and might even attack Vietnam directly.

Things had gotten progressively worse along the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Cambodian refugees from the Eastern Zone had poured across the border to escape the earlier fighting. Pol Pot saw this as an insurrection against the Khmer regime and sent forces in to suppress the “uprising.” The suppression, relocation and massacre of those living along the border, including ethnic Vietnamese who lived in the area, convinced Hanoi that it was time to act. Politburo authorized a military operation to solve the Cambodian issue once and for all.

The first phase of the operation, which Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap called a “strategic offensive” designed “to exterminate the enemy and seize control,” began on December 21, 1978, when two Vietnamese infantry divisions attacked out of the Central Highlands, driving along Route 19 to seize Stung Treng on the Mekong River. The second phase of the operation began on December 25 when Hanoi launched a full-scale invasion of Cambodia with over 12 divisions, totaling 100,000 troops. The Vietnamese ground forces, supported by the Vietnamese air force, struck across the border into northeastern Cambodia. In one attack, Vietnamese troops attacked west from Tay Ninh province along Route 7. Additional Vietnamese forces took Kampong Cham, while another column attacked west along Route 1 in the direction of Phumi Prek Khsay, the Mekong River gateway to Phnom Penh. The final Vietnamese thrust drove west from Ha Tien, Vietnam, to seize the ports of Kampot and Kampong Som to prevent the resupply by sea of retreating Khmer Rouge forces.

By January 5, 1979, the main Vietnamese spearheads had driven to the eastern banks of the Mekong River. After a brief pause, the Vietnamese forces crossed the river and launched a direct assault on Phnom Penh. The Khmer Rouge leaders elected not to defend the city and it fell on January 7. The Vietnamese forces continued their attack to the west, driving toward the Thai border.

On January 7, 1979, the Vietnamese took possession of all government buildings in Phnom Penh and installed a new government under Heng Samrin. By this time, most of the Khmer Rouge forces had withdrawn into less accessible areas, from which they launched an insurgency against the new government and the Vietnamese forces that stayed to consolidate Hanoi’s hold on Cambodia. By early February, it was clear that Vietnamese forces were not going to withdraw and would in fact continue to occupy Cambodia.

China vs. Vietnam

Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia directly threatened Chinese interests in the region. China could not sit idly by while the Vietnamese had their way in Cambodia. Beijing sent several thinly veiled warnings to Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials responded by agreeing to discuss long-standing “border/ territorial issues” only, refusing to address the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, which was the main point of contention in the escalating tensions between the two countries.

The invasion of Cambodia and the ouster of the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime ultimately proved to be the final straw for China, which condemned the invasion of Cambodia and the installation of Heng Samrin as “Vietnamese hegemonism abetted by Soviet social-imperialism.” The growing antipathy between China and Vietnam was further exacerbated by what China saw as persecution of 200,000 ethnic Chinese (Hoa) in Vietnam. There was some truth to this charge; Vietnamese Chinese were stripped of their citizenship and forfeited their rights to own businesses and hold public office. This only added to the rapidly worsening situation. Several Chinese officials were quoted as saying that China was probably going to have to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”

On February 15, 1979, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping publicly announced China’s intention to strike back at the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. At dawn on the morning of February 17, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a “punitive” expedition against Vietnam, attacking at numerous points along the 480-mile Sino-Vietnamese border after a massive artillery and rocket barrage.

The overall commander of the PLA forces was General Xu Shiyou, a member of the Politburo and a longtime supporter of Deng Xiaoping. Xu’s deputy, General Yang Dezhi, was in tactical control of the operations. Yang also had been the deputy commander of Chinese troops during the Korean War, during which he had developed the tactics of infiltration and envelopment followed by mass attacks. Yang was chosen to take tactical control due to the similarity of the terrain in northern Vietnam to that in Korea.

Once the attack was joined in earnest, Beijing, concerned about Soviet reaction to the invasion, issued statements to deter Soviet intervention, justifying the action by claiming that it was in response to repeated violations of Chinese territory by Vietnamese troops. Furthermore, Beijing announced that Chinese troops would stay in Vietnam only for a short while and that talks should be initiated to resolve the border conflict as soon as possible.

