In February 1979 the Chinese invaded Vietnam with a force of more that 500,000 men to "teach the Vietnamese a lesson." The countries fought a brief but intense 17-day war with Chinese foray quickly rebuffed. The war was an embarrassment for China's People's Liberation Army who were thoroughly trounced and suffered as many as 20,000 casualties in two weeks of fierce fighting. The Chinese were expected to roll over the Vietnamese but they got bogged down as a result of communications problems. Vietnamese general Vo van Kiet told Time magazine: "we won over China in the border war, not because of comparative advantage in military force. We won the war because we had the right to defend our country."

Andrew Forbes of the Asia Times wrote: “Acting on Deng's orders, the Chinese army invaded Vietnam in 1979, capturing five northern provincial capitals before systematically demolishing them and withdrawing to China after administering a symbolic "lesson". But who taught a lesson to whom? Beijing sought to force Hanoi to withdraw its frontline forces from Cambodia, but the Vietnamese didn't engage these forces in the struggle, choosing instead to confront the Chinese with irregulars and provincial militia. Casualties were about equal, and China lost considerable face, as well as international respect, as a result of its invasion. Over the millennia, actions like this have taught the Vietnamese a recurring lesson about China. It's there, it's big, and it won't go away, so appease it without yielding whenever possible, and fight it with every resource available whenever necessary. [Source: Andrew Forbes, Asia Times, April 26, 2007]

China mounted a "self-defense counterattack" along virtually the entire Sino-Vietnamese border in a limited campaign that involved ground forces only. The conflict ended on March 5, when Chinese leaders declared its "lesson" finished and announced that their objectives had been met, and proceeded to withdraw their forces. Despite the Chinese boast of having shattered the myth of Vietnam's invincibility, the invasion effected little more than the diversion of some Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. The bulk of the resistance reportedly was offered by local Vietnamese border units and regional forces. Outnumbered, they performed well, exposing significant weaknesses in Chinese tactics, strategy, logistics, equipment, and communications. In the final analysis, the results were far from conclusive. Peace negotiations were initiated following the disengagement of forces, but broke down several times before being discontinued in December 1979. [Source: Library of Congress]

The two-week campaign devastated northern Vietnam and briefly threatened Hanoi. Both China (40,000) and Vietnam (over 20,000) suffered heavy losses. Peace talks broke down in December 1979 and both China (400,000) and Vietnam (600,000) began a major build-up of forces along the border. Sporadic fighting on the border occurred throughout the 1980s and China threatened to force Vietnam's exit from Kampuchea.

Reasons for 1979 Chinese-Vietnamese Border War

Vietnam's decision to align with the Soviets together with its invasion of Cámbodia and mistreatment of the Hoa, provoked Beijing to "teach Hanoi a lesson." Vietnam’s relations with China deteriorated along with relations with Khmer Rouge. Most of the victims of the anticapitalist campaign launched in March 1978 were ethnic-Chinese –– hundreds of thousands of which became refugees or ‘boat people’ The attack on the Khmer Rouge—Chinese allies— by the Vietnamese was viewed by the Chinese as a serious provocation against them.

Before, during and after the 1979 Vietnamese-Chinese border war, there was an anti-Chinese pogrom in Vietnam, forcing many of the country's most talented entrepreneurs to flee Vietnam. In 1979 some 300,000 boat people fled Vietnam. Many of them were persecuted ethnic Chinese who sailed to Hong Kong and other Southeast Asian nations. Many ethnic Chinese that fled Vietnam now reside in Kunming in southern China.

Relations between the two countries had been deteriorating for some time. Territorial disagreements along the border and in the South China Sea that had remained dormant during the Vietnam War were revived at the war's end, and a postwar campaign engineered by Hanoi to limit the role of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese community in domestic commerce elicited a strong protest from Beijing. China also was displeased with Vietnam because of its improving relationship with the Soviet Union.

Deterioration of Relations Between China and Vietnam After the Vietnam War

The deterioration of Sino-Vietnamese relations was gradual, commencing perhaps most dramatically with Richard M. Nixon's 1972 visit to China (which Hanoi later called the beginning of China's betrayal of Vietnam). China's relations with Vietnam began to deteriorate seriously in the mid-1970s. After Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union in 1978, China branded Vietnam the "Cuba of the East" and called the treaty a military alliance.

