Sino-Vietnamese War

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Sino-Vietnamese War

Sino–Vietnamese War (Third Indochina War)
Date February 17–March 16, 1979
Location Vietnam
Result Disputed

People's Republic of China
Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Yang Dezhi
Xu Shiyou Van Ti?n Dung


85,000+ Infantry and 400 Tanks from Kunming and Guangzhou Military District
100,000+ from regular army divisions and divisions of the Public Security Army

Casualties and losses

Disputed. 20,000 killed? Vietnam claims 26,000. China claims 6,900 killed, 15,000 wounded Disputed. 20,000 killed or wounded. 20,000 killed? China claims 30,000. Vietnam claims 100,000 civilians killed

Indochina Wars
1st – Vietnam – Cambodian-Vietnamese – Sino-Vietnamese

The Sino–Vietnamese War, also known as the 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 in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia, which ended the reign of the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge. After a brief incursion into Northern Vietnam, PRC troops withdrew about a month later. Both sides claimed victory in the last of the wars of Indochina.


1. Historical background
2. First Indochina War
3. Sino–Soviet Split
4. Second Indochina War
5. Cambodia
6. Persecution of Vietnamese Chinese, Spratly Islands, and Border Harassment
7. PRC vs Vietnam: Third Indochina War  Chinese forces
8. Vietnamese forces
9. Chinese casualties
10.Chinese debacle?
12.Relations after the war

Historical background

First Indochina War

Vietnam first became a French colony when France and Spain invaded in 1858. By the 1880s, the French had expanded their sphere of influence in Southeast Asia to include all of Vietnam, and by 1893 both Laos and Cambodia were French colonies as well. Rebellions against the French throughout colonization were common up to WWI. The war heightened revolutionary sentiment in Southeast Asia, and the independence-minded population rallied around revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh.

During WWII, the Japanese weakened the French and increased their influence in Indochina, allying with the Viet Minh against the French. Later, the United States would aid Indochina to overthrow the Japanese government. The surrender of the Japanese to end WWII created a power vacuum in Indochina, with diverse political interests scrambling for influence.

The events leading up to the First Indochina War are still subject to historical contention. When the Viet Minh hastily sought to establish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the remaining French first welcomed the new regime, but then staged a coup to reclaim the colony. While Chinese nationalists supported French reclamation, Viet Minh efforts to establish independence from France were backed by Chinese communists, Japan, and the United Kingdom. The Soviet Union at first supported French hegemony, but later came to support Ho Chi Minh's government. The Soviets nonetheless remained quiet compared to China, like the United States which had disapproved of using Japanese forces against the French ally.

The war itself involved numerous events that had major impacts throughout Indochina. Two major conferences were held to bring about a resolution. Finally, on July 20, 1954, the Geneva Convention resulted in a political settlement to reunite the country, signed with support from China, Russia, and Western European powers. While the Soviet Union played a constructive role in the agreement, it again was not as involved as China. The U.S. disapproved of the agreement, but swiftly moved to fill the political vacuum left behind when the Vietnamese gained their independence.

Sino–Soviet Split

The neutrality of this section is disputed.
Please see the discussion on the talk page.
This section has been tagged since February 2008.

The Chinese Communist Party and the Viet Minh had a long history. 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 recognize 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 and it's interpretation. 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 remained indifferent. From early 1965 onwards, Vietnamese communists drifted towards the Soviet Union, as now both the Soviet Union and China supplied arms to North Vietnam during their war against South Vietnam and the United States.

The Soviets welcomed the Vietnamese drift toward the USSR, seeing Vietnam as a way to demonstrate that they were the "real power" behind communism in the Far East.

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 early 1970s, culminating in high level meetings with Henry Kissinger and later Richard Nixon. These meetings contributed to a re-orientation of Chinese foreign policy towards the United States. 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 also 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 Indochina.

The Vietnamese feared reprisals from the PRC. Over a period of several months in 1978, the Soviets made it clear that they were supporting 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 out what was to some extent a Sino-Soviet war by proxy.

In late 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. As expected, their experienced and 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.

