Even though Vietnamese culture has been greatly influenced by China and China helped Vietnam in their fight against the United States in the 1960s, China and Vietnam have traditionally been enemies. See Vietnamese History.

After relations between the Soviet Union and China soured, the Chinese were afraid that the Soviet Union would use Vietnam and Laos to harass China from the south. These fears were eased when Vietnam left Cambodia in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It is ironic that the Vietnam War was fought in part to contain China because today the Vietnamese want the Americans to contain China.

Vietnam and China fought a fierce one month war in 1979 after 250,000 ethnic Chinese in Vietnam fled persecution and Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge. China invaded to "teach the Vietnamese a lesson." 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.

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—who were ethnic Chinese—to flee Vietnam. country. In 1979 some 300,000 boat people fled Vietnam. Many of them were persecuted ethnic Chinese who sailed to Hong Kong. Many ethnic Chinese that fled Vietnam now reside in Kunming in southern China.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, ties between China and Vietnam have improved. Vietnam and China normalized diplomatic ties in 1991. Trade between the two countries is booming and Vietnamese leaders of China have visited China and Chinese leaders have visited Vietnam. China has helped renovate the rail line between Vietnam and China. In January 2000, China and Vietnam signed a treaty defining a common land border. However, the countries both claim sovereignty over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, and this dispute is a potential source of renewed tension. [Source: Library of Congress]

Ideological affinities are driving improved relations with China, and trade between the nations reached $2 billion in 2000 and soared to $7.2 billion in 2004. But despite improved relations, Vietnam remains suspicious of China’s intentions. Two way trade was $16.3 billion in 2009, of which $16.5 billion was exports from China to Vietnam, an increase of 8.5 percent from 2008. Vietnam imports mostly chemicals, machinery, petroleum and steel from China. In November 2008, a Chinese naval ship made the first ever port of call between China and Vietnam when it visited Danang.

Vietnam wants to avoid economic dependence on China. Between 2000 and 2009, Vietnam’s exports to China increased 2.6 times while its imports from China posted a 9.4-fold growth. Vietnam hopes to reduce its dependance on China by joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), building nuclear power plants, accelerating rare earth development, upgrading local industries and upgrading infrastructure.

According to Human Rights Watch: Vietnam’s complicated relationship with China plays a key role in both domestic and foreign affairs. Domestically, the government has been increasingly criticized on nationalist grounds by many activists and some retired military officials for weak responses to what is widely seen in Vietnam as China’s aggressive behavior in the disputed Spratly and Paracel Islands. The government in 2011 worked to silence this increasingly public and audible anti-China chorus. Internationally, the government has attempted to increase cooperation with the US, India, Japan, and neighboring Association of Southeast Asian Nations countries as a regional counter-balance China’s influence. [Source: Human Rights Watch, World Report 2012]

History of Vietnam’s Love-Hate Relations with China

Andrew Forbes of the Asia Times wrote: “For more than 2,000 years, Vietnam's development as a nation has been marked by one fixed and immutable factor — the proximity of China. The relationship between the two countries is in many ways a family affair, with all the closeness of shared values and bitterness of close rivalries. No country in Southeast Asia is culturally closer to China than Vietnam, and no other country in the region has spent so long fending off Chinese domination, often at a terrible cost in lives, economic development and political compromise. [Source: Andrew Forbes, Asia Times, April 26, 2007 ]

“China has been Vietnam's blessing and Vietnam's curse. It remains an intrusive cultural godfather, the giant to the north that is "always there". Almost a thousand years of Chinese occupation, between the Han conquest of Nam Viet in the 2nd century B.C. and the reassertion of Vietnamese independence as Dai Viet in AD 967, marked the Vietnamese so deeply that they became, in effect, an outpost of Chinese civilization in Southeast Asia.

“While the other countries of Indochina are Theravada Buddhist, sharing cultural links with South Asia, Vietnam derived its predominant religion — a mix of Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism popularly known as tam giao or "Three Religions"- from China. Until the introduction of romanized quoc ngu script in the 17th century, Vietnamese scholars wrote in Chinese characters or in chu nho, a Vietnamese derivative of Chinese characters. Over the centuries, Vietnam developed as a smaller version of the Middle Kingdom, a centralized, hierarchical state ruled by an all-powerful emperor living in a Forbidden City based on its namesake in Beijing and administered by a highly educated Confucian bureaucracy.