In response to the Chinese attack across the border, the Soviets sent several naval vessels to Vietnamese waters and initiated a Soviet arms lift to Vietnam. The Soviet military attaché in Hanoi threatened that the USSR would “carry out its obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty,” but Moscow made it clear to Beijing that it would not intervene as long as the conflict remained localized along the common border between China and Vietnam.

The Chinese appear to have had several reasons for launching the attack. First, China wanted to punish Vietnam for the invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of the Pol Pot regime. They hoped that their massive attack would force Vietnam to withdraw troops from Cambodia and thereby remove the pressure on Pol Pot’s forces there. Second, the invasion was designed to deter extension of Vietnamese power across the border into China. Whether this threat was real or not was irrelevant; the Chinese made several statements reiterating their claims that there had been Vietnamese incursions into Chinese territory and that China would defend its territory and people from any Vietnamese aggression. Third, China was concerned about increasing Soviet influence and power in Southeast Asia. By attacking Moscow’s key ally in the area, Beijing could cast doubt on the extent of Soviet power in the region and thus avoid a direct threat to China while dealing a blow to Soviet prestige.

The invading force included 11 Chinese armies of regular ground troops and militia from the Kunming, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou military regions. It is thought that troops from Fuzhou and Jinan military regions also participated; if this is true, it means that troops from six of China’s 11 military regions were involved in the campaign. Estimates of the total number of Chinese troops committed range from 200,000 to 450,000. The attacking forces included about 200 tanks and massive amounts of supporting artillery.

After the initial broad thrust across the border, the Chinese attack focused on three objectives: Lang Son, Cao Bang and Lao Cai. Arrayed against the attacking Chinese forces were about 15 Vietnamese combat regiments controlled by four regular divisions – a total force of about 50,000 augmented by local militia and border guards. Most estimates put the total number of Vietnamese defenders at around 130,000.

The initial Chinese plan was to forge a shallow penetration all along the front, hoping to draw into battle and destroy the regular Vietnamese divisions, which the Chinese felt would be compelled to react to protect the provincial capitals and important communication centers that were threatened by the advance. This would result in major battles of attrition in which Chinese forces would inflict heavy punishment on the Vietnamese defenders.

The main Chinese attack appeared to be against Lang Son, a provincial capital on the hills overlooking the Red River Delta, which lay only about 150 kilometers from Hanoi. The Chinese began their assault against Lang Son with an artillery barrage. After the barrage lifted, Chinese 55th Army attacked to seize Dong Dang and was to continue the attack toward Lang Son. At the same time, Chinese 43d Army initially focused on the Vietnamese positions in the hills around Chi Ma, and after taking the town was to turn northwest to secure its ultimate objective, Lang Son. For the attack on Lang Son, Chinese 54th Army was in reserve, following 55th Army. The plan called for 43d and 55th armies to link up southwest of Lang Son, effectively isolating Vietnamese 3d Division there, where it could be destroyed or forced to surrender.

The Chinese had hoped to fight “battles of quick decision,” but their attacks were conducted in a slow and deliberate manner, normally involving massive frontal attacks that relied upon the weight of numbers and firepower to defeat the Vietnamese defenders. The Chinese also used tanks, which surprised the Vietnamese given the hilly nature of the terrain in the area, but the tanks proved useful in bunker busting.

Chinese 43d Army achieved some success, but 55th Army’s attack was slowed by stiff resistance that employed spoiling attacks, minefields and heavy artillery to disrupt and disorganize the Chinese advance. The terrain favored the Vietnamese defenders, and they occupied hills from which they could place devastating plunging fire on the attackers. Against this resistance, the Chinese were unable to maintain sufficient operational tempo to overcome the Vietnamese. Ultimately, Chinese 54th Army had to be committed to the fight. The reinforcements made the difference, but even so, the battle for Lang Son was not over until March 5.

On the Cao Bang front, the attack began on February 17 with Chinese 41st and 42d armies attacking on two separate axes of advance toward the town. These forces would be supported by elements of 12th, 20th and 50th Armies. The force allocated to this front numbered around 200,000 troops.

