Military  Strategy  and  Conflict  between  China  and  Vietnam   during  the  Third  Indochina  War  (1979):  Battle  for  Asian   Dominance  
  Aditi  Garg   GOVT-­‐451:  Conflict  in  Asia   Professor  Karber   December  7,  2012  

 

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Introduction   Throughout  the  Cold  War  era,  the  East  Asian  front  was  entangled  in  a  hotbed   of  territorial  confrontations  amongst  the  grander  ideological  backdrop  of  two   polarizing  Superpowers.  Unquestionably,  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Border  War  of  1979   was  fueled  by  underlying  tensions  caused  by  differing  ideologies  and  ever-­‐changing   alliances.  However,  it  can  also  be  best  understood  as  a  limited  conventional  war  of   territorial  dominance.  In  order  to  assess  the  military  strategy  of  both  nations,  one   must  take  into  account  both  external  influences  as  well  as  domestic  lusts  for  Asian   domination  and  increasing  fears  of  territorial  loss.     While  much  has  been  written  about  the  Third  Indochina  War,  the   conventional  wisdom  has  been  that,  in  reality,  border  and  territorial  differences   were  of  little  to  no  significance  in  explaining  the  outbreak  of  warfare  or  the   intentions  of  either  nation.    In  various  instances,  it  has  even  been  described  as  a   “wholly  bogus  ‘border  war’”  where  the  entire  land  boundary  had  been  demarcated   and  “no  territorial  disputes  were  known  to  exist”1.  While  external,  ideological   conflict  and  historical  tensions  certainly  did  contribute  to  both  nations’  decision  to   go  to  war,  it  is  clear  from  analysis  of  Chinese  and  Vietnamese  objectives  that   territorial  ambitions  were  at  the  heart  of  this  conflict.       Initially  considered  “fraternal”  nations  and  brothers  in  growing  socialist  

beliefs,  China  and  Vietnam  generally  shared  common  objectives,  derived  from  their  

                                                                                                                       
1  Bruce  Burton,  “Contending  Explanations  of  the  1979  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  War,”  International  Journal,  

Vol.  34,  No.  4,  China:  Thirty  Years  On,  (Autumn,  1979),  706.  

 

  anti-­‐imperialist  struggles  to  socialist  transformations  in  their  societies.2  Their  

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collaboration  during  Vietnam's  thirty-­‐year  struggle,  first  against  French  colonialism   and  later  against  the  Americans,  appeared  to  strengthen  their  common  bond.   However,  when  conflicting  hegemonic  interests  overshadowed  their  common   objectives,  both  nations twisted  ideology  to  their  advantage.       The  military  conflict  that  ensued  in  the  early  months  of  1979  can  be  viewed,  

first  and  foremost,  as  a  demonstration  of  China  and  Vietnam’s  common  desire  to  be   the  dominant  player  in  Indochina  at  this  moment  in  history.  The  brief  border  war,   referred  to  today  as  the  Third  Indochina  War,  was  a  bloody  episode  that  claimed   tens  of  thousands  of  lives  in  the  span  of  less  than  a  month.  As  an  example  of  classic   limited  war  in  aim  and  scope,  time  and  space,  and  weapons  usage  levels,  the  direct   conflict  stemmed  from  an  outburst  of  underlying  tension  over  territorial  ownership   of  Cambodia  and  growth  of  soviet-­‐Vietnamese  relationship  in  the  wake  of  the  Sino-­‐ soviet  split.  This  paper  will  explore  the  multiple  contributing  factors,  ranging  from   historical  animosity  to  external  influences  of  the  Superpowers,  to  a  more  traditional   analysis  of  territorial  tensions.  The  outcome  of  the  war  and  relative  success  of  each   nation  will  be  assessed  and  analyzed  in  the  context  of  disputed  winners  and  losers.   Finally,  the  significance  of  the  Indochina  War  in  the  greater,  modern  framework  of   Asian  power  dynamics  and  current  conflicts  will  be  addressed.   Historical  Background  

                                                                                                                        2  Stephen  J.  Hood,  Dragons  Entangled:  Indochina  and  the  China-­‐Vietnam  War,  (New  York:  M.  E.  Sharpe   Inc.,  1992),  15.    

 

    Over  the  last  century,  Vietnam  and  China  have  viewed  each  other  in  mixed  

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terms.  For  Vietnam,  China  was  considered  a  helper  and  ally  when  the  nation  was   fighting  for  independence  from  Western  powers.  China’s  interest  in  defending   Vietnam,  in  turn,  stemmed  from  its  desire  to  establish  a  buffer  against  non-­‐Asian   nations.3  While  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  alliance  at  this  time  was  generally   advantageous  for  both  nations,  many  Vietnamese  nationalists  considered  China  to   be  dangerously  overinvolved  in  the  “direction  and  scope”4  of  Vietnam’s  fight  for   independence  against  the  West.  For  example,  with  regard  to  Chinese  military   intervention  against  French  imperialists  in  Vietnam,  Ho  Chi  Minh  argued  that  it  was   “better  to  sniff  French  dung  for  a  while  than  to  eat  Chinese  all  our  lives”5.  Thus,   underlying  the  outward  appearance  of  camaraderie  lay  a  significant  tension  that   would  eventually  manifest  itself  in  the  form  of  war.     Additionally,  each  nation’s  desire  to  be  a  dominant  force  in  Indochina  made  

