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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 Chinamarker (PRC) and the Socialist Republic of Vietnammarker. The PRC launched the offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodiamarker, which ended the reign of the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge, and Vietnamese raids in Chinese territory near the border. After a brief incursion into Northern Vietnam, PRC troops withdrew about a month later. Both sides claimed victory in the last of the Indochina Wars of the twentieth century; practically speaking, though, since Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989 it can be said that the PRC failed to achieve their goal of dissuading Vietnam from involvement in Cambodia.

Historical background

First Indochina War

Vietnammarker first became a French colony when Francemarker 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 Laosmarker and Cambodiamarker had become French colonies as well. Rebellions against the French colonial power were common up to World War I. The European war heightened revolutionary sentiment in Southeast Asia, and the independence-minded population rallied around revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh and others, including royalists.

Prior to their attack on Pearl Harbormarker, the Japanesemarker occupied French Indochina, allying themselves with the Viet Minh against any possible French return. During the war, the United Statesmarker aided Indochina in overthrowing the Japanese occupation government. The Japanese surrender in 1945 created a power vacuum in Indochina, as the various political factions scrambled for control.

The events leading to the First Indochina War are subject to historical contention. When the Viet Minh hastily sought to establish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the remaining French at first welcomed the new regime, but then staged a coup to regain the colony. The Chinese nationalists supported French restoration, but Viet Minh efforts towards independence were backed by Chinese communists, the Japanese, and the United Kingdommarker. The Soviet Unionmarker at first supported French hegemony, but later supported Ho Chi Minh. The Soviets nonetheless remained quiet compared to China, who, like the United States, had disapproved of using Japanese forces against the French.

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 Conference 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 Chinese Communist Party and the Viet Minh had a long history. During the initial stages of the First Indochina War with Francemarker, the recently founded communist People's Republic of Chinamarker 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' under Wei Guoqing 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 its 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 Unionmarker, as now both the Soviet Union and China supplied arms to North Vietnam during their war against South Vietnam and the United Statesmarker.

Second Indochina War

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 Cambodiamarker. The PRC supported Pol Pot 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. According to Vietnam, Pol Pot responded by massacring ethnic Vietnamese inside Cambodia (see History of Cambodia), and, by 1978, allegedly supporting a Vietnamese guerrilla army making incursions into western Vietnam. However, it should be noted that Pol Pot massacred people of all races, including ethnic Chinese, ethnic Vietnamese and Cambodians.

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. Laosmarker 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 Penhmarker, thus ending the Khmer Rouge regime.

PRC vs. Vietnam: Third Indochina War

Invasion of Vietnam by the People's Republic of China

While 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 starting the Chinese economic reform and opening trade with NATO nations, in turn, growing increasingly defiant against USSR. On November 3 1978 USSR and Vietnam signed a twenty-five year mutual defense treaty, which made Vietnam the "linchpin" in the USSR's "drive to contain China." .

On January 1, 1979, Deng Xiaoping visited USA for the first time and spoke to American president Jimmy Carter: "It's time to smack the bottom of unruly little children" (original Chinese words: 小朋友不聴話,該打打屁股了). On February 15, the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. The reason cited for the counter strike was the supposed mistreatment of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islandsmarker (claimed by the PRC). To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam's behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the USSR; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of their troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border. In addition, the bulk of China's active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China's borders with the USSR..

In response to China's attack, the USSR sent several naval vessels and initiated a Soviet arms airlift to Vietnam. However 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. When Moscow did not intervene, Beijing publicly proclaimed that the USSR had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam. The USSR's failure to support Vietnam emboldened China to announce on April 3, 1979 that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

Chinese forces

Two days after the declaration of war, on February 17, a PRC force of about 200,000 supported by 200 Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks from the PRC People's Liberation Army (PLA) entered northern Vietnam. The Chinese force consisted of units from the Kunmingmarker Military Region (later abolished), Chengdumarker Military Region, Wuhanmarker Military Region (later abolished) and Guangzhou Military Region, but commanded by the headquarters of Kunmingmarker Military Region on the western front and Guangzhou Military Region in the eastern front. Some troops engaged in this war, especially engineering units, railway corps, logistical units and antiaircraft units, had been assigned to assist Vietnammarker in its struggle against the United Statesmarker just a few years earlier during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief that over 600,000 Chinese troops entered Vietnam, the actual number was only 200,000. However, 600,000 Chinese troops were mobilized, of which 200,000 were deployed away from their original bases. Around 400 tanks (specifically Type 59s) 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.