Chinese 41st Army was to cross the border and attack Cao Bang from the north, while 42d Army was to attack it from the southeast. As on the Lang Son front, the Chinese advances were slow and deliberate against stiff Vietnamese resistance. Chinese 42d Army made some progress, but the cost was high; in one engagement, the Vietnamese knocked out a number of Chinese tanks. As at Lang Son, the terrain favored the greatly outnumbered Vietnamese defenders, and they made the Chinese pay for every inch they advanced. Eventually, the sheer numbers of Chinese troops prevailed and Cao Bang fell on February 25. Heavy fighting continued on the Cao Bang front for the next five days, but on March 3, Chinese forces from the Cao Bang and Lang Son fronts linked up at Duet Long, on Highway 4, effectively closing the gap between the two Chinese thrusts.

On the Lao Cai front, the Chinese had attacked with elements of three armies, more than 125,000 troops. Chinese 11th Army attacked across the border from the northwest to seize the town of Phong Tho, about 65 kilometers from Lao Cai, to prevent reinforcement from the west. At the same time, 13th and 14th armies attacked south to seize Lao Cai itself. The Vietnamese defenders in this area included six regiments, totaling about 20,000 troops. As on the other fronts, the out numbered Vietnamese troops put up a stiff defense; after five days, the Chinese had advanced only a few kilometers. The Chinese employed human wave attacks to overcome the Vietnamese positions, but the battle continued until March 5 when Lao Cai fell to the attackers.

While the main Chinese thrusts focused on Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Lang Son, several supporting attacks were conducted elsewhere along the China-Vietnam border. Many of these attacks resembled the larger Chinese operations. For example, in Quang Ninh, on the eastern edge of the border, a platoon of Vietnamese held up an attack on Cao Ba Lanh Mountain for five hours, inflicting 360 casualties on the attacking Chinese force that numbered over 2,800 men.

The day after the Chinese captured Lang Son, Beijing declared that the gate to Hanoi was open; that the Vietnamese had been sufficiently chastised; and announced that it was withdrawing its forces. By March 16, all Chinese forces had crossed the border back into China, blowing bridges and railroads and generally laying waste to the Vietnamese countryside along the way.

Winners and Losers?

The Chinese had hoped to win a quick decision against the Vietnamese, but they found out that their troops were no match for the better-trained and combat-experienced Vietnamese and that they only succeeded when their forces outnumbered the defenders. The Chinese had used outdated and obsolete equipment, some dating back to World War II and/or the Korean War, and their tactics were slow and deliberate. Rather than pursue the infiltration and envelopment tactics that had proved so successful in Korea, the PLA had most often turned to massive frontal assaults that were both wasteful and ineffective.

Part of the problem was an antiquated command and control system that continually demonstrated issues with coordinating combined arms. Chinese artillery relied upon centralized planning and was not responsive to the support needs of the front-line troops. PLA communications were inadequate; few modern radios were available and forward units often resorted to runners to relay orders. Consequently, the Chinese had great difficulty in coordinating large-scale attacks.

Logistics was also a major problem. PLA transport resources were inadequate and the Chinese frequently had great difficulty supplying their troops, often relying on local militia for logistics. Under these conditions, commanders repeatedly lost large numbers of troops to achieve minimal gains. The personnel system, which was based on each Chinese military region being relatively autonomous, was unresponsive, proving unable to provide sufficient replacements for the many casualties the Chinese suffered.

Just how many casualties were incurred on each side is not clearly known. The Vietnamese claimed that the Chinese had lost 62,500 killed in action, but the Chinese only admitted to losing 20,000 total casualties. Harlan W. Jencks, a noted expert on the PLA, estimates that the Chinese lost more than 18,000 soldiers killed in the bitter fighting. The Chinese claimed that the Vietnamese had suffered more than 50,000 casualties, but most Western observers put the number at 20,000-35,000. Although the numbers remain disputed, it is clear that the Vietnamese forces incurred heavy casualties but at the same time inflicted a heavy toll on the Chinese attackers.

By the end of the campaign, the Chinese army had clearly demonstrated shortcomings in organization, equipment, command and control, and tactics that had to be addressed if the PLA was to become an effective and modern force. As The New York Times reporter Drew Middleton wrote in the conflict’s aftermath, “The Chinese army had numerical superiority over Vietnam in almost every category – men, guns, tanks – but it was unable to score the smashing victory that it sought because of the relatively slow pace of an offensive carried out by what was basically a marching army.” After the war was over, Deng Xiaoping used the outcome of the bitter fighting to push through a number of measures meant to reform and modernize the PLA.