Hanoi  and  Beijing  deeply  suspicious  of  each  other’s  role  in  the  affairs  of  other   Indochinese  states,  specifically  Cambodia.  Historically,  Vietnam  had  invaded   Cambodia  numerous  times,  and  held  on  to  land  along  the  border  that  Cambodians   considered  properly  theirs.  Hanoi’s  continued  aggression  gave  rise  to  the  popularity   of  the  Khmer  Rouge,  driving  its  leader  Pol  Pot  to  adopt  an  anti-­‐Vietnamese   sentiment  and  resulting  pro-­‐China  allegiance.  Accordingly,  the  Chinese  appeased  Pol   Pot  and  the  extremist  Khmer  Rouge,  debatably  out  of  their  increasingly  anti-­‐Soviet  
                                                                                                                        3  Edward  C.  O'Dowd,  Chinese  Military  Strategy  in  the  Third  Indochina  War:  The  Last  Maoist  War,  
(London:  Routledge,  2007),  26.    
4
5

 Hood,  156.    

 Nicholas  Khoo,  Collateral  Damage:  Sino-­‐soviet  Rivalry  and  the  Termination  of  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  

Alliance,  (New  York:  Columbia  University  Press,  2011)  

 

 

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sentiment  and  confirmed  dislike  for  Vietnamese  territorial  expansion.    Furthermore,   as  conflict  between  Cambodia  and  Vietnam  wore  on,  China  directly  attempted  to   place  blame  for  the  border  conflict  in  Hanoi’s  direction  by  commenting  to  the  press   about  the  Khmer  Rouge’s  efforts  at  self-­‐defense  in  the  midst  of  Vietnamese   aggression.     Territorial  and  border  issues  between  the  two  nations  is  reached  a  peak  in   January  1974,  when  Chinese  forces  seized  control  of  the  Paracel  Islands  in  the  South   China  Sea.  The  Vietnamese  responded  by  taking  possession  of  the  Spratly  Islands,   whose  ownership  was  also  disputed,  in  April  1975.    The  two  nations’  ongoing   conflict  over  the  ownership  of  the  islands  contributed  to  the  mounting  series  of   incidents  along  the  joint  land  border.  The  two  groups  of  islands  possessed  strategic   importance  for  both  countries  in  terms  of  trade  routes  and  natural  resources.   Dominance  over  these  islands  would  certainly  contribute  to  each  nation’s   hegemonic  ambitions  in  Southeast  Asia.  In  so  far  as  the  strategic  and  economic  

Figure  1:  Map  of  the  Paracel  Islands  in  1974  delineated  as  Vietnamese  and  Chinese  Territory  

 

  interests  of  China  and  Vietnam  had  collided  over  virtually  the  entire  extent  of  the   South  China  Sea,  the  battle  for  the  groups  of  islands  “cannot  have  been  entirely   irrelevant  to  the  outbreak  of  war  between  them”6.      In  the  midst  of  the  Sino-­‐Soviet  split,  increasingly  friendly  relations  between   Hanoi  and  Moscow  created  two  major  problems  for  the  Chinese.  Most  notably,  the   signing  of  the  Treaty  of  Friendship  and  Cooperation  between  the  Soviet  Union  and   Vietnam  in  early  November  of  1978  raised  anxieties  in  the  region7.  First,  Hanoi’s   plans  for  the  rapid  reunification  of  Vietnam  threatened  China’s  dominance  on  its   southern  borders.    Second,  with  the  help  of  Soviet  military  aid,  Vietnam  was   developing  a  position  of  influence  in  determining  the  political  direction  of  other  

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Indochinese  nations,  giving  Hanoi  a  much  greater  hold  over  power  in  the  Southeast   Asia  region.  The  changing  alliances  between  the  USSR,  Beijing,  and  Hanoi,  along  with   the  normalization  of  U.S.-­‐China  relations,  certainly  enhanced  underlying  tensions   that  existed  between  the  two  nations  and  brought  a  new  level  of  ideological  and   strategic  conflict  to  the  East  Asian  front.     Context   Leading  up  to  the  outbreak  of  war,  rising  ethnic  tensions  inflamed  the   already  complicated  historical  relationship  between  Vietnam  and  China.  In  early   1978,  the  region  witnessed  a  mass  exodus  of  Vietnamese  people  with  Chinese   origins  from  northern  Vietnam  trying  to  enter  the  Southern  Chinese  border.  During  
                                                                                                                       
6  Burton,  708.    

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 Hood,  50.  

