The Bitter Legacy of the 1979 China-Vietnam War

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The Bitter Legacy of the 1979 China-Vietnam War

Officially, both sides have tried to forget the bloody conflict. Unofficially, bitterness still runs deep.

The Bitter Legacy of the 1979 China-Vietnam War

Anti-China protester Anh Chi prays at the grave of Nguyen Xuan Chinh, who died during the border war of China and Vietnam, at a military cemetery outside Hanoi (February 16, 2014).

Credit: REUTERS/Kham

Almost 40 years after a short yet devastating war launched by China in 1979, there has been not any official commemoration of the war in Vietnam. The fierce fight from February 17 to March 16, 1979, claimed tens of thousands of lives, soldiers and civilians alike, in Vietnam’s border provinces, but the conflict hasn’t received the same level of attention as wars against the French and Americans.

Yet since the escalation of tensions with China in the South China Sea in recent years, the Sino-Vietnamese war has begun receiving renewed media attention. For this year’s anniversary, Vietnamese people used social media to vocally commemorate martyrs and civilians who died in the war, followed by debates criticizing the government for remaining silent and neglecting the war in high school history textbooks.

The Road to War

On February 17, 1979, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border to invade the country, waging a bloody strike along the 600-kilometer border that the two nations share. From the standpoint of historians, China’s month-long invasion of Vietnam is understood to as a response to what China considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies undertaken by Hanoi.

Historically, China had previously given Hanoi steadfast support against U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. But their comradeship swiftly began to deteriorate in the mid-1970s, especially when Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR) – then China’s greatest rival – in 1978. China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East,” pursuing hegemonistic “imperial dreams” in Southeast Asia.

In December 1978, Vietnam began a full-scale counter-attack against Kampuchea (today’s Cambodia), whose armed forces had launched a number of unilateral clashes along the Cambodia-Vietnamese land and maritime boundaries between 1975 and 1977, leaving more than 30,000 Vietnamese civilians dead. Vietnam’s incursions into China-friendly Kampuchea, which quickly eradicated the genocidal pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge regime, coupled with its intimacy with the Soviet Union, which was massively building up forces on China’s northern border, appeared to threaten China’s security and interests in the region. Thus, China’s leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, had good reason to urge the government to teach a proper lesson to the Vietnamese.

It’s worth noting that, even prior to the war proper, incidents along the Sino-Vietnamese border had increased in frequency and violence since mid-1978 when Deng came to power and began consolidating his paramount leadership by creating an effective tripod – control of the state, control of the Communist Party, and control of the military. Deng had seen off the rival threat posed by the ultra-Maoist Gang of Four (headed by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing) and his well-reasoned strategy to modernize China required the removal of obstructionist Maoist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) cadres. Thus, some historians have speculated that a war was necessary to support Deng’s modernization plans by highlighting the technological deficiencies of the PLA and keeping the army preoccupied. The war brought Deng precious time in his first full year in charge to cement his own power in Beijing, eliminating leftist rivals from the Maoist era. Combat with the Vietnamese proved to be the PLA’s blood test.

On August 25, 1978, Chinese troops crossed the border to Vietnam to assault officers, women, and local people. Le Dinh Chinh, a local policeman, fought back with his bare hands and was stabbed to death by a group of Chinese. Chinh is thus known as the first Vietnamese soldier who fell in Vietnam’s fight against the Chinese invasion. This incident sent an ominous signal of a looming armed conflict between the two brothers. After a few months of serious and careful preparation for a military ground campaign against Vietnam, in the pre-dawn hours of February 17, Chinese spearheads, supported by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces, concurrently attacked in the direction of Vietnam’s border provincial capitals, when residents living there were still sleeping.

Owning to its large population and the huge disparity in economic and military capacity vis-à-vis Vietnam, the PLA relied on “human waves” of ragtag soldiers, a tactic used nearly three decades before during the Korean War, and a “scorched-earth” policy to conquer Vietnam. These tactics enabled Chinese soldiers to completely destroy everything in their paths, overrun population centers, and occupy strategically important mountainous areas and high spots along the boundary. These areas then became sites of low-profile yet deadly conflicts, which took place throughout the following decade.