Both sides claimed victory, but for the Chinese, the campaign to punish Vietnam had not turned out the way Beijing had expected. In assessing the outcome of the war, Gerald Segal concluded in his 1985 book Defending China that it was a complete failure: “China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal [from Cambodia], failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.”

However, some observers claim that the campaign may not have been a total loss for China. In the 2001 book Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989, Bruce A. Ellerman suggests that Beijing had launched the attack into Vietnam to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as “a fraud.” “Seen in this light,” Ellerman writes, “Beijing’s policy was actually a diplomatic success, since Moscow did not actively intervene, thus showing the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese military pact.” Banning Garrett and Nayan Chanda agree that China had been successful in demonstrating that the USSR was a “paper polar bear” because it had not come to the aid of the Vietnamese.

The Chinese may have achieved a diplomatic victory, as Ellerman suggests, but it appears that China was the overall loser militarily in the confrontation with Vietnam along their common border. The Chinese had taken all their military objectives, but Vietnam had stood against the Chinese onslaught and clearly demonstrated that it continued to be a power to be reckoned with.

As for Vietnam’s relationship with the Soviet Union, the conflict only strengthened Hanoi’s ties with Moscow. As for Cambodia, Vietnam did not withdraw its troops and would continue to occupy the country until October 1991. Thus, in the final analysis of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, the question is “Who taught whom a lesson?”

James H. Willbanks is an “ACG” advisory board member and the editor or author of 13 books, including Abandoning Vietnam, The Battle of An Loc, The Tet Offensive: A Concise History, and A Raid Too Far: Operation Lam Son 719 and Vietnamization in Laos.

Who won the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979?

Ray Fang, Master from Macquarie University (2009)
Answered Jan 16 2018

As a Chinese I would try to answer this question as unbiased as I can. But instead of arguing who actually won the war, I would rather talk about the implications and background of this war on China’s side. Honestly this is not a glory war for China, China did invade Vietnam despite any reasons.

We all understand that the war is the extend of politics, war servers the purpose of politics. So what the purpose of this war for China is? To invade Vietnam? To punish Vietnam like what Chinese government has propagated? No, it was ironic that from the very beginning China’s primary purpose had never been Vietnam. In my opinion China had at least 3 strategic purposes: (1) jeopardize global reputation of Soviet Union, (2) strive for supports and aids from U.S and western world, and (3) And the ultimate goal was to strength Den Xiaoping’s authority in China and hence starts his plan of reforming China.

Background information: In 1979 Soviet Union is a hostile country of China; China had established full diplomatic relationship with U.S in 1/1/1979; Vietnam was a firm ally of Soviet and the relationship with China was tense; Vietnam invaded Cambodia; China has just recovered from the chaos caused by the ten years cultural revolution, Den Xiaoping took the power of CCP and he had planned to conduct a huge political and economical reform in China. And his plans desired a favourable international and domestic environment.

I am not going to talk about how close China and Vietnam were before, and I am not going to give the precise number of how much resources China had contribute to Vietnam to fight U.S. Circumstances had changed, Vietnam was no longer a friend but U.S had became one, the rest were irrelevant.

China needed an opportunity and Vietnam had just provided one. By invading Cambodia, Vietnam had gave China an excuse for the war. (Khmer Rouge is another topic) By sending the majority of Vietnamese elite troops to Cambodia and ignored the existence of China, Vietnam had just gave China a chance for the war, and Den Xiaoping seized the chance. In 17/02/1979, 200,000 Chinese troops had entered Vietnam territory along the 1,000 kilometers China-Vietnam border, the war had begun.

But I am not going to discus the details of the battles. In 05/03/1979, after taking the major cities in north Vietnam, even the route to the capital of Vietnam is flat as a pancake, Den Xiaoping had ordered his troops to retreat back to China. The war had ended, and both sides claimed a victory. Because he clearly understood the costs of continuing the war for China would be huge and exceed the benefits. Vietnam army were tough and experienced. The casualties of Chinese army in the first 2 days of the war had reached 4,000 and shocked the central military community. This war had also revealed many serious problems of Chinese army. Soldiers were unprofessional and poorly equipt. Military tactics were obsolete and command system was a mess, even friendly fire had happened. And the military ranking system were abandoned during the cultural revolution, soldiers did not receive further orders when their direct commanders were killed in the battlefield. So this war and the later Gulf war alert China to transform and modernize its army. But on the other hand, no matter how bravely the Vietnamese army fought, China was still a giant to Vietnam. China could easily allocate a small portion of its national resources to drag Vietnam into a endless warfare.