“Both countries are deeply conscious of the cultural ties that bind them together, and each is still deeply suspicious of the other. During the long centuries of Chinese occupation, the Vietnamese enthusiastically embraced many aspects of Chinese civilization, while at the same time fighting with an extraordinary vigor to maintain their cultural identity and regain their national independence. For their part, the Chinese recognized the Vietnamese as a kindred people, to be offered the benefits of higher Chinese civilization and, ultimately, the rare privilege of being absorbed into the Chinese polity. On the other hand, as near family, they were to be punished especially severely if they rejected Chinese standards or rebelled against Chinese control.

“It's instructive, then, that in his 1987 novel Fired Gold Vietnamese author Nguyen Huy Thiep writes, "The most significant characteristics of this country are its smallness and weakness. She is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape." This Chinese belief that Vietnam is not just another nation, but rather a member of the family — almost Chinese, aware of the blessings of Chinese civilization, but somehow stubbornly refusing, century after century, to become Chinese — has persisted down to the present day.

In 1946, Ho Chi Minh, said warned the Vietnamese against using Chinese Nationalist troops in the north as a buffer against the return of the French: "You fools! Don't you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don't you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life." Yet Ho was an ardent admirer of Chinese civilization, fluent in Mandarin, a skilled calligrapher who wrote Chinese poetry, a close friend and colleague of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ho wasn't as much anti-Chinese as he was pro-Vietnamese. It was his deep understanding of and respect for China that enabled him to recognize, clearly and definitively, the menace that "a close family relationship" with the giant to the north posed, and continues to pose, for Vietnam's independence and freedom.

China and Vietnam During the Vietnam War

During the Second Indochina War, Chinese propaganda stressed that Vietnam and China were "as close as the lips and the teeth". But reality on the ground was much different. The Chinese claimed that the Soviet Union would betray Vietnam. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai told North Vietnamese leader Le Duan that the Soviets would lie to them to improve its relationship with the United States. According to Zhou this policy was enacted following Alexei Kosygin's departure from Vietnam in 1965. Le Duan did not accept this view and at the 23rd Party Congress (which China boycotted) he referred to the Soviet Union as a "second motherland". Because of his statement, China immediately began to cut its aid to Vietnam. According to the first secretary at the Soviet embassy to China, the Vietnamese saw the Chinese actions as an attack on them. At the Chinese Communist Party's 45th anniversary, instead of a communique by Ho Chí Minh, Pha.m Van Dong and Le Duan as had happened at the 44th anniversary, the Vietnamese Central Committee offered official greetings, but without signatures from top-level officials. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Relations between the two countries further deteriorated following the China/US rapprochement. The Vietnamese, who were still fighting the Americans, felt betrayed. At the CPV Politburo meeting on 16 July 1971, the Vietnamese agreed that Chinese policy towards the United States was like a "torpedo" directed against Vietnam. Zhou was told by Pha.m Van Dong and Le Duan that US President Richard Nixon's, upcoming visit to China was "against the interests of Vietnam". Later, in November, Pha.m asked the Chinese to cancel Nixon's visit; the Chinese refused. The Vietnamese began to doubt China and they hid information about Vietnam's next planned military offensive. The Sino/US rapprochement did not hurt Sino/Vietnamese relations in the long run, because the Soviet Union also eventually reconciled with the US. +

Chinese and Vietnamese documents state that relations between them worsened in 1973–75. A Vietnamese document claimed that China hindered the eventual reunification, while Chinese documents claimed that the source of the conflict was Vietnamese policy towards the Spratley and the Paracel Islands. However, the core issue for the Chinese was to minimize Vietnam's cooperation with the Soviets. Increasing Soviet/Vietnamese cooperation left China ambivalent about reunification. +

Deterioration of Relations Between China and Vietnam

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]

China-Vietnam Border War

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."

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.

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. *

China-Vietnam Visits, Flag Mistakes and Hotlines

In March 2009, Vietnam and China have signed an agreement to establish a hotline between the countries' leaders for discussions of urgent disagreements, Vietnamese state media said. A few years earlier, the communist party secretary-generals of Vietnam and China also established a hotline.