In early March 1979, China suddenly declared its “lesson” to Vietnam was finished and began to withdraw completely on March 16. But, in fact, its campaign was not over. Right after the war, China launched another semi-public campaign that was more than a series of border incidents and less than a limited small-scale war. On the one hand, the PLA maintained a level of steady harassment through artillery fire, intrusions by infantry patrols, naval intrusions, and mine planting both at sea and in inland waterways. On the other hand, China pursued psychological warfare operations to sabotage Vietnam’s attempts to restore its war-torn border economic centers by igniting anti-Vietnamese sentiments among the border ethnic minorities and encouraging them to engage illicit activities like smuggling.

The 1979 war and armed clashes that flared over border disputes in the subsequent years resulted in a heavy toll in terms of both casualties and economic losses for  both sides. Though neither side publicized its casualties and the exact figures remain unclear, Western estimates run as high as 28,000 Chinese dead and 43,000 wounded, while the number of Vietnamese dead were estimated at under 10,000.

Post-War Era: Trying to Forget a Tragic Past

Since the full normalization of the China-Vietnam relationship in late 1991, though Hanoi and Beijing both claimed victory, state media on both sides have remained quiet on the war, barely mentioning it on commemorative occasions and seeking to deflect questions. But historians, diplomats, veterans, and local civilians in both sides have not forgotten. Despite official silence, every February debates about the conflict still rage online in both China and Vietnam. In China, some social media users question whether it was worth sacrificing thousands of Chinese lives to support the Khmer Rouge butchers. Other ardent Chinese nationalists downplay the Khmer Rouge factor and instead justify the war by citing Vietnam’s oppression of Hoa people (ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam), and Hanoi’s supposed hegemonic dreams of dominating Indochina with the backing of the USSR.

In Vietnam, low-profile anniversaries of the fierce fight against the Chinese invasion are organized each year in local cemeteries in the northern border provinces while small-scale demonstrations have occurred in Hanoi. Vietnamese veterans, military enthusiasts, historians, and diplomats have also urged the government to reconsider their decades of deliberate silence; such advocates call on Hanoi to highlight the facts of the war to help people all over the world, including the Chinese, fully understand what really happened. In 2013, Major-General Le Van Cuong, former director of the Strategy Institute under the Ministry of Public Security, and other retired politicians told state media it was time to review the official commemorations of this war. In particular, the government must include the war in textbooks.

“Thousands of people have lost their lives to protect the land in the north. Why do we have no words for them? It’s late and can’t be later… We cannot have a vague view or ignore this historic issue,” Cuong said.

Duong Danh Dy, first secretary of the Vietnamese embassy in China in 1979, wrote that Vietnam’s reticence to discuss the war was motivated by the greater cause of fostering amity between the neighboring nations. The government’s silence is “not because we were not on the right side, and not because the Vietnamese people are scared or quick to forget,” he explained.

But young academics are deeply concerned that a majority of students today do not know about this war. “While information about Vietnam’s just defensive war against China’s 1979 aggression remains little and vague, the Vietnamese youth have long been surrounded by movies that advertise and diffuse Chinese culture and history. It will be the government’s responsibility if this situation lasts longer,” said Pham Duc Thuan, a 30-year-old history lecturer at Can Tho University.

Apparently, both the Vietnamese and Chinese publics are looking forward to clear and straightforward information about the nature of the war from their respective governments. For the Chinese people, they need to know the actual ambitions behind a war that seems motivated much more by the Deng-led government’s political interests than the excuses offered by pugnacious nationalists. For the Vietnamese, they want “justice” for those martyrs who lost their lives in the tragic defensive fight, but have since been forgotten by the government.

It’s understandable that neither state wishes to stoke any expressions of strident nationalism among their people. Both China and Vietnam are keen to confine the period of unhappiness to their past while creating a bright future together by deepening bilateral economic interdependence. In 1999, eight years after full normalization, the Sino-Vietnamese land border disputes were successfully settled by the Treaty of Land Border signed in December. That same year, leaders of both nations agreed on the “16-golden-word motto” that would guide relations between the two countries: “long-term stability and future orientation, friendly neighborhood, comprehensive cooperation.” In 2000, China’s then Communist Party Chief Jiang Zemin explained that the motto, among other things, means both sides should close down the sad past and look forward to a brighter future for China-Vietnam ties.