 

 

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this  time,  over  160,000  people  attempted  to  flee  into  China.8  The  cause  of  this  mass   exodus  was  highly  contested  between  both  nations,  with  the  Chinese  alleging  that   the  Vietnamese  persecuted  and  expelled  the  overseas  Chinese,  and  the  Vietnamese   charging  the  Chinese  with  spreading  “alarmist”  rumors  that  the  Chinese  community   would  become  targets  for  the  Vietnamese  military  amid  tensions  with  Pol  Pot’s   regime.      Relations  suffered  further  when  the  Chinese  announced  they  would  end  aid   to  Vietnam  due  to  the  thousands  of  Chinese  refugees  whom  had  been  “expelled”   from  Hanoi.  Beijing  revealed  that  it  was  recalling  all  aid  and  technical  personnel   because  of  Vietnam’s  apparent  “anti-­‐Chinese  activities  and  ostracism  of  Chinese   residents”9.  The  ethnic  tension  and  dispute  over  the  displaced  Chinese  population  in   Vietnam,  as  well  as  the  official  end  to  aid  due  to  supposed  Vietnamese  aggression   certainly  fueled  the  fire  that  would  soon  break  into  war.     The  immediate  act  of  aggression  that  essentially  triggered  the  ongoing   conflict  between  China  and  Vietnam  occurred  on  Christmas  Day  of  1978,  when   Vietnam  invaded  Cambodia  (Kampuchea).  Despite  the  history  of  territorial  conflict   between  the  two  nations,  Vietnam’s  intent  was  to  stroke  a  “quick  and  fatal  blow”10   to  Pol  Pot  and  the  Khmer  Rouge  leadership,  taking  control  of  the  country’s   government  swiftly  and  significantly.  The  Vietnamese  military  declared  the   establishment  of  a  new  People’s  Republic  of  Kampuchea  on  January  7,  1979,   essentially  installing  a  puppet  government.  Hanoi  ceased  this  opportunity  to  
                                                                                                                       
8  Burton,  709.     9  Ibid,  710.     10  Zhang  Xiaoming,  “China’s  1979  War  with  Vietnam:  A  Reassessment,”  The  China  Quarterly,  vol.  184,  

(2005),  853.    

 

  establish  its  dominance  in  Indochina,  but  was  increasingly  deterred  by  unexpected   Chinese  support  for  Pol  Pot  and  the  counterattacks  of  the  Khmer  Rouge.     Just  as  important  in  the  build  up  towards  the  breakout  of  war  was  China’s  

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obsessive  concern  with  the  tightening  military  and  political  alliance  between  Soviet   “global  hegemonism”  and  Vietnamese  “regional  hegemonism”11.  Some  authors  argue   that  this  preoccupation  was  probably  the  most  important  factor  in  determining  the   Chinese  attack  on  Vietnam.    Hanoi’s  capture  of  Kampuchea  viewed  in  conjunction   with  the  recent  signing  of  the  friendship  treaty  with  the  Soviets  sent  an  unshakeable   message  that  Vietnam  was  becoming  an  expansionist,  militarist  state  becoming   more  aligned  with  the  “more  dangerous”  Superpower12.  The  Vietnamese  invasion  of   Kampuchea  and  increasing  alignment  with  the  Soviets  left  the  Chinese  with  a  “crisis   of  credibility,”  whereby  failing  to  oppose  Vietnamese  aggression  would  be  seen  by   the  Soviet  Union  as  “an  invitation  to  move  aggressively  into  China”13.  The  fear  of   fighting  a  two-­‐front  war,  or  becoming  vulnerable  to  Soviet  domination,  was  enough   to  invoke  a  military  response  from  the  Chinese  in  the  form  of  limited  war.     Military  Objectives     The  Chinese  approached  the  ensuing  military  conflict  with  Vietnam  as  a  

“punitive”  action,  with  the  general  purpose  being  to  “sweep  away  the  obstacle”  of   Vietnamese  aggression  in  Cambodia  by  military  means.14  Deng  and  the  PLA  military  
                                                                                                                       
11  Ibid  711.     12  Xiaoming,  855.   13  Burton,  711.    

 

14  Min  Chen,  The  Strategic  Triangle  and  Regional  Conflicts:  Lessons  from  the  Indochina  Wars.  Boulder:  

Lynne  Rienner  Publishers,  1992),  2.  

 

 

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leaders  employed  a  “teach  a  lesson”  model  of  swift  and  sudden  invasion,  in  order  to   inflict  a  humiliating  local  defeat  and  then  stage  a  magnanimous  unilateral   withdrawal  that  was  designed  to  underline  the  impotence  of  the  victim  nation15.  The   Chinese  used  this  punitive  model  before  in  other  scenarios,  such  as  the  Sino-­‐Indian   War  and  in  Korea,  and  decided  to  replicate  the  same  strategy  against  Vietnam.   Kissinger  explained  the  Chinese  tradition  of  punitive  warfare  by  noting  how  Chinese   strategists  were  “more  likely  to  increase  commitment  to  substitute  courage  and   psychological  pressure  against  the  material  advantage  of  the  adversary…they   believe  in  deterrence  in  the  form  of  preemption”16.  Thus,  much  of  the  Chinese   strategy  involved  disarming  the  enemy’s  confidence  and  allowing  China  to  reclaim  a   psychological  upper  hand.       In  justifying  a  Chinese  invasion  in  Vietnam,  Deng  reiterated  the  leadership’s  