Population and expulsion

The racially biased expulsion and persecution of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam (Hoa) within Vietnam that began in the late 1970s was one of the reasons. Persecution began when Vietnamese Chinese were stripped of their Vietnamese citizenship as well as rights to own businesses and hold political positions of any kind. Within the cities, large Chinese-owned businesses were seized by the Vietnamese government and their goods confiscated overnight. Any remaining small businesses were subjected to additional taxation not applicable to ethnic Vietnamese-owned business. The Vietnamese government's rationale regarding these actions was to prevent disruption in services and goods in the event that the ethnic Chinese population in Vietnam chose to sympathize with China if conflict arose between the two countries. Vietnamese Chinese living near the China-Vietnam border were simply forced back into Chinese territory.

The second and more official reason for the Chinese incursion into Vietnamese territory was Vietnam's intrusion onto the Spratly Islands chain; claimed by China as her territory. Vietnamese Navy vessels would move into the area, then fire at Chinese fishermen if they were found operating in the area. Military establishments were also built in the face of official protest by the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. These Vietnamese actions were viewed by the Chinese Government as provocative and aggressive.

The third reason was the ongoing issue of the artillery harassment of frontier villages and agricultural assets on the Chinese side by the Vietnamese army. Farmlands could not be cultivated due to risk from explosions, created by Vietnamese artillery impacts. This affected the local economy and decreased productivity. Subsequently, this led to dissent amongst the local population regarding the Chinese government's inaction. As a result, this further raised cross-border tensions and escalated the situation.

Where the first war emerged from the complex situation following WWII and the second exploded from the unresolved aftermath of political relations with the first, the Third Indochina War again followed the unsolved problems of the earlier wars. The fact remains that: "Peace did not come to Indochina with either American 1973 withdrawal or Hanoi's 1975 victory" as disputes erupted over Cambodia and relations with China.

The PRC, now under Deng Xiaoping, was growing increasingly defiant. The USSR felt that there was simply no way that they could directly support Vietnam against the PRC; the distances were too great to be an effective ally, and any sort of reinforcements would have to cross territory controlled by the PRC or U.S. allies. The only realistic option would be to indirectly re-start 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, 1979 the PRC publicly announced their intention to strike back the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Few observers realized the symbolic importance of this date. It marked the expiration of the 30 year-old 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, and thus the first time that the PRC could strike back a Soviet ally without breaking their own treaties. The reason cited for the counterstrike was the supposed mistreatment of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands (claimed by the PRC).

Chinese forces

Two days later, on February 17, a PRC force of about 85,000 supported by 200 tanks from the PRC People's Liberation Army entered northern Vietnam. The Chinese force consisted of units from the Kunming Military Region—later abolished—and the Guangzhou Military Region. 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 85,000. 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.[citation needed] 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 left only a force of about 70,000 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 as regular troops were augmented by an additional large force of militias that outnumbered the regular force. This concept of using local militias to fight the enemy has been a staple of Vietnamese defense strategy since antiquity. 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, declared their punitive mission achieved, and withdrew quickly. Their strategic aim of changing the situation in Cambodia was not met.

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.

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 military was using equipment and tactics from the era of the Long March, World War II and the Korean war, which meant for example, that only Chinese officers carried assault rifles, while the Vietnamese had more modern Soviet (and U.S.) equipment, combined with assault rifles for every soldier. Second, under Deng's order, China did not use their naval power and air force to suppress enemy fire, neutralize strong points, and support their ground forces. Therefore, the Chinese ground forces were forced into absorbing the full impact of the Vietnamese forces' firepower. Third, the PLA lacked adequate communications, transport, and logistics. Further, they were burdened with an elaborate and archaic command structure which proved inefficient in the FEBA (Forward Edge of Battle Area). Their maps were 75 years old. Runners were employed to relay orders because there were few radios—those that they did have 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 Chinese industry, and military hardware produced suffered from poor quality, and thus did not perform well. Finally, the Chinese struck back at an enemy that was highly trained, experienced, and confident due to successive victories in wars with France, the U.S., and Cambodia.


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, North America, and back to China.

The Vietnamese government continuously requested an official apology from the Chinese government for its invasion of Vietnam, but the Chinese government has never apologized. After the normalization of relations between the two countries, Vietnam officially dropped its demand for an apology.

A catalyst to improved relations between the two communist countries was the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, at which point Vietnam showed strong support for the Chinese measures, despite the fact that many Chinese officers who had served in the Sino-Vietnamese War were active in suppressing the protest movement Borders remained militarized, however.

The December 2007 announcement of a plan to build a Hanoi-Kunming highway was a landmark in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The road will traverse the border that once served as a battleground. It should contribute to demilitarizing the border region, as well as facilitating trade and industrial cooperation between the nations.

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