Template:Infobox Military Conflict

The Sino–Vietnamese War or Third Indochina War was a brief but bloody border war fought in 1979 between China and Vietnam. China launched the offensive largely in response to Vietnam's invasion and subsequent occupation of Cambodia, a war which ended the genocidal reign of Chinese-backed Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge. Chinese troops withdrew after a month-long incursion into northern Vietnam.

Historical backgroundEdit

Sino–Soviet splitEdit

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, the North Vietnamese communists (the Vietnam Workers' Party/VWP) adopted a more neutral position in the dispute as both the Soviet Union and China supplied North Vietnam during their war against South Vietnam and the United States; though by the early 1970s the VWP began drifting towards a position more sympathetic to the Soviet Union, particularly after Mao's shock decision to invite U.S. President Richard Nixon to visit China in early 1972.

The Soviets welcomed the Vietnamese move towards their position, seeing an alliance with a regionally powerful Vietnam as a way to demonstrate that they were the "real power" behind communism in East Asia, and to isolate and encircle China, something the U.S., as well as China, sought to resist. The PRC also supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia for both ideological (the Khmer Rouge's philosophy was a radical variant of Maoism) and strategic reasons (a China-friendly Cambodia would act as a counter-weight to Vietnamese influence in Indochina), which further added to tensions in the region when the Khmer Rouge regime proved to have rabid anti-Vietnamese sentiments.


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 through Vietnam's western border.

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, experienced and confident after defeating the United States military and its South Vietnamese ally, 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.

China's invasion of VietnamEdit

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 forcesEdit

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. Also contrary to some western and former Soviet erroneous claim of around 1200 tanks were deployed, only 400 tanks were mobilized, and around half of these were able to be deployed in Vietnam. The greatly exaggerated Chinese armor force was mainly due to the former-Soviet block propaganda but since the 1990's, the released Chinese documents revealed that China was originally indeed to mobilize that many amrors, and of the 1,200 planned, around 800 were tanks. However, due to the political turmoil in China, namely, the Cultural Revolution, the quality of most Chinese equipment were extremely poor, (in fact, much worse shape than those supplied to Vietnam earlier during the Vietnam War), that only around 400 tanks were capable of combat deployment. Similarly the artillery deployed was also lower than the 1,500 claimed by the same western and former-Soviet blocksources.[1], but since most artillery pieces were towed, the problem was not as bad as more complex armored vehicles. It remained debated to this day why the Chinese did not counter the such erroneous claims initially, while some outside China believed that it was a trick played by China to exaggerate its force by using enemy's claim, thus creating a false image of stronger Chinese force, most recent Chinese memoirs published in China by the participants in the war have pointed to a totally different reason: the political one, because admitting the fact would mean acknowledge Mao Zedong's fault and the disaster of his Cultural Revolution he launched, a fact that even the current Chinese regime is trying to forget.

The Chinese troop deployments were reportedly 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. Although this information was openly and widely reported by the domestic Chinese media, the famous Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng was nonetheless prosecuted and jailed for repeating the same information to foreigners. Ironically, although no official American governmental confirmation was clearly given, many pro-democracy organizations outside China quoted the American intelligence in support of Wei.

Vietnamese forcesEdit

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 augmented 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. In fact, the majority of the Vietnamese commanders leading the Vietnamese force were graduates of the PLA's Kunming Advanced Infantry School, one of the best Chinese infantry schools for junior and senior army commanders, thus the Vietnamese resistance proved to be much tougher than Chinese had expected, despite the fact over half of the force were second line police force forces. 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.[citation needed] Most observers at the time had believed that the PLA would simply 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 casualtiesEdit

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.[1] These figures are probably exaggerated, considering that the total Chinese force in Vietnam during the conflict never exceeded 80,000.[citation needed] 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, since Chinese tanks deployed in Veitnam was only 200, much lower than Chinese own expectation, thanks to the disastrous Cultural Revolution. 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. However, since the late 1990's, released Chinese information such as records from the Ji'nan Military District revealed that there are a further 6,000 fatalities because shocked by the high casualties, the Chinese lowered the number to 20,000 by excluding 5,500 who died after the war as result of the wounds they got during the war. Furthermore, political decision played once more for an additional 500 fatalities during the war because these 500 Chinese soldiers were killed by their own weaponry when these poor quality weapons made during the Cultural Revolution era malfunctioned, thus killing the operators during accidentally explosion. The figure of 26,000 are accepted much more widely by the Chinese civilians than the 20,000 given earlier, including most of those who particpated in the war, and the number is increasingly being adopted by local Chinese governments as well. It is worth to note that this number also matches the Vietnamese claim of 26,000.

