Sino-Vietnamese Border War (1979)
Officially named in China the “SelfDefensive Counterattack against Vietnam,” emphasizing Vietnam’s invasion of China’s border area and Vietnam’s mistreatment of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam as China’s justifications for launching the war. A more important cause of the war was Vietnam’s alliance with the Soviet Union in the Sino-Soviet dispute and attack on Cambodia in 1978.
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (Deng Hsiao-ping) ( 1904-1997) conversations with foreign leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and Jimmy Carter ( 1924-) shortly before the war showed clearly that for the Chinese leaders, it was a punitive war against Vietnam for what were perceived to be Vietnam’s betrayals of China.
The rise of pragmatist Deng caused a policy shift from world revolution to domestic development, which made China cut its aid to Vietnam. It has been suggested that a war against Vietnam would help Deng solidify his power and push for his new policies in several ways: It would give him an upper hand in his struggle with Mao’s designated successor Hua Guofeng (1921-2008), who had little military experience and would have to rely on Deng to conduct the war; it would also help consolidate China’s alliance with the United States, Vietnam’s archenemy, which was perceived to be an important source of investment and financial and technological aid for Deng’s modernization program.
The war broke out at 5:00 A.M. on February 17, 1979, when over 200,000 Chinese troops ( or over 600,000 according to Vietnamese estimates) of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stationed in Guangxi (Kwangsi) and Yunnan Province in southern China attacked Vietnam’s northern frontier (from Quang Ninh Province in the east to Lai Chau Province in the west) and invaded Vietnam. By February 26, Chinese troops had attacked and taken Muong Khuong, Thanh Thuy, Lao Cai, Dong Dang, Cao Bang, Ha Jiang, Mong Cai, Loe Binh, Cam Duon, Sa Pa, Lang Son, and other places in northern Vietnam. In early March, Vietnamese troops launched a counterattack and forced the Chinese out of Lang Son.
Fierce fighting did not end until March 4 when Chinese forces retook Lang Son, which was considered the most strategic place among all the cities taken by the Chinese troops. The next day, the Chinese government declared that it had achieved the goal of defending China’s border area and would start to withdraw Chinese troops from Vietnam. On March 16, China affirmed that all Chinese troops had retreated and the war was over. Though the war was mainly fought on the ground, the air force and navy of both countries were also involved.
Neither China nor Vietnam has released official numbers of casualties. One Chinese source reports that nearly 7,000 Chinese soldiers and militias were killed and nearly 15,000 were wounded. It also reports that about 52,000 Vietnamese troops were killed. Another Chinese source lists 8,531 killed and over 21,000 wounded. A Vietnamese source estimates that 20,000 Chinese soldiers were killed and 60,000 were wounded. An independent source reported 26,000 killed and 37,000 wounded for the Chinese side and 30,000 killed and 32,000 wounded for the Vietnamese side.
International reactions had substantial impact on the course of the war. Vietnam’s allies, including the Soviet Union, socialist countries in Eastern Europe, and Cuba, severely condemned China’s invasion of Vietnam and called for the immediate withdrawal of Chinese troops. The Soviet Union sent arms and a military delegation to Vietnam and dispatched warships to patrol the South China Sea.
It has been widely speculated that China’s worry about a possible attack from the Soviet Union served to end the war as quickly as it did. In Asia, Laos and India took Vietnam’s side, whereas China’s allies such as North Korea, Burma (now Myanmar), and Democratic Kampuchea supported China’s attack on Vietnam. The United States, the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, some European countries, and Japan took a neutral stance. Both China and Vietnam claimed victory after the war.
For China, the brief invasion caused heavy casualties, and it revealed serious problems in its military. China’s military maneuvers during the war were severely handicapped by its poor logistical system and the lack of fighting experience on the part of Chinese troops. More importantly, the war failed to resolve the disputes between the two countries. In fact, the war itself became another serious problem between the two countries, pushing them further apart. Although China withdrew its troops from Vietnam a month after the outbreak of the war, military conflicts lingered on along the border for over a decade.
Dr. Xiaorong Han
See also: China, People’s Republic of; Chinese Military Advisory Group; Deng Xiaoping; Hua Guofeng; Movement to Resist America and Aid Vietnam; People’s Liberation Army; Sino-Soviet Conflicts; Sino-Soviet Split; Soviet Union; Spratly Islands.
Chen, King C. China’s War with Vietnam, 1979: Issues, Decisions, and Implications. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1987.
Grant, Evans, and Kelvin Rowley. Red Brotherhood at War: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos since 1975. London: Verso, 1990.
Hood, Steven J. Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1992.
Khoo, Nicholas. Collateral Damage: SinoSoviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.