Learn more about Sino–Vietnamese War
|Sino–Vietnamese War (Third Indochina War)|
|Image:Flag of the People's Republic of China.svg China||Image:Flag of Vietnam.svg Vietnam|
|Yang Dezhi||Văn Tiến Dũng|
|300,000+<ref name="Zhang Xiaoming">Zhang Xiaoming, "China's 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment", China Quarterly, Issue no. 184 (December 2005), pp. 851-874. Zhang writes that: "Existing scholarship tends towards an estimate of as many as 25,000 PLA killed in action and another 37,000 wounded. Recently available Chinese sources categorize the PLA’s losses as 6,900 dead and some 15,000 injured, giving a total of 21,900 casualties from an invasion force of more than 300,000."</ref>||100,000+ from regular army divisions and divisions of the Public Security Army|
|Disputed. 20,000 killed? <ref name="Clodfelter">Clodfelter, Michael. Vietnam in Military Statistics: A History of the Indochina Wars, 1772–1991 (McFarland & Co., Jefferson, NC, 1995) ISBN 0786400277. Clodfelter argues 20,000 on both sides as a "realistic" figure.</ref> Vietnam claims 26,000. <ref name="Clodfelter"/> China claims 6,900 killed, 15,000 wounded <ref name="Zhang Xiaoming"/>||Disputed. 57,000 killed or wounded. <ref name="Zhang Xiaoming"/> 20,000 killed? <ref name="Clodfelter"/> China claims 30,000. <ref name="Clodfelter"/> Vietnam claims 10,000 civilians killed <ref name="Zhang Xiaoming"/>|
The Sino–Vietnamese War or Third Indochina War was a brief but bloody border war fought in 1979 between the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The PRC launched the offensive largely in response to Vietnam's invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia, a war which ended the genocidal reign of PRC-backed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. After a brief incursion into northern Vietnam, PRC troops withdrew about a month later. Both sides claimed victory.
 Historical background
 Sino–Soviet Split
During the initial stages of the First Indochina War with France, the recently founded communist People's Republic of China and the Viet Minh had close ties. In early 1950, China became the first country in the world to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, and the 'Chinese Military Advisory Group' in Vietnam played an important role in the Viet Minh victory over the French.
After the death of Stalin, relations between the Soviet Union and China began to deteriorate. Mao Zedong believed the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had made a serious error in his Secret Speech denouncing Stalin, and criticized the Soviet Union's interpretation of Marxism-Leninism, in particular Khrushchev's support for peaceful co-existence. This led to increasingly hostile relations, and eventually the Sino-Soviet Split. Until Khrushchev was deposed in late 1964, North Vietnam supported China in the dispute, mainly as a result of China's support for its re-unification policy, whereas the Soviet Union was unenthusiastic. From early 1965 onwards, Vietnamese communists drifted towards the Soviet Union as now both the Soviet Union and China supplied North Vietnam during their war against South Vietnam and the United States.
The Soviets welcomed this change, seeing Vietnam as a way to demonstrate that they were the "real power" behind communism in the Far East. In this respect, the United States government's fear of the domino effect may have been justified, as the Soviets were attempting to attract countries to them. The US viewed Soviet actions as attempts to foster a growing chain of Communist expansion; these actions, though, were mainly motivated by Soviet desires to isolate the PRC.
To the PRC, the Soviet-Vietnamese relationship was a disturbing development. It seemed to them that the Soviets were trying to encircle China.
The PRC started talks with the USA in the mid 1970s, culminating in high level meetings with Henry Kissinger and later Richard Nixon. These meetings contributed to a PRC shift toward the American faction. Meanwhile, the PRC also supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The PRC supported Pol Pot's movement for ideological reasons—the Khmer Rouge's philosophy was a radical variant of Maoism—and from fear that a unified Vietnam, in alliance with the Soviet Union, would dominate Indochina.
