The ‘necessary lessons’ of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

Society & Culture

If Chinese commanders had observed the experiences of French and American forces in Vietnam, they seem to have learned few lessons.

This Week in China’s History: February 17, 1979

“If you don’t teach them some necessary lessons, it just won’t do.”

This was how Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平, consolidating his political power, described PRC policy toward Vietnam, speaking to reporters in Washington, D.C., late in January 1979. Two weeks later, China and Vietnam went to war.

Needless to say, the two sides gave very different accounts, visible thanks to the National Security Archive housed at George Washington University. In its official statement, China’s Xinhua News agency declared, “Ignoring China’s repeated warnings, the Vietnamese authorities have of late continually sent armed forces to encroach on Chinese territory and attack Chinese frontier guards and inhabitants…In the past six months alone, the Vietnamese have made armed incursions on more than seven hundred occasions and killed or wounded more than three hundred Chinese frontier guards and inhabitants.” The official announcement of war was understated: “Driven beyond forbearance, Chinese frontier troops have been forced to rise in counterattack.”

The Chinese treated Vietnam as though it were a misbehaving younger sibling needing to be put in its place.

The Vietnamese government contended that it had “made every effort to contribute to turning the Viet Nam–China border into a border of friendship,” but accused the Chinese government of “dark” and “perfidious schemes” and “odious tricks” against their neighbor: “The Chinese authorities, who are pursuing a hostile policy toward Viet Nam and bringing about an extremely tense situation along the border between the two countries, must bear full responsibility for their dangerous adventurous actions.”

It was not the first time China had shed blood in conflict with a communist neighbor, but this was on a different scale than the skirmish between China and the Soviets along their icy northeastern border a decade earlier. As many as 300,000 Chinese troops attacked Vietnamese border defenses, supported by artillery. Through mountainous terrain with some 400 tanks, the People’s Liberation Army advanced on several Vietnamese provincial capitals.

If Chinese commanders had observed the experiences of French and American forces in Vietnam since 1945, they seem to have learned few lessons. In China’s Quest, a history of PRC foreign policy, John Garver lists Chinese tactical failures that mirror those of their Western predecessors: “Maps were out of date. Terrain often proved more rugged than anticipated…Vietnamese forces outflanked by the PLA withdrew into nearby mountains or forests where they knew the location of caves and tunnel complexes, and reemerged to attack…PLA logistics services were inadequate to supply front-line forces…Communication and command problems plagued the Chinese side.”

The Vietnamese forces also enjoyed several clear advantages. There were few combat veterans among the PLA ranks; most of the Vietnamese soldiers had years of experience. The Vietnamese also had generally superior weapons, some supplied by the Soviet Union, others captured from the Americans. Furthermore, little incentive was needed to motivate Vietnamese soldiers to defend their territory against China, whose long history of violence toward Vietnam was a central part of the education there.

Despite these conditions, after 10 days of heavy fighting, Chinese forces achieved their initial objectives, and turned toward the city of Lang Son. Just 10 miles from the Chinese border, Lang Son was seen as the gateway to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. Taking Lang Son would, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, “teach some necessary lessons.”

Foreign powers had used Lang Son to “teach lessons” to Vietnam before. The French had a garrison there in the colonial era. The Americans devastated the city in the Christmas bombing of 1972, trying to force North Vietnam back to the negotiating table. The Chinese took their turn, leveling the city. As Henry Kamm reported in the New York Times, the PLA “methodically blew up every major building in the town…The old provincial hospital lies in ruins…the town library was leveled and its books burned.”

Having “devastatingly completed the work begun by heavy artillery shelling throughout the fighting,” and their lesson, presumably, taught, the PLA withdrew.

The three weeks of fighting had inflicted heavy losses on both sides. Precise casualty counts are difficult, but historian King Chen estimates that both sides suffered more than 25,000 dead and more than 30,000 wounded.

The war between Vietnam and China encapsulated many of the truths of the late Cold War (which, not for the last time, we’ll observe was rarely cold in East Asia). The war between ideological allies was, from an outside perspective, wholly unexpected. Many in the United States saw its own war in Vietnam as a direct descendant of the “loss of China” in 1949, and assumed the two neighbors to be close allies. True, the Soviet Union had sent troops and tanks to “teach lessons” to allies like Czechoslovakia (1968) and Hungary (1956), but those actions were — in theory at least — at the invitation of embattled Soviet supporters. There was no pretense that this was anything other than an invasion.

The Sino-Vietnamese War showed not only that the Cold War was often hot, but how fluid the supposedly rigid ideological divide was. China and Vietnam were divided by their approach to the Soviet Union and the United States. China worried that Soviet influence in the region was benefitting from its relationship to Vietnam, and built closer ties to Washington to counter Soviet power. Vietnam saw China’s rapprochement with the U.S. as a betrayal of the movement. And while both sides railed against imperialism, they were competing with one another in Cambodia, where many saw fighting between Vietnamese and Cambodian communists as a proxy war between the USSR and PRC.

Relations between Vietnam and China have been better since 1979, but remain complex.

Tensions have focused not on the land border, which provoked the 1979 war, but on maritime disputes. Like most countries bordering the South China Sea, Vietnam has claims that conflict with China’s. More than most, Vietnam has resisted Beijing’s attempts at hegemony in the ocean. The 1979 war is just one example of the long history of conflict between the two countries, and one wonders if some in Beijing might be remembering Deng’s suggestion of “necessary lessons” and what consequences there might be.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.