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Thayer, The Sino-Vietnamese Border War, 1986-87

Thayer, The Sino-Vietnamese Border War, 1986-87

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Published by Carlyle Alan Thayer
An analysis of China's use of coercion along the Sino-Vietnamese border in 1986-87 through an examination of six major case studies.
An analysis of China's use of coercion along the Sino-Vietnamese border in 1986-87 through an examination of six major case studies.

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Published by: Carlyle Alan Thayer on Jan 09, 2010
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-------------------------------------------------------(C) by Carlyle A. Thayer
[Paper delivered to Conference on “Security and ArmsControl in the North Pacific,” co-sponsored by thePeace Research Centre, Strategic and Defence StudiesCentre and the Department of International Relations,Research School of Pacific Studies, The AustralianNational University, Canberra, A.C.T., August 12-14,1987]Carlyle A. Thayer
The current on-going armed conflict between Vietnam andthe guerilla forces of the Coalition Government ofDemocratic Kampuchea [CGDK]1 has been dubbed the ThirdIndochina War by academic analysts. It isconventionally dated from December 1978 when Vietnamese military forces launched an all out invasion andoccupation of Democratic Kampuchea. In February-March1979, in retaliation for Vietnam's assault on its ally,the People's Republic of China [PRC] launched a massiveattack on Vietnam's six northern border provinces. Forthe past eight years, neighbouring states grouped inthe six-member Association of South East Asian Nations[ASEAN]2 have termed Vietnam's occupation of Kampucheaas the greatest security threat to the region. Asrecently as June 15, 1987, for example, Singapore'sPrime Minister termed the Kampuchean issue "ASEAN's major security problem."3The Third Indochina War may be described best as a lowintensity conflict. It is being waged on two fronts,along Vietnam's border with China, and along the Thaifrontier with, and in the interior of, Cambodia. A 
review of the salient military actions since the crisisperiod of 1978-79, indicates that the variousprotagonists have deliberately kept the fightinglimited, that the conflict itself is unlikely toescalate dramatically, and that the direct militaryintervention by external powers is improbable. Thus,the Third Indochina War has evolved into essentially astable bilateral conflict between China and Vietnam.While Thailand's physical security is directlythreatened by artillery shelling and Vietnamese military intrusions, it can hardly be said in 1987 thatthe conflict in Kampuchea is the region's main securityconcern.4 The main security problem facing Southeast Asia is the political stability of the Philippines,the growing Communist insurgency there, and the futureof U.S. military bases and facilities at Subic Bay andClark Air Force Base.This paper provides a political-military assessment ofthe Third Indochina War in two parts. The firstsection examines briefly Vietnamese securityperceptions. It is then followed by an analysis of theSino-Vietnamese border war.
1. Vietnam's Security Perceptions
One widespread and commonly held view of Vietnam isthat its Communist leaders are attempting to fulfill anage-old dream of their party's founder, Ho Chi Minh, tocreate an "Indochinese Federation" embracing the threestates of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The evidenceadvanced to support this view rests, in part, on thefact that Ho Chi Minh founded the Indochinese CommunistParty, that party documents have called for theformation of an Indochinese Federation, and that Ho ChiMinh's "Last Will and Testament" repeated the call forthe formation of such a federation. Other more extremeviews maintain that Vietnam seeks to annex Thailand'sseventeen northeastern provinces as well,5 if not alsofoment revolution throughout the region with theultimate aim of creating a "Union of the SocialistStates of Southeast Asia".6
The historical record sheds a different light on this matter. Ho Chi Minh founded the Vietnam CommunistParty in February 1930. This party changed its name inOctober of that year to Indochinese Communist Party atthe explicit direction of the Communist Internationalin Moscow. As Nayan Chanda correctly points out,recent research has demonstrated that in the 1930s theVietnamese Communists had little interest in promotingrevolution in Laos and Cambodia.7 The formation of theIndochinese Communist Party, instigated from without,cannot be cited as evidence that Vietnameserevolutionary leaders held plans for a grand federationat that time. An examination of the historical record also revealsthat the notion of an Indochina-wide federation, on avoluntary basis, was only mentioned fleetingly in partydocuments in the mid-1930s and early 1940s. It wasdropped in 1951 at the party's Second Congress when theIndochinese Communist Party was dissolved. There is no mention of the idea of an Indochinese Federationsubsequently, or in Ho Chi Minh's 1969 "Last Will andTestament". One comprehensive review of Vietnamesepolicy statements on this subject concludes:removed from its historical setting, the conceptof 'Indochinese federation' has assumed anunintended connotation. Ambiguity and incompletedocumentation surrounding the origins of theconcept compounds this dilemma. Consequently, theusage of 'Indochinese federation' to explainrecent developments in Southeast Asia infersbiases which merit careful attention. When thesedeficiencies of context and ambiguity are ignored,the consequence emerges that Vietnamese actions inIndochina are potentially being interpreted withina limited spectrum of possible Vietnameseintentions.8The notion that Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam form adistinct sub-region, called Indochina, is a product ofthe colonial era and can be traced directly to theformation of a French Union linking these threecountries. As a consequence, Vietnamese

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