Although the Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge had previously cooperated, the relationship deteriorated when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot came to power and established Democratic Kampuchea. The Cambodian regime demanded that certain tracts of land be "returned" to Cambodia, lands that had been "lost" centuries earlier. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese refused the demands, and Pol Pot responded by massacring ethnic Vietnamese inside Cambodia (see History of Cambodia), and, by 1978, supporting a Vietnamese guerrilla army making incursions into western Vietnam.
Realizing that Cambodia was being supported by the PRC, Vietnam approached the Soviets about possible actions. The Soviets saw this as a major opportunity. The Vietnamese army, fresh from combat with the US's ground forces, would easily be able to defeat the Cambodian forces. This would not only remove the only major PRC-aligned political force in the area, but, at the same time, demonstrate the benefits of being aligned with the USSR. The Vietnamese were equally excited about the potential outcome. Laos was already a strong ally; if Cambodia could be "turned," Vietnam would emerge as a major regional power, political master of the majority of Indochina.
The Vietnamese feared reprisals from the PRC. Over a period of several months in 1978, the Soviets made it clear that they supported the Vietnamese against Cambodian incursions. They felt this political show of force would keep the Chinese out of any sort of direct confrontation, allowing the Vietnamese and Cambodians to fight what was to some extent a Sino-Soviet war by proxy.
In late 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. As expected, their experienced, well-equipped troops had little difficulty defeating the Khmer Rouge forces. On January 7, 1979, Vietnamese-backed Cambodian forces seized Phnom Penh, thus ending the Khmer Rouge regime.
 PRC invasion of Vietnam
Unknown to the USSR, the PRC, now under Deng Xiaoping, was growing increasingly defiant. The Chinese felt that there was simply no way the USSR could directly support Vietnam against the PRC; the distances were too great for it to be practical, and any sort of reinforcement would have to cross territory controlled by either the PRC or U.S. allies. The only realistic option would be to restart the simmering border war with China in the north; Vietnam was important to Soviet policy, but not enough for the Soviets to go to war over.
On February 15, scant weeks after Deng Xiaoping had returned from the US -- giving China's actions an apparent American endorsement -- the PRC publicly announced its intention to invade. Few observers realized the symbolic importance of this date; it marked the expiration of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, and thus the first time that the PRC could invade a Soviet ally without breaking its treaties. The reason cited for the invasion was the alleged mistreatment of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands, which were claimed by the PRC.
 Chinese forces
Two days later, on February 17, a PRC force of about 80,000 supported by 200 tanks from the PRC People's Liberation Army invaded northern Vietnam. The Chinese force consisted of units from the Kunming Military Region (later abolished) under the command of Zhang Zhixiu, and the Guangzhou Military under Xu Shiyou (许世友). Troops from both military regions had been assigned to assist Vietnam in its struggle against the United States just a few years earlier during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief that over 200,000 Chinese troops entered Vietnam, the actual number was only 80,000. However, 200,000 Chinese troops were mobilized, of which 100,000 were deployed away from their original bases. Around 400 tanks were also deployed. The Chinese troop deployments were observed by US spy satellites, and the KH-9 Big Bird photographic reconnaissance satellite played an important role. In his state visit to the US in 1979, the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was presented with this information and asked to confirm the numbers. He replied that the information was completely accurate. After this public confirmation in the U.S., the domestic Chinese media were finally allowed to report on these deployments.
 Vietnamese forces
Many of Vietnam's elite troops were in Cambodia keeping a tight grip on its newly occupied territory. The Vietnamese government claimed they only left a force of about 100,000 including several army regular divisions and divisions of the Public Security Army (the Vietnamese equivalent of KGB border guards) in its northern area. However, the Chinese encountered twice this number of Vietnamese forces; regular troops were augumented by an additional large force of militia that outnumbered the regular force. Ironically, the concept of a People's War originated in China by Mao Zedong. It was passed on to Vietnam and used very effectively by Vietnam against China, its former ally. The PLA managed to advance about forty kilometers into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lao Cai and Lang Son. On March 6, the Chinese occupied the city of Lang Son. They claimed the gate to Hanoi was open and declared their punitive mission achieved.