position  that  Vietnam  had  to  be  punished  for  its  invasion  in  Kampuchea,  pledging:   “To  uphold  the  long-­‐term  prospects  of  international  peace  and  stability  .  .  .  [the   Chinese  people]  will  firmly  fulfill  our  internationalist  duties,  and  will  not  hesitate  to   even  bear  the  necessary  sacrifices”17.  Deng’s  analysis  of  the  Chinese  strategic   situation  included  a  notification  to  the  U.S.  that  China  intended  to  go  to  war  with   Vietnam  because  it  had  concluded  that  Vietnam  would  not  stop  at  the  invasion  of   Cambodia.  Deng  warned  against  the  growth  of  Hanoi’s  lust  for  an  “Indochinese  

                                                                                                                       
15  Henry  Kissinger,  “  ‘Touching  the  Tiger’s  Buttocks’:  The  Third  Vietnam  War”,  On  China,  (New  York:  

Penguin  Books,  2011),  14.    
16
17  Ibid,  15.  

 Ibid,  14.        

 

  Federation,”  an  idea  that  Ho  Chi  Minh  himself  cherished18.  According  to  Deng,  the  

10  

conquering  of  three  states  was  only  the  first  step,  with  Thailand  as  the  next  prospect   to  be  included.  From  this  vantage  point,  China  had  an  obligation  to  act,  and  not  await   developments  on  Vietnam’s  part,  for  once  they  had  occurred,  it  would  be  too  late.     Furthermore,  the  Chinese  clearly  established  that  they  did  not  truly  want  to  

gain  any  Vietnamese  territory,  and  that  they  would  withdraw  their  forces   unilaterally  as  soon  as  they  had  reached  their  objectives  of  definitely  “punishing”   Vietnam19.  However,  Deng  was  less  than  clear  about  explicitly  stating  what  those   “objectives”  were  or  how  they  could  be  measured  and  achieved.  For  example,  a   punishment  could  range  from  wiping  out  a  few  significant  divisions  of  Vietnamese   forces  and  military  bases,  to  occupying  the  borderland  in  its  entirety20.  It  is  clear   from  the  lack  of  explicitly  stated  objectives  on  the  part  of  Chinese  leadership  that   they  were  unsure  of  the  extent  of  their  military  capabilities,  and  were  thus  reluctant   to  make  definitive  statements  which  would  mark  their  attack  as  a  failure  if  they   were  not  met.    If  Deng’s  objective  was  not  to  capture  Vietnamese  territory,  then  it   was  almost  surely  to  preserve  a  strategic  equilibrium  of  influence  in  Asia.  Further,   China  undertook  the  campaign  with  the  moral  support,  diplomatic  backing,  and   intelligence  cooperation  of  the  United  States,  the  same  “imperialist  power”  that   Beijing  had  helped  eject  from  Indochina  five  years  earlier21.    

                                                                                                                       
18  Ibid,  15.     19  M.  Chen,  7.     20  Ibid,  8.

21

     Kissinger,  16.    

 

    The  Vietnamese  objectives  for  military  action  were  directly  influenced  by  

11  

Hanoi’s  decision  to  invade  the  Kampuchea  region  and  overthrow  the  Pol  Pot  regime.   Vietnam’s  interest  in  Kampuchea  stemmed  from  the  belief  that  it  was  the  key  to   maintaining  a  balance  of  power  and  sphere  of  influence  in  Indochina.  Victory  over   Cambodia  would  maximize  Vietnam’s  independence  from  Western  powers  and  from   China,  and  would  “greatly  increase  Vietnam’s  influence  in  the  entire  Southeast  Asia   region”22.  As  Hood  argues,  the  decision  to  conduct  a  preemptive  offensive  to  deal   with  Pol  Pot  in  Cambodia  could  be  interpreted  as  a  “coup  de  main”23  to  secure  a  one-­‐ front  operation.       Likewise,  from  the  Vietnamese  perspective,  Chinese  antagonizing  over  the  

apparent  mistreatment  of  the  Hoa24  in  South  Vietnam  and  the  resulting  recalling  of   all  aid  and  assistance  was  actually  done  for  the  purpose  of  destabilization  of  Hanoi.   Chinese  full-­‐fledged  for  the  Pol  Pot  regime  further  encouraged  Vietnamese  fears  of  a   two-­‐front  war  situation  whereby  the  Chinese  would  aim  to  keep  Vietnam  militarily   preoccupied  and  boxed  in  with  the  help  of  its  neighbors25.     O’Dowd  offers  an  explanation  for  how  Vietnamese  military  objectives  and   ensuing  invasion  of  Kampuchea  can  be  interpreted  as  “just  war”,  as  an  effort  to  free   the  Cambodian  peoples  from  one  of  the  worst  tyrannies  in  recent  history26.   However,  in  light  of  other  scholarship  and  Ho  Chi  Minh’s  desire  for  an  Indochina  
                                                                                                                       
22  Hood,  45.     23  Hood,  46.  A  “Coup  de  main”  is  defined  as  an  offensive  operation  that  capitalizes  on  surprise  and  

simultaneous  execution  of  supporting  operations  to  achieve  success  in  one  swift  stroke.   24  The  Hoa  are  the  ethnic  Chinese  population  in  Vietnam.   25  O'Dowd,  45.     26  Ibid,  55.    