Chinese order of battle

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 border guards) in its northern area. However, the Chinese claimed to have encountered twice this number. This concept of using local militias to fight the enemy has been a staple of Vietnamese defense strategy since antiquity. During the war, Vietnamese forces also used American Military equipment abandoned during the Vietnam War.

Course of the war

The Chinese penetrated into Northern Vietnam and immediately encountered resistance. The Vietnamese claimed that resistance was offered by a mixture of local militia and army divisions totalling 70,000 troops, while the Chinese claimed to have encountered a much larger force. The Chinese were able to advance about twenty five kilometers into Vietnam. Most of the fighting occurred in the provinces of Cao Bangmarker, Lao Cai, and Lang Sonmarker. On March 6, the Chinese took the city of Lang Sonmarker. Claiming that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved, the Chinese withdrew.

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 25,000 killed throughout the war.

According to Chinese sources, however, like Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng, told western media that Chinese troops had suffered 9000 deaths and more than 10,000 wounded in 1980.

The PLA never formally announced its casualty figures, but leaks have indicated that PLA had only 6,954 deaths and 14,800 wounded , 238 Prisoners of War throughout the war.

Vietnamese casualties

There are no independently verifiable details of Vietnamese casualties, same as their counterpart Chinese government, Vietnamese government has never announced any information on its actual casualty, except for Nhan Dan newspaper,the Central Organ of the Communist Party of Vietnam, the voice of the Party, claimed that Vietnam suffered more than 100,000 civilian deaths over Chinese invasion, and earlier on 17 May,1979, Nhan Dan newspaper also released statistics on heavy loss of its industrial and agricultural properties.

Vietnamese armed personnel:

Regular forces : 4,200 killed in total, Wounded: more than 10,000. 2210 Prisoners of War.Province Militia and divisions of the Public Security Army: unknown, the total causality estimated: 70,000

Chinese debacle

The Chinese military was using equipment and tactics from the era of the Long March, World War II and the Korean War. 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 impact of the Vietnamese forces' fire. . 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). Runners were employed to relay orders because there were few radios — those that they did have were not secure. The Cultural Revolution had significantly weakened Chinese industry, and military hardware produced suffered from poor quality, and thus did not perform well. China's goal was to force the Vietnamese to pull out their 150,000 troops from Cambodia, where their Khmer Rouge allies were being extremely pressured upon.


The legacy of the war is lasting. China lost thousands of troops killed and 3,446 million yuan in overhead, which delayed completion of their 1979-80 economic plan. The Chinese implemented a "scorched-earth policy" while retreating back to China. They caused extensive damage to the Vietnamese countryside and infrastructure, through the destruction of Vietnamese villages, roads and railroads. The war did not alter Vietnamese policy in Cambodia; the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was still ousted and replaced by a puppet government. The Chinese were forcibly reminded of their troops' lack of training and tactical coordination.

Border skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s, including a significant skirmish in April 1984; this saw the first use of the Type 81 Assault Rifle by the Chinese and a naval battle over the Spratly Islandsmarker in 1988. 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, resulting in land being given back to China. Vietnam's official news service reported the implementation of the new border around August 2001. Again in January 2009 the border demarcation with markers was officially completed. Signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Dung on the Vietnamese side and his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, on the Chinese side. Both the Paracelmarker (Hoàng Sa: Vietnamese) (Xīshā: Chinese) and Spratlymarker (Trường Sa: Vietnamese) (Nangsha: Chinese) islands remain a point of contention.

The Vietnamese government continuously requested an official apology from the Chinese government for its invasion of Vietnam but the Chinese government refused. After the normalization of relations between the two countries in 1990, Vietnam officially dropped its demand for an apology.

Relations after the war

A catalyst to improved relations between the two communist countries was the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdownmarker, at which point Vietnam showed strong support for the Chinese measures, though ironically 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.

