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Thayer China-Vietnam Border War, 1979-2014

Thayer China-Vietnam Border War, 1979-2014

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An appreciation of the 1979 China-Vietnam Border War: (1) did China achieve its objectives? (2) did Deng Xiaoping to go war to distract the army for internal party in-fighting? (3) did China go to war to test the People's Liberation Army in modern combat? (4) why has China chosen to "forget" the 1979 border war? and (5) did Chian change either its military strategy or foreign policy after the war? A Vietnamese translation by the BBC's Vietnamese Service is included.
An appreciation of the 1979 China-Vietnam Border War: (1) did China achieve its objectives? (2) did Deng Xiaoping to go war to distract the army for internal party in-fighting? (3) did China go to war to test the People's Liberation Army in modern combat? (4) why has China chosen to "forget" the 1979 border war? and (5) did Chian change either its military strategy or foreign policy after the war? A Vietnamese translation by the BBC's Vietnamese Service is included.

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Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Feb 20, 2014
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03/04/2014

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Background Brief China-Vietnam Border War, 1979-2014 Carlyle A. Thayer February 16, 2014
BBC Vietnamese Service (Tieng Viet): 1/ Given that the Chinese offensive was limite
d to a ‘punitive lesson’, and some
sources said the decision to limit the war to weeks was made months before the war began, do you think China accomplished the objectives that it set out to do? Answer: Rising incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border in 1976, 1977 and 1978 led China to undertake preparations for war with Vietnam. China began planning for a war against Vietnam in 1978 but it was not until mid-February 1979 that the final decision was made. Deng Xiaoping briefed senior officials on February 16, the day before the attack on Vietnam, and stated the war would be limited in time and space
and involve ground forces only. Deng also stated that China’s objectives would be
attained after only a few days of fighting. There were no major air or naval engagements. Deng Xiaoping and his generals thought that they could accomplish their objectives in a few days. They did not. China used the capture of Lang Son three weeks after the invasion as a convenient moment to announce success and begin the unilateral withdrawal of
People’s Liberation Army (
PLA) forces. The Chinese objectives included to induce Vietnam to withdraw military forces from Cambodia and thereby relieve pressure on the Khmer Rouge. This was not accomplished. Vietnam continued to attack the Khmer Rouge and no forces were withdrawn from Cambodia and rushed to the northern border. China also sought to engage main force Vietnamese units up to division in size near the border and destroy them. Vietnam largely held its main forces in reserve and China did not succeed in mauling any of them to the extent that they ceased to be fighting units. Vietnam used mainly its militia and local forces to defend against China. China also sought to seize a number of provincial capitals such as Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Lang Son and then lay waste to Vietnamese northern defence system and economic infrastructure. China did succeed in meeting these objectives but not in the few days that was anticipated but only after three weeks of heavy fighting and heavy casualties. Much systematic damage was done when the PLA withdrew.
Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123
 
 2
2/ Some said Deng Xiaoping went to war because he wanted to keep the army busy while he was resolving inner-party conflict. What is your assessment? Answer: It was clear that by the third plenum (eleventh congress) of the Chinese Communist Party held in November-December 1978 that Deng Xiaoping had been rehabilitated (for a second time) and enjoyed support from the majority of the Chinese leadership. Deng was already known for his hard line views against Vietnam
arising from the expulsion of the Hoa peoples. Vietnam’s December
25, 1978 invasion of Cambodia was the turning point. It was because Deng was now the undisputed leader that he could order the PLA
to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” Deng
also felt the battlefield experience would be useful.
3/ Some historians speculated that the war was Deng’s test of the fighting ability of
the PLA troops, and it fits into his modernization plans since it highlighted many of the technological deficiencies of his army. What is your assessment? Answer: The four modernizations were launched a year before the attack on
Vietnam. Military modernization was the fourth priority. Deng didn’t want to test the
fighting ability of the PLA so much as to score a dramatic victory over Vietnam and in the process gain valuable battlefield experience. Deng and his top generals did not know that the PLA was incapable of
conducting “people’s war under modern conditions.”
 4/ Why do you think China wants to forget about the war that they originally called a
victory and a ‘self 
-defense and counterattack against Vietnam
’?
Answer: Few nations draw attention to their failure and defeat in war. China is no exception. The difficulty for China is how to commemorate the border war without raising
questions about the veracity of Deng’s claim of having achieved success. Also,
a re-examination of the 1979 border war would reveal that China was the aggressor not Vietnam.
5/ Did the war change China’s military strategy, as well as foreign policy, and
if yes, please elaborate? Answer: The border war was a wakeup call to modernize and more importantly professionalize the PLA. The border war relied heavily on mass assaults redolent of
the Korean War. “People’s war under modern conditions” is about defendi
ng China
from a more modern adversary. It is a perversion of “people’s war” to use it to invade another country. “People’s war under modern conditions” in 1979 did not see
the PLA employ
especially modern weapons. The only people’s war aspect was the
mobilization of the militia for logistics and rear area security. Even then Vietnamese
units were able to cross into China in a real “counter
-attack in self-defence,
” though
they did not inflict much damage. China-Vietnam relations were frozen for more than a decade and during this period China kept sustaining the Khmer Rouge through the provision of military supplies.
China’s foreign policy only began to change as a result of overtures from the Soviet
Union, first under Brezhnev and then Gorbachev. China pointedly changed policy towards Vietnam only after the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement and not in September 1989 when Vietnam unilaterally withdrew its military forces.
 
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Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “
China-Vietnam Border War, 1979-2014
,”
 
Thayer Consultancy Background Brief 
, February 16, 2014. All background briefs are posted on Scribd.com (search for Thayer). To remove yourself from the mailing list type UNSUBSCRIBE in the Subject heading and hit the Reply key. Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.

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