 

 

12  

Federation,  as  well  as  the  growing  Soviet-­‐Vietnamese  alliance,  it  is  more  likely  to  be   considered  an  aggressive,  conventional  offensive  attack,  despite  any  humanitarian   consequences.  In  response  to  the  initial  Chinese  invasion,  Vietnam  engaged  in  a   “War  Against  Chinese  Expansionism”,  essentially  outlining  their  main  objective  to  be   a  hold  a  defensive  front  against  unwarranted  Chinese  aggression.     Course  of  War   Initial  Period:  February  17-­‐26,  1979     On  February  17,  1979,  China  mounted  a  multipronged  invasion  of  northern  

Vietnam  from  southern  China’s  Guangxi  and  Yunnan  provinces.  This  was  fifteen   weeks  after  the  signing  of  the  Vietnamese  Soviet  Treaty  of  Cooperation  and   Friendship  and  just  six  weeks  after  the  Vietnamese  invasion  of  Cambodia.  The   Chinese  strategy  was  to  engage  in  a  “people’s  war”,  utilizing  Mao’s  strategy  of  the   use  of  manpower  over  weaponry.    The  principle  of  “people’s  war”,  proposed  by  Mao   and  used  throughout  several  Chinese  conflicts  including  the  civil  war,  implied  that   “gains  were  not  achieved  by  weaponry,  but  by  overwhelming  manpower”27.  The  size   of  the  Chinese  force  reflected  the  importance  China  attached  to  the  operation.  The   official  Chinese  press  accounts  called  the  initial  invasion  the  “Self-­‐Defensive   Counterattack  Against  Vietnam”  or  the  “Counterattack  in  Self-­‐Defense  on  the  Sino-­‐ Vietnamese  Border.”  It  represented  the  Chinese  version  of  deterrence,  an  invasion   advertised  in  advance  to  forestall  the  next  Vietnamese  move.  
                                                                                                                         
27  M.  Chen,  5.    

 

       Table  1:  Relative  Manpower  at  the  Onset  of  War  (February,  1979)28     Vietnamese  People’s   Army  (VPA)   People’s  Liberation   Army  (PLA)  
   

13  

Army   600,000   3.6  million  

Navy   150,000   280,000-­‐300,000  

Air  Force   300   400,000  

In  terms  of  manpower,  the  Vietnamese  People’s  Army  at  the  onset  of  war  had  

a  significantly  smaller  force.  When  war  broke  out,  there  were  only  five  regular   divisions  and  four  brigades  surrounding  the  Hanoi  area.  However,  there  were   initially  six  divisions  along  the  border  area  where  the  entirety  of  the  war  was  fought.   In  comparison  the  figures  in  Table  1  show  that,  prior  to  the  war,  the  Chinese  forces   on  the  border  area  were  quantitatively  superior  to  their  Vietnamese  counterparts   by  3  to  129.  Manpower  was  upheld  as  the  “decisive”  factor  for  determining  the   capabilities  of  both  forces.       During  the  first  offensive,  the  Chinese  unleashed  a  blitzkrieg  of  100,000  men,   and  launched  powerful  artillery  shellings,  followed  by  tank  unites  and  waves  of   troops30.  By  February  20th,  the  Chinese  had  advanced  ten  miles  from  the  border  and   into  Vietnamese  territory.  At  that  point,  the  Chinese  released  reports  that  estimated   that  there  were  10,000  Vietnamese  killed  and  only  5,000  killed  on  the  Chinese  side.   The  Vietnamese  gave  different  account,  claiming  that  they  caused  “heavy  casualties”   to  the  PLA  army.  At  this  point,  accounts  of  the  fighting  became  contradictory,  yet  it  

                                                                                                                       
28  M.  Chen,  10-­‐11.     29  M.  Chen,  14.     30  Ibid,  15.

   

 

  was  clear  that  the  sheer  Chinese  manpower  was  enough  to  deter  a  Vietnamese   defense.                    
Figure  2:  Map  of  Chinese  Border  Invasion31  

14  

  Surprisingly,  the  Soviet  reaction  to  China’s  initial  invasion  of  Vietnam  was   subdued.  It  was  made  clear  during  this  initial  period  of  war  that  the  Soviet  response   would  be  primarily  supportive  in  nature.  Moscow  continued  to  warn  the  Chinese   against  further  advancement  into  Vietnam,  but  maintained  that  the  Vietnamese   people  were  capable  of  defending  themselves.  As  a  result,  “the  actual  fighting  was   totally  left  to  the  Vietnamese  so  not  to  bring  Soviet  troops  into  direct  conflict  with  
                                                                                                                       