The small military conflicts and battles on the borders did not stop with the war until the 1990s. In more than 10 years time, troops from different Chinese military districts took turns entered into the conflict zone for training and weapon testing purpose, and of course to create pressure to Vietnam. An ordinary Chinese life was hardly affected by those conflicts, Chinese were busy doing business at that time. However it was a totally different story for Vietnam, in order to counter China and prepare for Chinese next invasion which Den Xiaoping had warned. Vietnam had to maintain a large number of troops which was a huge burden for Vietnamese economy. Vietnam therefor did not have sufficient resources to develop infrastructures and improve economy. The subsequences of the war harmed Vietnam a lot more than the war itself.

Because Soviet did nothing to stop China invading Vietnam, after the war some of its allies like Egypt and Afghanistan embrace the western side which had led to the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet in 1980s. And Afghanistan had dragged Soviet into a war swamp. Soviet also provided a large number of financial aid to Vietnam each year to help Vietnam maintain its army. All of these issues helped the final collapse of the Soviet union in 1990s.

After the war China had proven it was helpful to against the Soviet. U.S, Japan and Europe started to sell weapons to China, invest in China, transfer technology to China and trade with China. The international environment was perfect for China in the 1980s. And Den Xiaoping had established dominated authority in CCP, he was ready to implement his mega plans.

I have to commit that Den Xiaoping is really a master in strategy, China had almost accomplished all major goals through the war, but at the expense of the lives of Chinese and Vietnamese people.

Alejandro Peralta, studied at Military History and Wars
Answered Oct 4, 2017

Both China and Vietnam claimed victory about this conflict.

However, from what I understood, if this war had something to do with Deng, then in my case, the clearest answer is China had failed militarily, but won politically, in this war.

Why did this fail? Because there was something very simple.

Vietnamese were very strong in warfare tendency, as for the result of historical war among Vietnamese people. When Vietnam fought against China in 1979, almost Vietnamese were seriously, patriotic, nationalists, and resilient. China, those days, was angered over the fall of Khmer Rouge, thus China wanted to teach Vietnam a lesson. China didn’t have strong military force although it stationed in large number around the border.

That’s why when China invaded Vietnam, it suffered most casualties. The truth is, while Vietnam suffered 20.000 casualties, China got 40–50.000 casualties in this conflict, even they managed to occupy some fortresses around the border.

Since the casualties of China were reported, entire of Chinese Government led by Deng must be shocked with the number of casualties that they had to withdraw.

However, also in this war, Deng had proven one thing right: only reforms would help China. And this had finally fit Deng’s idea. Shocked with the casualties, but at least Deng had proven one thing: only reforms could help them. Thus, from being reluctant after Deng introduced 1978 reforms, after 1979 war, Deng finally cleaned out who disagree with reforms, paved the way for China to become superpower.

For Vietnam, they once again proved that they didn’t fear their giant neighbor in the North as it used to be before. They didn’t leave Cambodia, and they still got it. But for some reasons, they also needed reforms later, and the 1986 reforms finally pushed Vietnam to global scale once more time.

Only civilians suffered casualties…

A deep dive into the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 – Deng Xiaoping’s final war

Jonathan Yu
Jan 24 2019

On the morning of February 17, 1979, the People’s Republic of China began shelling the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Shortly thereafter, 100,000 PLA troops crossed the border into Vietnam. Five columns of troops swept through the border areas, taking several cities in the area.


Why exactly did the Chinese attack their ally? The Chinese and Vietnamese Communist Parties shared Marxist ideologies and Ho Chi Minh had repeatedly said that China and Vietnam were comrades and brothers. The Chinese played a crucial role in helping the Vietnamese eject the imperialist French and Americans. When Marxist comrades disagree, they are supposed to settle their issues with arguments based on Marxist theories, not artillery shells. What is the reason for this move?