However, many historians have stated that this might have been a convenient excuse for a Chinese exit strategy from Vietnam. Most observers believed that the PLA would overwhelm the Vietnamese forces. The PLA did not foresee the tough resistance of the Vietnamese people, including the suicidal attacks by women and children who were trying to defend their own towns and villages. Faced with mounting casualties, the Chinese began to withdraw their forces, and by March 16, withdrawal was complete.
 Chinese Casualties
To this day, both sides of the conflict describe themselves as the victor. The number of casualties is disputed, with some Western sources putting PLA losses at more than 60,000 casualties, including about 26,000 killed. These figures are probably exaggerated, considering that the total Chinese force in Vietnam during the conflict never exceeded 80,000. Such high estimates were partly due to Vietnamese exaggerations of the size of the invading Chinese force, which numbered 600,000 according to Vietnamese propaganda. However, the Chinese did suffer an extremely high casualty rate of 25%. This was confirmed during a visit to the US in the 1980s by the chief of the general staff of the PLA, Yang Dezhi (杨得志), who commanded the Chinese troops in Vietnam. During this visit, Yang announced that the Chinese suffered a total of 20,000 casualties in the conflict. Li Xiannian, then chairman of China, stated during a news conference that the Vietnamese claim of having destroyed half of the Chinese tank contingent in Vietnam was true, but he disputed their exact figures. Li asserted that the Chinese lost over 100 tanks, which contradicted the Vietnamese claims of having destroyed 200 Chinese tanks. When he was asked for the exact number of Chinese casualties in the conflict, Li sidestepped the question by replying with an ancient Chinese cliché, "(One) would suffer 800 fatalities when killing a thousand enemies", yet he swiftly added that this did not imply that 800 Chinese soldiers fell for every 1000 Vietnamese killed.
 Vietnamese casualties
There are no details of Vietnamese casualties, but they are estimated to be lower for the regular forces. According to the Chinese, only 20,000 Vietnamese soldiers from regular army divisions and divisions of Public Security Army were killed, and three times more that were killed were Vietnamese militia, according to some sources outside China. The issue of Vietnamese militia casualty figures became a major debate during the political propaganda wars between Vietnam and China after the war, when Vietnam accused China of committing atrocities against civilians because those militia members were not in uniforms and being enrolled in a military organization does not mean automatically becoming soldiers. China claimed that the militia members were not civilians, but combatants because they were armed, although not in uniform. Since the weapons were confiscated at the scene after the battles, or removed afterwards by Vietnamese—as claimed by the Chinese—the status of these militia/civilian forces claimed by the Chinese and Vietnamese was impossible to determine and remains disputed. During the 1980's, China used the Vietnamese's own treatment to the dead militia members to strengthen its position. It pointed out that, although Vietnam originally claimed those militia were civilians immediately after the war, the Vietnamese government later changed its position and honored the same dead as combat heroes. Furthermore, the number of civilian death claimed by Vietnam gradually dropped from several hundred thousands immediately after the war to a mere 10,000 in the late 1980's. In its political propaganda after the war, Vietnam also accused China of fabricating evidence to support the Chinese claim that the Vietnamese militia were combatants by planting weapons at the scene after the killings; nearly all of the weapons were Chinese-built.  The Chinese responded that the weapons used were indeed Chinese made, but they were from massive Chinese military aid to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. This was later acknowledged in Vietnamese propaganda wherein Vietnam accused China of betraying Mao Zedong and world communist revolutions by becoming a puppet of the imperialist United States.
 Chinese debacle?