31http://cdn.dipity.com/uploads/events/6c8e1912751546c9fe60ee0be82218c0_1M.png  

 

 

15  

the  Chinese”32.  Nevertheless,  the  Vietnamese  border  defense  was  amazingly  strong.   The  Vietnamese  People’s  Army  employed  various  forms  of  creative  warfare  such  as   tunnel  warfare,  jungle  warfare,  surprise  attacks,  booby  traps,  and  landmines,  laser   weapons,  and  bamboo  stakes,  which  were  successful  at  taming  forceful  acts  of   Chinese  aggression33.  Having  captured  several  border  cities  just  two  weeks  into  the   bloody  war,  it  was  clear  that  the  Chinese  would  not  advance  into  Hanoi,  and  that  the   Soviets  would  not  intervene  militarily  in  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  conflict.     Final  Period:  February  27-­‐March  16,  1979   After  announcing  a  limited  scope  of  war  and  declaring  an  intention  not  to   invade  Hanoi,  the  Chinese  forces  focused  on  capturing  more  border  cities  in  the  final   period  of  warfare.  In  addition  to  capturing  and  “laying  waste  to”  the  capitals  of  three   Vietnamese  border  provinces,  the  PLA  captured  the  hilltop  city  of  Lang  Song,  and   blew  up  the  bridge  south  of  the  city.  Immediately  after  the  capture  of  Lang  Song,  the   Chinese  announced  their  complete  withdrawal  from  Vietnam  and  claimed,  “We  do   not  want  a  single  inch  of  Vietnamese  territory,  but  neither  will  we  toleration   incursions  into  Chinese  territory”34.  Ironically,  this  occurred  on  the  same  day  that   Vietnam  called  for  a  nationwide  general  mobilization  for  war35.  China’s  limited   “punitive”  strike  lasted  a  total  of  twenty-­‐nine  days,  including  the  withdrawal  period   from  March  5-­‐17th.      
                                                                                                                       
32  Harlan  W.  Jencks,  “China's  "Punitive"  War  on  Vietnam:  A  Military  Assessment,”  Asian  Survey,  Vol.  

19,  No.  8,  University  of  California  Press  (Aug.,  1979),  805.     33  M.  Chen,  15.     34  Hood,  78.     35  Ibid,  17.    

 

  Assessment   Table  2:  Estimated  War  Losses:  Manpower  and  Weaponry  36     Killed   Wounded   POWs   Tanks,  armored  vehicles   Heavy  mortars/guns   Missile  stations  
   

16  

Chinese   26,000   37,000   260   420   66   0  

Vietnamese   30,000   32,000   1,638   185   200   6  

One  of  the  most  interesting  aspects  of  this  brief  but  bloody  military  conflict  

was  the  fact  that  both  China  and  Vietnam  claimed  a  victory  over  one  another.  Upon   further  analysis  of  the  outcomes  of  the  war,  it  is  clear  that  neither  country  truly   achieved  all  of  its  objectives  in  order  to  declare  a  decisive  victory37.  Both  sides  were   willing  to  end  hostilities  and  were  relieved  that  the  war  was  winding  down.  The   price  of  war  had  been  higher  than  expected  for  the  Chinese,  as  the  Vietnamese  were   able  to  muster  more  resistance  than  Beijing  had  originally  expected.     As  far  as  China  is  concerned,  it  appears  that  one  of  the  biggest  weaknesses  

was  the  backward  weaponry  and  logistics  of  the  PLA  forces38.  Many  military   scholars  have  noted  that  the  “PLA’s  command  system,  operational  tactics,  logistics,   and,  above  all,  weaponry  were  not  in  ‘modern  conditions’…they  were  behind  the   times”39.  Failing  to  modernize  their  army  and  weaponry  in  time  cost  the  Chinese  
                                                                                                                       
36  M.  Chen,  25.     37  King  C.  Chen,  China's  War  with  Vietnam,  1979–Issues,  Decisions,  and  Implication,  (Stanford,  Calif.:  

Hoover  Institution,  Stanford  University,  California,  1987),  104.   38  M.  Chen,  27.     39  Burton,  8.    

 

  more  casualties  than  expected,  almost  on  par  with  Vietnamese  ones  as  shown  in  