In 2009, AFP reported: “ China and Vietnam plan to set up a defense hotline as part of closer military links, official media reported, in the latest effort to publicly ease tensions after a maritime dispute. The two sides "agreed to promote bilateral defense cooperation" at their second annual security dialogue held in Beijing, the English-language Vietnam News reported. The newspaper said China and Vietnam would expand ties to "new fields", among them the exchange of military delegations, including military students, as well as establishing the hotline between their defense ministries. And in 2009, the foreign ministries signed an agreement to create a similar link between the neighbours' "leaders", although its status is unclear. [Source: AFP, August 31, 2011]

In October 2005, Hu Jintao, the President of China, visited Hanoi on three-day official goodwill visit to Vietnam. Xinhua reported: Hu is in Vietnam as guest of Nong Duc Manh, general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Tran Duc Luong, president of Vietnam. During the visit, Hu will meet Vietnamese leaders and exchange views on bilateral relations and other issues of common concern. In a written statement delivered upon arrival in Hanoi Hu reviewed the Sino-Vietnamese traditional friendship, which he said is the common treasure for both sides. He said guided by the principles of long-term stability, future orientation, good neighborly friendship and all-round cooperation, China and Vietnam are continuing their friendship with the determination to be good neighbors, friends, comrades and partners forever. Hu said he believes that his visit will promote friendship and mutual trust between the two parties, the two countries and their peoples, as well as the reciprocal cooperation and common development of the two sides. [Source: Xinhua, October 31, 2005]

In December 2011, AFP reported: “Vietnam made an embarrassing gaffe this week when receiving China's Vice President Xi Jinping [the present leader of China] by displaying Chinese flags bearing one star too many. The trip was designed to improve strained relations that deteriorated following recent tensions over the disputed South China Sea. But Xi was greeted with flags picturing six stars, while the official emblem of the People's Republic of China has only five — one large yellow star surrounded by four smaller ones. A similar incident occurred in October, when the six-star flag was used by Vietnam's national television broadcaster while mentioning a visit by the Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to China.[Source: AFP, December 23, 2011]

When asked about the latest incident by reporters, China's foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said: "The Vietnam side has made an explanation to the Chinese embassy in Vietnam and said it was a technical error". Official media of both sides did not mention the gaffe, but exiled Vietnamese websites contained a number of comments. "We must end the activities of those selling the Vietnamese fatherland, looking to make Vietnam the fifth star of China," lamented an anonymous comment on the dissident site "Dan Lam Bao" ("Citizen journalism"). "The Vietnamese Communist Party wants to become a second-class Chinese citizen. This is a damned flag for the Vietnamese people," said another.

Vietnam, China and the United States

Robert D. Kaplan wrote in The Atlantic, “Vietnam is by no means estranged from China...Vietnam is too dependent on and interconnected with China for that. While the U.S. is Vietnam’s largest export market, Vietnam imports more goods from China than from any other country—cotton, machines, fertilizer, pesticide, electronics, leather, a host of other consumer items. The economy there simply couldn’t function without China, even as China, by flooding Vietnam with cheap products, impedes the growth of local manufacturing. Furthermore, Vietnamese officials are impressed with the geographic asymmetry of their situation: as they say, “A distant water can’t put out a nearby fire.” China’s proximity and the fact that the U.S. is half a world away mean that the Vietnamese have to put up with such indignities as the environmental destruction that comes with Chinese bauxite mining of Vietnam’s lush Central Highlands—a project that, like others around the country, employs Chinese workers rather than Vietnamese ones. “We can’t relocate,” Nguyen Tam Chien, a former deputy foreign minister, tells me. “Statistically, we’re one province of China.” [Source: Robert D. Kaplan, The Atlantic, May 21 2012 *]

“The United States sees the world as Vietnam does: threatened by growing Chinese power. The difference is that whereas the United States has many geopolitical interests, Vietnam has only one: to counter China. Because the Soviet Union failed to help Vietnam in 1979, the Vietnamese will never again fully trust a faraway power. Beyond geography, the Vietnamese at a certain fundamental level distrust the United States. One official tells me simply that the U.S. is in decline, a condition worsened by Washington’s continued fixation—despite recent protestations to the contrary—on the Middle East rather than on the rise of China in East Asia. Though such an analysis is self-serving, it may nevertheless be accurate. Then there is the fear that the U.S. will sell out Vietnam for the sake of a warmer relationship with China: Xuan, the foreign-affairs-committee official, specifically mentions Nixon’s opening to China as providing the geostrategic context for China’s invasion of Vietnam. “It can happen again,” he tells me, shaking his head in frustration. One official of the Communist government tells me, “The elephant in the room during our discussions with the Americans is democracy and human rights.” The Vietnamese live in fear that pressure from Congress, the media, and various nongovernmental organizations may one day cause the White House to sell them out the way it has sold out autocratic Asian countries: Uzbekistan and Nepal, for example. “The highest value should be on national solidarity and independence,” Le Chi Dzung, a Foreign Ministry deputy director-general, tells me, trying to explain his country’s political philosophy. “It is the nation, not the individual, that makes you free.” *

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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