As with all historical incidents, this military invasion comes as the result of a long line of irritating offenses and quibbles spiraling into outright conflict. The gap between the Vietnamese and the Chinese had been growing ever since the Vietnamese Communist Party reunified the country at the end of the Vietnam War.

Vietnam and China has had a conflicted and complex relationship for centuries. This includes a near 1,000 year time period of colonization and a 20 year invasion at the hands of the Ming Dynasty in the 15th century. So, you can say that there were some tensions. In the eyes of the Vietnamese, Chinese intentions were not pure. The Chinese saw the Vietnamese as a junior partner and not as equals – bristling whenever the Vietnamese tried to go their own way. Yes China had supplied aid and resources (worth nearly $20 billion during a time when China can definitely have used the money) for the war effort against the United States, but that aid for the Vietnamese came with a condition – accepting it meant that the Vietnamese could not accept any aid from the Soviets.

The Chinese on the other hand – they were angered by what they thought was Hanoi’s lack of gratitude for providing that aid. Between this and the escalating border clashes and explosions of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, Deng’s China felt that the Vietnamese had gotten too big for their britches and deserved a lesson for their “insolence”. Perhaps this confirms the Vietnamese notion that the Chinese would forever treat them as a junior partner, but such a notion was apparently lost on the Chinese.

Adding to this increasingly rancorous relationship between the Chinese and Vietnamese was the Chinese Communist Party’s desire to warm to the West and further leave the Soviets behind.

Sino-Soviet Tensions

It might better help you understand the Chinese Communist Party’s motives to know that at the period of time, the Party saw the Soviet Union as its biggest foreign policy threat. The Sino-Soviet Split had been on for a long time – starting with disputes between Mao and Khrushchev over Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin in his Secret Speech. The Soviets would on occasion try for a thawing of relations but how can the Chinese trust them when the USSR continued to position major military forces at the Soviet-Chinese borders and conduct exercises with live ammunition there?

In July 1977, Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s paramount leader – holding the titles of Communist Party vice-chairman, Central Military Commission vice-chairman, and chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff. He had seized power from Hua Guofeng, Chairman Mao Zedong’s appointed successor in a momentous November 1976 meeting where Chen Yun – economic czar, Deng confidant, and one of the Eight Elders of the Communist Party – delivered a fiery speech that brought up the sins of the extreme left during the disastrous Cultural Revolution. Deng marshaled forces to back Chen’s speech and the tide turned. Mao Zedong was already dead, but now so would his policies – all those who allied with him fell from grace.

The ultra-left ideology wing no longer held the reins of power. The faction that emerged believed in a more moderate agenda focusing on modernizing the economy and opening up to the outside world. That meant warming relations with the United States which at the time was seen as the undisputed global leader in technology and ideas. Invading and taming the Vietnamese could conceivably be seen by the global community as a serious indicator of the honesty of China’s intentions. Draw a line between the Communist Parties of China and the Soviet Union, so to say. It would also prove to that same global community that China’s fighting forces can be relied upon to competently fight alongside the West to push back Soviet influences.

Who knows. Really just one person and he has been dead for a long time. Deng Xiaoping drove the Vietnam war effort pretty much singlehandedly and he seemed to harbor a (one might even say that it was irrational) grudge against the Vietnamese. As Deng was the paramount leader, there was no one in a position to question or go against him. Thus, the war moved forward.

How the Fight Went Down

For this incursion into Vietnam, Deng specifically instructed the army to limit the scope of the war and seek only to achieve China’s political goals. This would keep China from getting bogged down in Vietnam like America did (good lesson) while keeping the Soviet Union out of it.

The war would be fought in two stages:

> First, a two-pronged offensive with the first prong striking against the two cities of Cao Bang and Lao Cai. The second prong would simultaneously hit at the city of Dong Dang. (February 17 to 25)

> Second, PLA forces would converge on Lang Son (February 26 to March 5)

Once these two stages have been completed the Chinese army would withdraw and claim victory. The PLA allocated some 330,000 men for the mostly land-based attack.

As said earlier, the Vietnamese high command was baffled that the PLA would actually strike them. But the Chinese propaganda machine had been running for some time – calling the Vietnamese “dogs of the Soviet Union” and the “Cuba of the East”. And then came a massive evacuation of 300,000 civilians out of the Heilongjiang and Xinjiang areas – Soviet border zones. This would guard against a Soviet counterattack from the rear and probably the most telling sign of an imminent attack.