17  

Table  2.  They  also  gravely  underestimated  Vietnamese  forces  and  technology.  Mao’s   “people’s  war”  doctrine  also  proved  to  be  an  unsuccessful  strategy  in  the  face  of  the   guerilla  and  modern  warfare  fought  by  the  Vietnamese  Army.  The  PLA  failed  to   destroy  some  of  Vietnam’s  strongest  divisions  and  did  not  achieve  the  objective  of   pacifying  Vietnamese  aggression  in  Kampuchea  or  forcing  the  withdrawal  of  their   forces  from  the  region.  However,  the  Chinese  did  succeed  in  the  “punitive”  aspect  of   warfare  by  following  through  on  a  scorched  earth  policy,  leaving  extensive  damage   to  the  Vietnamese  countryside,  infrastructure,  and  economy.  Accordingly,  it  is   estimated  that  about  eighty  percent  of  the  infrastructure  in  areas  where  the  Chinese   invaded  was  destroyed40,  and  “cities  were  reduced  to  rubble  and  mass  graves  were   everywhere”41.   For  the  Vietnamese,  the  limited  assistance  from  the  Soviet  Union,  and  its   “lukewarm  response”  to  Chinese  invasion,  had  a  great  impact  on  their  capabilities   and  resources.  The  Soviets  did  end  up  sending  a  naval  task  force  to  the  South  China   Sea,  undertaking  a  limited  arms  airlift  to  Hanoi,  and  stepping  up  air  patrols  along   the  Sino-­‐Soviet  border.  However,  these  actions  were  constrained  by  PLA  blockades   and  were  thus  not  decisive  in  assisting  the  VPA.  Furthermore,  the  Vietnamese  were   able  to  claim  a  victory  because  China  failed  to  take  Hanoi,  and  barely  penetrated  the   border  before  ultimately  withdrawing  all  troops.  Despite  causing  significant   infrastructural  damage,  Hanoi  was  left  intact.  Most  significantly,  the  Chinese  did  not  
                                                                                                                       
40  Burton,  718.     41  Nguyen  Hung,  “The  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Conflict:  Power  Play  among  Communist  Neighbors,”  Asian  

Survey,  Vol.  19,  No.  11,  University  of  California  Press,  (Nov.,  1979),  1045.    

 

  manage  to  force  Vietnamese  forces  out  of  Kampuchea,  and  thus  did  not  ‘win’  the  

18  

campaign,  but  rather  withdrew.  While  some  believed  that  a  Chinese  invasion  would   “explode  the  myth  of  Vietnamese  military  power,  ”  the  military  performance  proved   astonishingly  impressive,  especially  by  border  and  militia  units42.  Nevertheless,  the   Vietnamese  population  suffered  significant  causalities  and  faced  economic   consequences  of  the  PLA’s  scorched  earth  strategy.     When  assessing  the  Third  Indochina  War  in  the  context  of  East  Asian   relations  in  the  post  -­‐Cold  War,  the  conventional  assessment  from  historians  is  that   the  war  was  a  costly  Chinese  failure43.  In  the  end,  China  was  not  able  to  rescue  the   Khmer  Rouge  or  force  Hanoi  to  withdraw  its  troops  from  Cambodia  for  another   decade.  It  is  possible  that  Deng  framed  Chinese  war  objectives  in  much  more  limited   terms  and  withdrew  PLA  forces  promptly  once  he  realized  this  the  limits  of  Chinese   capabilities.  As  a  result  of  the  failure  on  China’s  part  to  dissuade  Vietnamese   involvement,  Vietnamese  troops  remained  in  Cambodia  until  the  fall  of  the  Soviet   Union  in  1989.     Kissinger’s  assessment,  essentially  rooted  in  the  U.S.  perspective  on  the  Sino-­‐ Vietnamese  conflict,  differed  from  other  historians  in  that  he  believed  that  “the   Chinese  campaign  reflected  a  serious  long-­‐term  strategic  analysis”44  of  reversing  an   unacceptable  momentum  of  Soviet  strategy.  It  is  undeniable  that  the  Sino-­‐ Vietnamese  conflict  resulted  in  the  closest  collaboration  between  China  and  the  
                                                                                                                       
42  Harlan  W.  Jencks,  “China's  "Punitive"  War  on  Vietnam:  A  Military  Assessment,”  Asian  Survey,  Vol.  

19,  No.  8,  University  of  California  Press  (Aug.,  1979),  814   43  Ibid,  816.     44  Kissinger,  17.    

 

  United  States  for  the  period  of  the  Cold  War,  and  a  period  of  normalization.  

19  

Kissinger  thus  argues  that,  though  providing  breathing  space  for  the  remnants  of  the   Khmer  Rouge  can  hardly  be  counted  as  a  moral  victory,  “China  achieved  its  larger   geopolitical  aims  vis-­‐à-­‐vis  the  Soviet  Union  and  Vietnam  both  of  whose  militaries   were  better  trained  and  equipped  than  China’s”45.  While  his  analysis  aligns  with   China’s  ultimate  success  in  establishing  its  dominance  in  Southeast  Asia,  it  perhaps   gives  too  much  agency  to  Deng’s  military  strategy  towards  Vietnam  and  the  Soviet   Union.  Nevertheless,  Singapore’s  Prime  Minister  Lee  Kuan  Yew  summed  up  the   ultimate  result  of  the  war:  “The  Western  press  wrote  off  the  Chinese  punitive  action   as  a  failure.  I  believe  it  changed  the  history  of  East  Asia.”   Conclusion   Despite  the  withdrawal  of  Chinese  forces  from  Vietnam  and  the  official  end  to   the  Third  Indochina  War  in  March  1979,  border  skirmishes  between  the  two  nations   continued  throughout  the  1980s.  Armed  conflict  only  came  to  an  official  end  in  1989   after  the  Vietnamese  fully  withdrew  from  Cambodia.  The  Vietnamese  and  Chinese   finally  signed  a  border  pact  in  1999,  after  years  of  negotiations46.  Despite  the  official   demarcation  of  the  border  being  officially  complete,  control  over  the  Paracel  and   Spratly  islands  remains  a  point  of  contention  between  the  two  nations.       In  light  of  the  aforementioned  analysis  of  the  historical  context  and  military   objectives  of  both  nations,  it  is  clear  that  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  War  of  1979  was  