Vietnamese casualtiesEdit

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. 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.[citation needed] 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. Since the weapons were confiscated after the battles just like in any battlefield, the status of these militia/civilian forces claimed by the Chinese and Vietnamese was initially impossible to determine and disputed. However, the Vietnamese and former-Soviet propaganda were soon discredited by Vietnam's own debacle that supported the Chinese claim: when those Chinese weapons were taken out of depots and distributed to Vietnamese militia to fight the Chinese invasion force, Vietnamese government had failed to destroy neither the serial numbers on the weapon nor the associating documents due to the Soviet type control. When Chinese captured the depots, as well as when many militia abandoned their posts, these documents was captured intact by the Chinese, and these Vietnamese documents proved that the Chinese-built weapons were in fact, part of Chinese aid to Vietnam during the Vietnam War several year earlier, not Chinese weapons planted. 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. The Vietnamese propaganda then consequently changed tactic by claiming that the Chinese weapons were Vietnam War era Chinese military aid and that when Chinese captured the depot, some of the weapons were planted at the scene. However, after the previous propaganda blunder, the new Vietnamese propaganda had difficulty to find a willing audience since it would be hard to claim that any army would be stupid enough to leave weapons at the scene for future enemies after killing the combatants carrying said weaponry. Vietnamese own contradictory actions did not help itself either: during the 1980s, China used the Vietnamese' own references to the dead militia members to strengthen its position by pointing out that, although Vietnam originally immediately after the war claimed those militia men were civilians, the Vietnamese government later changed its position and honored the same dead ones as combat heroes. Furthermore, the number of civilian deaths claimed by Vietnam gradually dropped from several hundred thousands immediately after the war to a mere 10,000 in the late 1980s, while at the same time, the number of combat heroes steadily increased.

Chinese debacle?Edit

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.[2] 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.[3] Third, the PLA lacked adequate communications, transport, and logistics and were burdened with an elaborate and archaic command structure.[4] 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 failed to 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. One author states "Chinese troops, attacking in poorly coordinated and insufficiently supported human wave assaults, were mowed down by the entrenched Vietnamese."[2] 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 debateEdit

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 continued to remain under Vietnamese military occupation for some time. Similarly, the border disputes between the PRC and Vietnam were not settled. If, however, the PRC's goals were entirely punitive, the war may be seen as 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 during the conflict (although the USSR had performed a military demonstration along the Chinese border during the conflict).[citation needed] 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. [5]

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[6]. There was a very slight adjustment of the land border at this time, resulting in land being ceded 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 Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, and North America.

The Vietnamese government has 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 secretaries of both communist parties, Vietnam officially dropped its demand.

Relations after the warEdit

Contrary to the commonly held 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 1980s[citation needed], though this was viewed by many as in accordance with the Soviet Union's policy of normalizing relations 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 same Chinese troops who fought in the border conflicts with Vietnam in the mid-1980's were sent by the Chinese government to suppress the democracy movement. The irony is that the patriotic songs sung by demonstrating students in 1989 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 regime's bloody crackdown. General Vo Nguyen Giap, the commander of the Vietnamese forces during the war, secretly visited China in the same year and held talks with the Chinese in Chengdu, Sichuan province, which led up to the later state visits that resulted in normalizing relations between China and Vietnam.


  1. Chinese Armed Forces in the 21st Century DIANE Publishing By Dr. Larry M. Wortzel, Published 1999, Strategic Studies Institute, ISBN 1584870079, pp122
  2. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named Margolis

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