Vietnam’s troops at the time had been away from the border areas – seeking to suppress a military action in Cambodia. The only people left to fight against the PLA had been the Vietnamese regular forces – some 150,000 troops from regional security and militia. Chinese Central Command had apparently ignored these militias in their military assessments of the area and thus assumed that they would have an overwhelming 8 to 1 advantage over the Vietnamese. This mistake would cost many lives as it immediately became clear to everyone involved that the Vietnamese local forces were well-trained and well-equipped. So it was more like 2 to 1, really, and that is not enough to conquer a province when your resistance forces can count on the support of the local populace.

Stage 1 – Flanking Cao Bang

On February 17, 1979 at 5AM, a wave of artillery abruptly fired all along the Sino-Vietnamese border. Shortly thereafter 100,000 soldiers and tank units advanced forward across the border. Their goals were for the cities of Lang Son, Cao Bang, and Lao Cai. Lao Cai was a special focal point as it hosted a railroad to Hanoi.

There was no air support because Deng and Central Command restricted Chinese flying missions only to Chinese airspace. Central Command did not allow their middle and lower ranking officers to make independent judgements or adjust to conditions. Thus the PLA was forced to send waves and waves of human soldiers at a fortification. It worked better than you might think as long as you were okay with thousands of your men dying.

Through sheer force of numbers they made progress. The PLA advanced 10 miles into Vietnamese territory and took several border towns, crossing the river and pushing to Lao Cai. They took two small towns en route to a larger city called Dong Dang, whereupon they met their first regular army regiment – the Vietnamese “Flying Tiger Regiment”.

The Vietnamese speculated on the Chinese strategy. Are the Chinese looking to annex the borderlands including Lang Son, Cao Bang, and Lao Cai? Are they looking to simply cause economic damage? Or do they have bolder plans – seeking to strike at the heart of Vietnam itself?

Feb 20–26, Cao Bang

On February 20, Beijing finally began to publicize what they had done – reporting that they had caused “very heavy” losses on the Vietnamese. According to them, some 10,000 Vietnamese had been wounded or killed as opposed to just 2,000–3,000 on the Chinese side.

But the Chinese were taking it on the chin too. The PLA soldiers quickly found out what the Americans already knew after two decades fighting Vietnam War: Jungle fighting is hard. The PLA did not train well for these conditions and suffered immense casualties from tunnel/jungle warfare, booby traps, land mines and the famous bamboo stakes. The Vietnamese had fortified the border provinces with tunnels, caves, and trenches and the well-armed militia knew how to use them. The rain came and bogged everything down and the PLA troops had to resort to using horses and donkeys to transport goods and weapons through mucky roads and rocky mountains. Infantry soldiers tied themselves to their tanks so that they would not fall off, making for excellent targets when the enemy ambushed them. Tank units suffered especially heavy losses – 87% of such experienced some form of damage.

Nevertheless, they made progress with the capture of Lao Cai (the one with the railway) and Cao Bang. On February 21 and 22, the Chinese and Vietnamese reinforced their forces and converged towards Lang Son, where the heaviest fighting would eventually take place.

Feb 27 to March 4, The Battle of Lang Son

Lang Son is a mere 85 miles from Hanoi. It is bordered by a rugged, mountainous region at its north and an open plain at its south. Two PLA divisions approached this city from Dang Dong and Loc Binh – cutting off all the roads in and out.

When Mao was alive, his strategy when fighting urban battles was to first occupy the countryside surrounding the city so to make sure that their forces do not get bogged down once they are inside. Here now, the PLA would follow that strategy, having the city mostly surrounded by March 2. Thousands of corpses littered the highways with casualties on both sides. The last area remaining was to the south with the Khua Ma Son mountains.

On March 3, the PLA launched an attack to take that area and complete the capture of Lang Son. As with before, tanks and infantry swarmed towards a fortified hill. It worked as planned and the hill had been captured in just 10 minutes. They then blew up adjacent Vietnamese artillery firing positions to complete the encirclement and capture Lang Son.

The war ends abruptly

Deng and the Chinese high command had from the very start of the attack emphasized that this excursion would not last long. They publicly announced that this was limited war with limited aims – that goal is to keep the Vietnamese in line. On February 23rd – a week into the fighting – ambassadors and reporters were told that the war would last “about another week”, “about 10 days”, and “a few days more”.