                                                                                                                       
45  Ibid,  18.     46  Xiaoming,  870.

   

 

 

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much  more  than  “an  anachronism  from  a  bygone  era”47.  China’s  initial  invasion  and   the  military  campaign  that  followed  were  responses  to  growing  underlying  tensions   between  two  nations  lusting  for  dominance  over  the  Indochina  region.  The   ideological  aspects  of  the  war,  such  as  socialist  camaraderie  first  between  Vietnam   and  China,  then  Vietnam  and  the  Soviet  Union,  proved  not  to  be  as  important  as   imminent  territorial  threats  of  expansionism  by  both  parties.      Thus,  it  is  clear  that   territory  and  boundaries  were  at  the  heart  of  this  conflict,  despite  authors  who   suggest  it  should  not  be  considered  a  border  war.  While  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  War   can  be  analyzed  as  a  “baroque  parody  of  a  Cold  War  conflict,”48  its  significance  is   clearly  relevant  today  as  China  and  Vietnam  continue  to  associate  territorial  control   in  the  East  Asia  region  with  hegemonic  power.                                    
                                                                                                                       
47  Hood,  95.     48  Anne  Gilks.  The  Breakdown  of  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Alliance,  1970-­‐1979.  (Berkeley:    

Institute  of  East  Asian  Studies,  University  of  California,  Center  for  Chinese  Studies,  1992),  226.    

 

 

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Bibliography     Burton,  Bruce,  “Contending  Explanations  of  the  1979  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  War,”   International  Journal,  Vol.  34,  No.  4,  China:  Thirty  Years  On,  (Autumn,  1979):     pp.  699-­‐722;     Chen,  King  C.,  China's  War  with  Vietnam,  1979–Issues,  Decisions,  and  Implication,     (Stanford,  Calif.:  Hoover  Institution,  Stanford  University,  California,  1987);     Chen,  Min,  The  Strategic  Triangle  and  Regional  Conflicts:  Lessons  from  the  Indochina     Wars.  Boulder:  Lynne  Rienner  Publishers,  1992);     “China-­‐Vietnam  Border  War,  30  Years  Later”,  Time  Inc.,   <http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1879849,00.html  >  (accessed  1   October  2012)     Gilks,  Anne.  The  Breakdown  of  the  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Alliance,  1970-­‐1979.  (Berkeley:     Institute  of  East  Asian  Studies,  University  of  California,  Center  for  Chinese  Studies,   1992);     Hood,  Stephen  J.,  Dragons  Entangled:  Indochina  and  the  China-­‐Vietnam  War,  (New     York:  M.  E.  Sharpe  Inc.,  1992);     Hung,  Nguyen,  “The  Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Conflict:  Power  Play  among  Communist     Neighbors,”  Asian  Survey,  Vol.  19,  No.  11,  University  of  California  Press,  (Nov.,  1979):   pp.  1037-­‐1052;     Jencks,  Harlan  W.,  “China's  "Punitive"  War  on  Vietnam:  A  Military  Assessment,”   Asian  Survey,  Vol.  19,  No.  8,  University  of  California  Press  (Aug.,  1979):  pp.  801-­‐815;     Khoo,  Nicholas,  Collateral  Damage:  Sino-­‐soviet  Rivalry  and  the  Termination  of  the   Sino-­‐Vietnamese  Alliance,  (New  York:  Columbia  University  Press,  2011);     Kissinger,  Henry,  “  ‘Touching  the  Tiger’s  Buttocks’:  The  Third  Vietnam  War”,  On   China,  (New  York:  Penguin  Books,  2011);     O'Dowd,  Edward  C,  Chinese  Military  Strategy  in  the  Third  Indochina  War:  The  Last   Maoist  War,  (London:  Routledge,  2007);     Ross,  Robert  S.  The  Indochina  Tangle:  China's  Vietnam  Policy,  1975-­‐1979,  (New  York:   Columbia  University  Press,  1988);    

 

    The  Third  Indochina  War:  Conflict  between  China,  Vietnam  and  Cambodia,  1972-­‐79,   edited  by  Odd  A.  Westad,  and  Sophie  Quinn-­‐Judge,  (New  York:  Routledge,  2006).     Xiaoming,  Zhang,  “China’s  1979  War  with  Vietnam:  A  Reassessment,”  The  China   Quarterly,  vol.  184,  (2005):  pp.  851-­‐874;          

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