Whose Victory, Whose Responsibility?

However, while the Vietnamese government has seriously committed to this pledge by suppressing memories of the war, the Chinese population and leadership, after decades of miseducation, seem convinced that China was on the right side in the 1979 war. China claims the war as “a victory,” with all missions completed. This view is not supported by evidence and analyses undertaken by outside observers and strategists. Scholars like Gerald Segal, Bruce Elleman, and Carlyle Thayer agreed that China’s 1979 war was a complete failure. First, Deng and his generals failed to induce Vietnam to withdraw regular forces from Cambodia and thereby relieve pressure on the Khmer Rouge. Second, Beijing also sought to engage main force Vietnamese units near the border and destroy them. But Vietnam largely held its main forces in reserve and mainly used its militia and local forces to defend against China; thereby China further failed to dispel its image as a paper tiger. Third, it also failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.

Two other major goals behind China’s attack were to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud and ruin Vietnam’s northern defense system and economic infrastructure. In this respect, Beijing’s policy was actually a diplomatic success, since Moscow did not actively intervene, thus showing the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese military pact. It also succeeded in totally destroying most of villages and major provincial capitals such as Lao Cai, Cao Bang, and Lang Son, but not in a few days as anticipated and scheduled by Deng and his men. It took three weeks of heavy fighting and severe casualties. With the conflict viewed in this light, Thayer told BBC Vietnamese that China was the aggressor, not Vietnam, in the 1979 war.

Final Remarks

Almost four decades on since China waged a massive and costly invasion of Vietnam on February 17, 1979, the deliberate oblivion of this history by both Hanoi and Beijing has triggered growing public disapproval in both countries. Though both governments claimed victory, the war was a chastening experience for all involved.

Chinese people’s misunderstanding of the nature of the war, mainly caused by Beijing’s steely and unrelenting efforts to control information, and history in particular, appears to be a major obstacle to resolving the debates and alleviating mutually hostile sentiments between the two peoples.

Since the conflict was fought entirely on Vietnamese territory, it runs contrary to the ruling Communist Party’s prevailing narratives of a China that never threatens or attacks its neighbors. China’s propaganda machine has attached an ungainly and unconvincing name to the conflict, the “Self-Defensive Counterattack Against Vietnam.” It is also generally held by outside scholars that if the war did not produce an outright defeat for China, it was a costly mistake fought for dubious purposes, including Deng’s political ambitions, and a desire to punish Vietnam for overthrowing Pol Pot, a Chinese ally who was one of the world’s bloodiest tyrants. Thus, the difficulty for China is how to commemorate the controversial war without raising questions about the veracity of Deng’s claim of having achieved all China’s goals.

For Vietnam, even though it has witnessed some relative stability and economic improvement in its war-torn northern border provinces thanks to strongly growing cross-border trade revenue, it pays to remain vigilant. Because of geographical proximity, the Vietnamese people have been forced to cope with repeated Chinese invasions, followed by centuries-long suzerainty, in the course of history. Thus, the 1979 border war, once again, reminded the country to keep in mind who the permanent, ominous foe is.

However, remembering the forgotten war in 1979 does not have to mean igniting national hostilities. Rather, commemorations should provide justice for those soldiers and victims of both sides who lost their lives due to misjudgments and miscalculations of ambitious leaders.

Accordingly, China and Vietnam should both pigeon-hole their tragic past and seriously study the dear lessons drawn from the 1979 war to avoid the same mistakes in the future. More importantly, once the actual facts and nature of the war are acknowledged with constructive and sympathetic perspectives from both sides, the two sides can consider the use of “historical compensation” to adjust public opinion towards each other. As long as the mutual suspicion between the two peoples remains unsettled, China-Vietnam bilateral ties will be unable to develop substantially and smoothly, no matter how much official jargon glorifies the relationship.

Nguyen Minh Quang is a lecturer at School of Education, Can Tho University, focusing on conflict studies and Mekong Delta environmental security issues. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect those of Can Tho University.