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  • James Houser

February 17, 1979 - Sino-Vietnamese War Begins

Updated: Jun 1, 2021

February 17, 1979. 200,000 troops of the Communist Chinese Army invade another country, bent on sending a message. The weird part? That other country is Communist Vietnam, which had just won a long war against the United States with Chinese support. One of the most forgotten wars of the 20th Century has begun. So what the heck is going on here?

The answer is simple, but almost anathema to American ideals and beliefs: the Communists of the Cold War were not a unified front. Almost from the very beginning of the Cold War, the Communist-ruled nations of the Soviet Union and China had split on bad terms, each seeking their own interpretation of Marxism. China resented the Soviet Union's domination of much of Asia, especially North Korea, and sharply disagreed with the Soviets on many foundational points of Marxism. Mao's peasant revolution came from totally different roots than Stalin's industrial revolution, and neither side ever trusted the other, resulting in several major border wars throughout the Cold War. This development, the Sino-Soviet Split of the late 1950s, was almost unknown to the US until the 1980s.

The United States didn't always perceive this: to us, a Commie was a Commie. When the Americans entered into war against Vietnam, we thought much the same thing. Ho Chi Minh's Communists, however, were almost as concerned about Chinese domination as they were American. Throughout much of Vietnam's history back to the time of Christ, it had struggled for independence and freedom from the imperialist ambitions of China. Many of Vietnam's foundational/independence myths come from its resistance to Chinese rule, such as the rebellion of the Trung sisters in the first century A.D. So it was not exactly a surprise when Vietnam, as insurance against Chinese domination, allied with the Soviet Union against Chinese interference.

A new front opened in Cambodia in 1975 with the emergence of the Maoist government of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, an ideologue in the peasant-revolution mold of Mao, took the concept one step further and instituted paleocommunist efforts to demodernize Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge led to the death of a quarter of Cambodia's population and eventually proved so brutal that Communist Vietnam could no longer tolerate it. In late 1978, the PAVN invaded Cambodia and overthrew Pol Pot. Since the Khmer Rouge had been supported by the Chinese, this caused more bad blood between China and Vietnam. China had also been supporting Montagnard rebels in Vietnam, the same rebels that the U.S. had supported in the Vietnam War. This betrayal further enraged Vietnam.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping had become the new leader of China following Mao's death. Deng favored a policy of reaching out to Western powers and shutting out the Soviet Union entirely. This meant dealing with the Soviet Union's little friend, Vietnam, to the South. Deng became the first Chinese premier to visit the United States in 1979, and offhandedly mentioned to President Jimmy Carter that "the little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked." It was probably hard for the Americans to argue given their own recent experiences in Vietnam. China was clearly angling for an aggressive confrontation with its fellow Communist power.

Sino-Vietnamese War, 1979

On February 17, China finally invaded Vietnam. Ostensibly, its grounds for war were Vietnam's "illegal" overthrow of Pol Pot, its mistreatment of Chinese ethnic minorities, and its occupation of several South China Sea islands - many of which are still occupied and in dispute today. Concerned about Soviet intervention, Deng deployed the bulk of Chinese forces along their border to the north, and warned the Soviets about this contingency.

Chinese soldiers in combat situation on Vietnamese border, 1986

The actual war was rather anticlimactic. The Vietnamese and Chinese forces were evenly matched in numbers. Chinese forces advanced no farther than thirty kilometers inland, capturing the city of Lang Son after heavy but limited urban fighting. Avoiding direct combat, the Vietnamese used the same guerrilla tactics that had been so effective against the French and Americans; Chinese momentum quickly ran out. On March 6, the Chinese said that the "gate to Hanoi had been opened," claimed their mission of punishment had been accomplished, and declared victory. The Chinese withdrew to their own borders by March 16, destroying all infrastructure and resources behind them.

The immediate results were limited. Each side lost about 30,000 casualties, hardly high for a war between two well-armed powers. Much of Vietnam's northern region was devastated, but no worse than what the Americans had done in South Vietnam. The Soviets had amply supported Vietnam throughout the war so their alliance held strong. The war cost the Chinese so much money that their economic plans had to be delayed by several years. Western military analysts roundly concluded, despite Chinese claims, that the Vietnamese military had outperformed the Chinese in every aspect, and had truly defeated their invasion.

Vietnamese soldiers, 1979

So what was the point of all of this? For one thing, it demonstrates almost more than any other event that the Communist governments of the Cold War were not friends. The Soviets, the Chinese, the Vietnamese - all were completely prepared to perceive each other as the new enemy when the Western threat seemed to recede. Each was happy to play off the West against the others when the situation demanded.

Finally, it showed that Communist Vietnam was not a one-trick pony. In thirty years, Vietnam defeated the French, the Americans, and the Chinese - among the most powerful nations in the world. Two millennia after the Trung Sisters launched their rebellion against the Chinese Empire of the Han Dynasty, Vietnam still remained strong against attackers from all quarters.

A hard country to fight, impossible to kill. Maybe we should have them on our side when World War III finally strikes.

Only one very good scholarly book on the Sino-Vietnamese War: Zhang Xiaoming's Deng Xiaoping's Long War: The Military Conflict Between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991 (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

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