In the mid-1970s the signs of an impending breakdown were barely discernible to outsiders. Until 1977 the Vietnam-Cambodia dispute appeared to the outside world to be purely bilateral and China's strategic considerations seemed only distantly connected to the skirmishes taking place on the Vietnamese-Cambodian border. The Chinese in the 1976-77 period were preoccupied with internal affairs, including the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the arrest of Mao's widow, and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping. As the situation between Vietnam and Cambodia deteriorated, the signs of a potential SinoVietnamese rift became clearer the more Cambodia's strategic importance for both China and Vietnam. appeared at risk. Aside from risking the return of the Khmer Rouge, Vietnam, viewed a disengagement from Cambodia as paramount to inviting China to create a two-front threat by establishing a foothold on a second Vietnamese frontier. In China's view, Vietnam's sustained presence in Cambodia not only precluded such an accomplishment, but conferred territory, once administered by an acknowledged Chinese ally, to the authority of an historic Asian adversary that was closely allied with a contemporary superpower rival, the Soviet Union. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Vietnam's and China's shared modern experiences, namely their common exploitation by colonial powers and adaptations to communist ideology, did little to alter Vietnam's historical view of China, which was colored by lengthy periods of Chinese conquest and domination. During the Second Indochina War, China acted as North Vietnam's closest ally, but, according to later Vietnamese statements, the Chinese tried to dominate the relationship from the beginning. Vietnam's desperate need for Chinese assistance forced it to maintain good relations with Beijing for the duration of the war, despite Vietnamese suspicions that China's ultimate purpose was to weaken Vietnam. *

After the end of the Second Indochina War, underlying tensions between the two countries surfaced, and in 1978 a number of issues converged to bring the relationship to the breaking point. In addition to the growing dispute in Cambodia, these issues included territorial disagreements and Vietnam's treatment of its own largest minority group, the Hoa or ethnic Chinese, who numbered nearly 2 million. *

The territorial dispute involved primarily delineation of territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin and sovereignty over two archipelagos in the South China Sea, the Paracel and the Spratly Islands (the Xisha and the Nansha in Chinese; the Hoang Sa and Truong Sa in Vietnamese). A border dispute on land (over fewer than sixty square kilometers) was responsible for the relatively steady occurrence of low-level border clashes involving crossborder violations and the exchange of small-arms fire. In 1958 the two governments decided to defer settling their border differences until after victory had been achieved in the South. *

Disagreement over territorial waters in the Gulf of Tonkin stemmed from agreements reached between China and France in 1887, stipulating a territorial limit of no more three nautical miles. These agreements had been adequate until 1973, when Hanoi announced to Beijing its intention to negotiate contracts with foreign firms for the exploration of oil in the Gulf of Tonkin. The disputed islands in the South China Sea assumed importance only after it was disclosed that they were near the potential sites of substantial offshore oil deposits. In January 1974, Chinese military units seized islands in the Paracels occupied by South Vietnamese armed forces, and Beijing claimed sovereignty over the Spratlys. Following their conquest of South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, units of the People's Army of Vietnam (PAVN) nevertheless moved to occupy the Spratly Islands previously held by the Saigon regime. *

Incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border increased in frequency and violence. In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, quickly ousted the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime, and overran the country. In February 1979 China attacked along virtually the entire Sino-Vietnamese border in a brief, limited campaign that involved ground forces only. In March Beijing declared its "lesson" finished and withdrew all its troops. [Source: Library of Congress]

Events Before the China-Vietnam War

Incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border increased in frequency and violence after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. In December 1978 Vietnam invaded Cambodia, quickly ousted the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime, and overran the country.

Vietnam's treatment of the Hoa became an issue in 1978, when Hanoi instituted a crackdown on the Chinese community because of its pervasive role in domestic commerce in the South and its alleged subversive activities in the North. The government action forced an unprecedented exodus of thousands of Hoa across the border into China, prompting Beijing to accuse Vietnam of persecuting its Chinese community and of breaking a 1955 agreement that called for the gradual and voluntary integration of the Hoa into Vietnamese society. The situation was aggravated when Vietnam denied landing privileges to three Chinese ships dispatched to evacuate Hoa seeking voluntary repatriation to China. Beijing threatened Hanoi with unspecified retaliation, and Chinese activities on the Sino-Vietnamese border escalated. *

Deng Xiaoping openly denounced the Vietnamese as "the hooligans of the East". According to one Thai diplomat: "The moment the topic of Vietnam came up, you could see something change in Deng Xiaoping. "His hatred was just visceral. He spat forcefully into his spittoon and called the Vietnamese 'dogs'."

The deterioration in bilateral relations became evident when China reduced in May 1978 and then cancelled on July 3 its remaining aid projects in Vietnam. The officical announcement followed by only a few days Hanoi's admission on June 29 to the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Assistance ( Comecon). A few months later, in November 1978, a new era in Soviet-Vietnamese relations began with the signing of a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation that called for mutual assistance and consultation in the event of a security threat to either country. The document facilitated Soviet use of Vietnamese airports and port facilities, particularly the former United States military complex at Cam Ranh Bay. In return, it assured Vietnam of economic and military aid for the anticipated invasion of Cambodia and established the Soviet Union as a deterrent to possible Chinese intervention in Cambodia. *

Vietnamese leader Le Duan visited China in November 1977 to seek aid. Chinese Communist Party Chairman Hua Guofeng stated that Sino/Vietnamese relations had deteriorated because they held different principles. Hua insisted that China could not help Vietnam because of its own economic difficulties and differences in principles. Le Duan countered that the only difference was how they viewed the Soviet Union and the United States. Following his visit, China condemned COMECON. China halted all economic development projects between May and July 1978. During this period total Chinese aid to Vietnam amounted to $300 million.

Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese Debacle in Vietnam in 1979

Perry Anderson wrote in the London Review of Books: “China’s war on Vietnam in 1979 is seen by Harvard historian Ezra Vogel and Henry Kissinger as Deng’s resolute action to thwart Vietnamese plans to encircle China in alliance with the USSR, invade Thailand, and establish Hanoi’s domination over South-East Asia. The effort was not popular with many of of Deng’s colleagues and was previewed by Deng’s tour of Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore to ensure diplomatic cover for the attack he was planning, from the war itself, and Deng’s far more important tour of the United States two months later. Deng launched the war just five days after getting back from Washington with the US placet in his pocket. [Source: Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, February 9, 2012 //\]

Kissinger has suggested that China’s war on Vietnam was a vital blow against the Soviet Union and a stepping-stone to victory in the Cold War. Kissinger said Deng’s masterstroke required US “moral support.” U.S. Secretary of State in the Carter administration, Zbigniew Brzezinski said, “We could not collude formally with the Chinese in sponsoring what was tantamount to overt military aggression.” “Informal collusion was another matter.” Singapore’s said: “I believe it changed the history of East Asia.” //\

“Militarily, the war was a fiasco. Deng threw 11 Chinese armies or 450,000 troops, the size of the force that routed the US on the Yalu in 1950, against Vietnam, a country with a population a twentieth that of China. As the chief military historian of the campaign, Edward O’Dowd, has noted, in the Korean War a similar-sized PLA force had moved further in 24 hours against a larger defending force than it moved in two weeks against fewer Vietnamese.” So disastrous was the Chinese performance that all Deng’s wartime pep talks were expunged from his collected works, the commander of the air force excised any reference to the campaign from his memoirs, and it became effectively a taboo topic thereafter. //\

“Politically, as an attempt to force Vietnam out of Cambodia and restore Pol Pot to power, it was a complete failure. Deng, who regretted not having persisted with his onslaught on Vietnam, despite the thrashing his troops had endured, tried to save face by funnelling arms to Pol Pot through successive Thai military dictators. Deng continually berated his American interlocutors for insufficient hostility to Moscow, warning them that Vietnam wasn’t just “another Cuba”: it was planning to conquer Thailand, and open the gates of South-East Asia to the Red Army. //\

“The stridency of his fulminations against the Soviet menace rang like an Oriental version of the paranoia of the John Birch Society. Whether he actually believed what he was saying is less clear than its intended effect. He wanted to convince Washington that there could be no stauncher ally in the Cold War than the PRC under his command. Mao had seen his entente with Nixon as another Stalin-Hitler Pact— in the formulation of one of his generals— with Kissinger featuring as Ribbentrop: a tactical deal with one enemy to ward off dangers from another. Deng, however, sought more than this. His aim was strategic acceptance within the American imperial system, to gain access to the technology and capital needed for his drive to modernise the Chinese economy. This was the true, unspoken rationale for his assault on Vietnam. The US was still smarting from its defeat in Indochina. What better way of gaining its trust than offering it vengeance by proxy? The war misfired, but it bought something more valuable to Deng than the 60,000 lives it cost China’s entry ticket to the world capitalist order, in which it would go on to flourish. //\

China and Vietnam Relations After the China- Vietnam War

After the war, both China and Vietnam reorganized their border defenses. The border war strengthened Soviet-Vietnamese relations. The Soviet military role in Vietnam increased during the 1980s as the Soviets provided arms to Vietnam; moreover, Soviet ships enjoyed access to the harbors at Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, and Soviet reconnaissance aircraft operated out of Vietnamese airfields. Low-level conflict continued along the Sino-Vietnamese border as each side conducted artillery shelling and probed to gain high spots in the mountainous border terrain. Border incidents increased in intensity during the rainy season, when Beijing attempted to ease Vietnamese pressure against Cambodian resistance fighters. In 1986 China deployed twenty-five to twenty-eight divisions and Vietnam thirty-two divisions along their common border. Nevertheless, most observers doubted that China would risk another war with Vietnam in the near future. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Cambodian crisis, too, remained stalemated, and Vietnamese dependence upon the Soviet Union continued. In 1987 tensions along the Sino-Vietnamese border erupted in sporadic fighting. China believed that the Cambodian conflict would serve Chinese interests by draining the Vietnamese economically and weakening Hanoi. China's sustained pressure on Vietnam's northern border would also tax Vietnam militarily, while satisfying ASEAN's requests for Chinese assistance in the conflict and providing Chinese armed forces with invaluable combat experience. Consequently, Vietnam's dry-season campaigns to eliminate CGDK resistance base camps along the Thai-Cambodian border were generally matched by corresponding Chinese acts along the SinoVietnamese border. China issued vague threats to Vietnam of a "second lesson" in the mid-1980s but as of 1987 had not acted on these threats. *

China imposed the removal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia as a precondition to improved Sino-Soviet relations, and diplomatic activity in late 1986 indicated that Vietnam might mend its differences with China in the event the Soviets moved closer to the Chinese. Despite Hanoi's desire to ease tensions with Beijing, however, it was not willing to do so at the expense of its position in Cambodia. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

Last updated May 2014

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