Reflections from international and Chinese media

On March 1, 2005 Howard W. French wrote in The New York Times: Some historians stated that the war was started by Mr. Deng(China's then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping) to keep the army preoccupied while he consolidated power, eliminating leftist rivals from the Maoist era and Chinese soldiers were used as cannon fodder in a cynical political game. We were sacrificed for politics, and it's not just me who feels this way - lots of comrades do, and we communicate our thoughts via the Internet, One of the veterans was quoted as such. The attitude of the country is not to mention this old, sad history because things are pretty stable with Vietnam now. But it is also because the reasons given for the war back then just wouldn't stand now.

The Chinese official name for the war was 对越自卫反击战 (duì yuè zìwèi fǎnjī zhàn), roughly translated as 'self-defense counterattack against Vietnam'.

Chinese Media

Contrary to the views expressed in some major international press, there are quite a few Chinese songs, movies and TV programs depicting and discussing this conflict with Vietnam in 1979. Some of them are quite insightful, albeit from the Chinese viewpoint. These vary from the patriotic song "Bloodstained Glory" originally written to laud the sacrifice and service of the Chinese military, to the 1986 film The Big Parade which carried as far as possible, in the China of the time, veiled criticism of the war.

See also


  1. Dunnigan, J.F. & Nofi, A.A. (1999). Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War. New York: St. Martins Press, p. 27.
  2. Dunnigan, J.F. & Nofi, A.A. (1999). Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War. New York: St. Martins Press, pp. 27-38.
  3. Hood, S.J. (1992). Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, p. 16.
  4. Burns, R.D. and Leitenberg, M. (1984). The Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, 1945-1982: A Bibliographic Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Information Services, p.xx.
  5. Burns, R.D. and Leitenberg, M. (1984). The Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, 1945-1982: A Bibliographic Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Information Services, p. xx.
  6. Hood, S.J. (1992). Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, p. 13-19.
  7. Chen, Min. (1992). The Strategic Triangle and Regional Conflict: Lessons from the Indochina Wars. Boulder: Lnne Reinner Publications, p. 17-23.
  8. Hood, S.J. (1992). Dragons Entangled: Indochina and the China-Vietnam War. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, p. 13-19.
  9. Chen, Min. (1992). The Strategic Triangle and Regional Conflict: Lessons from the Indochina Wars. Boulder: Lnne Reinner Publications, p. 17-23.
  10. Burns, R.D. and Leitenberg, M. (1984). The Wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, 1945-1982: A Bibliographic Guide. Santa Barbara: ABC-Clio Information Services, p. xxvi.
  11. { Sino-Soviet Relations and the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Conflict by Bruce Elleman}
  12. {(Robert A. Scalapino, "The Political Influence of the USSR in Asia," in Donald S. Zagoria, ed., Soviet Policy in East Asia (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1982), 71.)}
  13. {(Chang Pao-min, Kampuchea Between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1985), 88-89.)}
  14. {(Robert A. Scalapino "Asia in a Global Context: Strategic Issue for the Soviet Union," in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA. , Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 28.) }
  15. - The Political History of Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, and the Chinese Concept of Active Defense
  16. 《对越自卫反击作战工作总结》Work summary on counter strike (1979-1987) published by The rear services of Chinese Kunming Military Region
  17. 《中越战俘生活实录》 life of prison camp from count strike war, Shi Wenying, published by spring breeze literature press in March, 1991.
  18. Nhan Dan newspaper
  19. 《对越自卫反击作战工作总结》Work summary on counter strike (1979-1987) published by The rear services of Chinese Kunming Military Region
  20. 《许世友的最后一战》The last fight of General Xu Shiyou, Zhou Deli,Jiangshu People's press , June,1990
  21. The Chinese Communist: Air Force in the "Punitive" War Against Vietnam
  22. ocp28 - The Chinese People's Liberation Army: "Short Arms and Slow Legs"
  23. "China "Should Learn from its Losses" in the War against Vietnam" from "1st August" Radio, People's republic of China, 1400 GMT, 17 February 1980, as reported by BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, 22 february 1980
  24. History 1615: War and Peace in the 20th Century
  25. BBC News | ASIA-PACIFIC | China-Vietnam pact signed
  26. Thanh Nien News | Politics | Vietnam, China complete historic border demarcation
  27. Thanh Nien News | Politics | Vietnam reiterates sovereignty over archipelagoes
  28. Greenlees, Donald Approval near for Vietnam-China highway International Herald Tribune, 13 December 2007

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