There were many reasons why it could be argued that the war was a disaster for the Chinese armed forces. First, the Chinese were still living in the era of the Long March, World War II and Korea, while the Vietnamese had more modern Soviet (and U.S.) equipment. Second, China did not have an adequate airforce to suppress enemy fire, neutralize strong points, and support their ground forces, and were compelled to absorb the full impact of the enemy's firepower. Third, the PLA lacked adequate communications, transport, and logistics and were burdened with an elaborate and archaic command structure. Their maps were 75 years old. Runners were employed to relay orders because there were few radios—those they had were not secure. Fourth, China was one of the only two countries in the world at the time that lacked the military rank system (the other being Albania), and thus commands were not effective. Fifth, the Cultural Revolution had significantly weakened the Chinese industry, and the military hardware produced suffered from poor quality, and thus could not perform well. Last, the Chinese invaded an enemy that was highly trained, experienced, and confident due to successive victories in wars with France, the U.S., and Cambodia. However, it can also be argued that the Chinese forces managed to win the gamble and were able to pull off a successful operation just after the Cultural Revolution.
 Victory debate
There is also debate about who won the war in the political sense. The answer depends on the perceived objectives of each side. If the PRC's aim was to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, it failed—while a certain number of troops were pulled out of Cambodia to fight the Chinese, Cambodia remained under Vietnamese military occupation for some time. Similarly, the border disputes between the PRC and Vietnam was not settled. If, however, the PRC's goals were entirely punitive, the war may have been more successful.
If the PRC's aims were really to test the resolve of the Soviet Union, which had pledged to defend Vietnam, then this alliance may have been proven hollow, as the Soviet Union provided no direct assistance to Vietnam in the conflict. It may be argued by some, however, that no assistance was needed, as both the Soviets and Vietnamese claimed that Vietnam defeated a Chinese army of 600,000. If their aim was to demonstrate the weakness of the Soviet Union and present China as the preeminent force in the area, the outcome appears mixed; certainly any Soviet ambitions in the area appear to have been stalled, but the same is equally true for the Chinese.
The legacy of the war is lasting, especially in Vietnam. The Chinese implemented an effective "scorched-earth policy" while retreating back to China. They caused extensive damage to the Vietnamese countryside and infrastructure, through destruction of Vietnamese villages, roads, and railroads. 
Border skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s, including a significant skirmish in April of 1984; this saw the first use of the Type 81 Assault Rifle by the Chinese. In 1999, after many years of negotiations, China and Vietnam signed a border pact, though the line of demarcation remained secret. There was a very slight adjustment of the land border at this time, resulting in land being given back to China—Vietnam's official news service reported the actual implementation of the new border around August 2001.
The war also resulted in the discrimination and consequent migration of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese. Many of these people fled as "boat people" who eventually resettled in Asian communities in Australia, Europe, and North America.
The Vietnamese government has continuously requested an official apology for the invasion from the Chinese government, but the Chinese government has never apologized about its invasion of Vietnam. However, after the normalization between the two countries and the state visits to each other by the heads of states and general secretary of both communist parties, Vietnam officially dropped its demand.
 Relations after the war
Contrary to the commonly held erroneous  belief that the relations between the two neighbors only improved in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese government decided to improve relations with China in the late 1980's, though this was viewed by many as in accordance with the Soviet Union's policy of normalizing relation with China. However, the Vietnamese people continue to view the Chinese with distrust because of this war, which is the latest extension of their long history of conflict.
The largest catalyst to improve the relationships between the two communist countries was the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, when Vietnam showed its strong support for the Chinese crackdown. Ironically, the Chinese troops who fought the border conflicts with Vietnam in the mid-1980's were sent by the regime to suppress the democracy movement. The irony is that the patriotic songs sung by demonstrating students were dedicated to these same Chinese troops to suppress them instead of fighting Vietnam, whereas Vietnam was the first country in the world at the time to immediately voice its strong support of the Chinese bloody crackdown. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the Vietnamese force during the war, secretly visited China in the same year and held talks with Chinese in Chengdu, Sichuan province, which led up to the later state visits that resulted in normalizing relations between China and Vietnam.
 External links
- XinHui: The Political History of Sino–Vietnamese War of 1979, and the Chinese Concept of Active Defense
- G.D.Bakshi: The Sino–Vietnam War — 1979: Case Studies in Limited Wars
- Bruce Elleman: Sino–Soviet Relations and the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Conflict
- Order of Battle
- Analysis of the PLA
- Air Power in the War
- Was the War Pointless?