The Chinese did this because they knew that if the war dragged on then larger powers would have to get involved and they really wanted to keep the Soviet Union from intervening. This succeeded as the Soviets would in the end stay out of it as long as the scale of the fighting remained “limited”.

Thus on March 5, a week or so after the remarks on February 23rd, Beijing announced that they had “advanced 30 … to 80 miles, taken the capitals of Lang Son, Cao Bang, and Lao Cai and 17 other countries and cities, and damaged severely 4 regular divisions and 10 regiments of the enemy forces.” The Party’s political goals had been achieved and the PLA began to withdraw. The Vietnamese for their part decided not to escalate the situation and allowed the retreat to happen in an orderly manner.

You have to give credit to the Communist Party to sticking to their word. Army commanders or government hawks can easily engulf the whole thing into a much larger conflict. After all, your men gave their lives to take this territory and now you want to give it all back to the enemy?

Casualties and Chinese PLA Tactics

Deng is a different political leader than Mao, but as military leaders they have similar strategies – annihilate the enemy force, usually by encircling the enemy. One of the major generals in the war said that the central leadership told him to “use a butcher’s knife to kill a chick” – meaning to use razor sharp strikes to destroy the enemy’s vital areas while avoiding the enemy’s strengths.

But when central command believes that they can seize the strategic advantage then they will endure heavy losses. Even when the Vietnamese defenders seemed well-fortified, the Chinese pushed their infantrymen into close massed combat to take that location – which does not seem all that fun to me. I have read a few books on the Vietnam War before and was struck by the brutal and cruel nature of close combat with the Vietnamese. The Chinese army commanders constantly asked for the help from aerial bombing for support but central command had restricted flights to being only over Chinese airspace for political reasons. Thus, the infantry was on their own and as a result they took immense casualties.

There are a lot of varying sources about how many Chinese casualties the PLA took. Beijing initially said 20,000 killed or wounded during the short 3-week battle period. Hanoi said that they inflicted about 42,000 casualties on the Chinese. Other estimates say 25,000 PLA killed and 37,000 more wounded. And yet another says just 6,900 dead. Regardless of however you set the numbers, a lot of Chinese soldiers fell here. In comparison, United States suffered some 356,962 killed or wounded over a span of 20 years. The PLA would have reached that number in a year.

How the PLA Fought

How the People’s Liberation Army performed in the Sino-Vietnamese war does not tell us much about how it might fight a future one. There is very little information at all about what exactly happened. It happened so fast so you can only really rely on partisan sources. Our conclusions are almost totally dependent on what the Chinese claim in their documents.

But even Party officials in their documents knew that the PLA underperformed on an operational basis. Army planners had arrogantly claimed that it could take Hanoi in just a week using only a fraction of their total forces. The reality was that it took 16 days and 10 full divisions to capture a third of that distance. And they did not even face the proper Vietnamese army! The weapons were backwards, tactics needed to be updated from when Mao was alive, and most troublingly morale was low. The top-down command structure meant that soldiers felt that their lives were being wasted and documents recorded situations in one underperforming part of the army where some units were “forced” to advance – whatever that means.

Things have changed a lot now and today the PLA is a much different fighting force. But the fighting gives you a good sense of how the Chinese Communist Party sees war. To the Communist Party, war and the PLA are tools that aid in the Party’s political goals. If the Party manages to achieves those goals then the PLA too has succeeded, regardless of how well the army itself fought and many soldiers are maimed or dead. In many ways it reminds me of the tactics of the Red Army. The Party believes that it successfully delivered a message to Vietnam – thus the PLA succeeded too.

References and Bibiography

Anon. (1980). China Should Learn from its Losses in the War against Vietnam, from “August 1” Radio, People’s republic of China, 1400 GMT, February 17, 1980, as reported by BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 22 February 1980.

Anon. (2016). Chiến tranh Biên giới Việt–Trung.

Bennett-Jones, O. (2000). China-Vietnam pact signed.

Chan, G. (1989). China and international organizations: participation in non-governmental organizations since 1971 (illustrated ed.). Oxford University Press.

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Compiled by Diep Minh Tam — 17-Feb-2019

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