(Third Indochina War)
|Part of the Third Indochina War and the Cold War|
Vietnamese artillery bombarding Chinese troops, 23 February 1979
|Commanders and leaders|
Võ Nguyên Giáp
Tôn Đức Thắng
Văn Tiến Dũng
Đàm Quang Trung
|Chinese claim: 200,000 PLA with 400–550 tanks
Vietnamese claim: 600,000 PLA infantry and 400 tanks from Kunming and Guangzhou Military Districts
|70,000–100,000 regulars + 150,000 local troops and militia|
|Casualties and losses|
Chinese estimate: 6,954–8,531 killed
Chinese estimate: 30,000–57,000 soldiers killed and 70,000 militia killed.
|Vietnamese||Chiến tranh biên giới Việt Nam-Trung Quốc|
The Sino-Vietnamese War (Vietnamese: Chiến tranh biên giới Việt-Trung; simplified Chinese: 中越战争; traditional Chinese: 中越戰爭; pinyin: Zhōng-Yuè Zhànzhēng), also known as the Third Indochina War, was a brief border war fought between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in early 1979. China launched an offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia in 1978 (which ended the rule of the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge).
Chinese forces entered northern Vietnam and captured several cities near the border. On March 6, 1979, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved. Chinese troops then withdrew from Vietnam. Both China and Vietnam claimed victory in the last of the Indochina Wars. As Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until 1989, one can say that China remained unsuccessful in its goal of dissuading Vietnam from involvement in Cambodia. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Sino-Vietnamese border was finalized.
Although unable to deter Vietnam from Cambodia, China succeeded in demonstrating that its Cold War communist adversary, the Soviet Union, was unable to protect its Vietnamese ally. Following worsening relations between the Soviet Union and China as a result of the Sino-Soviet split of 1956-1966, as many as 1.5 million Chinese troops were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border[when?] in preparation for a full-scale war against the Soviets.
The Sino-Vietnamese War (Vietnamese: Chiến tranh biên giới Việt-Trung) is also known as the Third Indochina War, in order to distinguish it from the First Indochina War, and the Vietnam War, also known as the Second Indochina War. In Vietnam, the conflict is known as the War against Chinese expansionism. (Vietnamese: Chiến tranh chống bành trướng Trung Hoa). In China, the war is referred to as the Defensive Counterattack against Vietnam (Chinese: 对越自卫反击战; pinyin: Duì Yuè zìwèi fǎnjī zhàn).
Just as the First Indochina War—which emerged from the complex situation following World War II—and the Vietnam War both exploded from the unresolved aftermath of political relations, the Third Indochina War again followed the unresolved problems of the earlier wars.
The major allied victors of World War II, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Soviet Union, all agreed that the area belonged to the French. As the French did not have the means to immediately retake Indochina, the major powers agreed that the British would take control and troops would occupy the south while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the north. Nationalist Chinese troops entered the country to disarm Japanese troops north of the 16th parallel on 14 September 1945. The parallel divided Indochina into Chinese and British controlled zones (See Timeline of World War II (1945).). The British landed in the south rearming the small body of interned French forces as well as parts of the surrendered Japanese forces to aid in retaking southern Vietnam, as there were not enough British troops immediately available.
On the urging of the Soviet Union, Ho Chi Minh initially attempted to negotiate with the French, who were slowly reestablishing their control across the area, although still under British control until hostilities had ceased. Once hostilities had ended the British handed over the territory to the French. In January 1946, the Viet Minh won elections across central and northern Vietnam. On 6 March 1946, Ho signed an agreement allowing French forces to replace Nationalist Chinese forces, in exchange for French recognition of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as a "free" republic within the French Union, with the specifics of such recognition to be determined by future negotiation. British forces departed on 26 March 1946, leaving Vietnam in the control of the French. The French landed in Hanoi by March 1946 and in November of that year they ousted the Viet Minh from the city. Soon thereafter, the Viet Minh began a guerrilla war against the French Union forces, beginning the first Indochina War.
Vietnam first became a French colony when France 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 had become French colonies as well. Rebellions against 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 Hồ Chí Minh and others, including royalists.
Prior to their attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese occupied French Indochina, but left civil administration to the Vichy French administration. On 9 March 1945, fearing that the Vichy French were about to switch sides to support the Allies, the Japanese overthrew the Vichy administration and forces taking control of Indochina and establishing their own puppet administration, the Empire of Vietnam. The Japanese surrender in August 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 dispute. When the Viet Minh hastily sought to establish the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the remaining French acquiesced while waiting for the return of French forces to the region. The Kuomintang supported French restoration, but Viet Minh efforts towards independence were helped by Chinese communists under the Soviet Union's power. The Soviet Union at first indirectly supported Vietnamese communists, but later directly supported Hồ Chí Minh. The Soviets nonetheless remained less supportive than China until after the Sino-Soviet split, during the time of Leonid Brezhnev when the Soviet Union became communist Vietnam's key 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 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. did not sign the agreement and swiftly moved to back South Vietnam.
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 continued the Russian mission to expand communism. Therefore, they aided the Viet Minh and became the connector between Soviets and the Vietminh. In early 1950, The Viet Minh fought independently from the 'Chinese Military Advisory Group' under Wei Guoqing. This was one of the reasons for China to cut the arms support for the Viet Minh.
After the death of Joseph Stalin in March 1953, 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 in February 1956, 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. From here, Chinese communists played a decreasing role in helping their former allies because the Viet Minh did not support China against the Soviets.
Following the death of Mao in September 1976, the overthrow of the Gang of Four and the ascent of Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leadership would revise its own positions to become compatible with market aspects, denounce the Cultural Revolution, and collaborate with the US against the Soviet Union.
As France withdrew from a provisionally divided Vietnam in late 1954, the United States increasingly stepped in to support the South Vietnamese leaders due to the Domino theory, which theorized that if one nation would turn to communism, the surrounding nations were likely to fall like dominoes and become communist as well. The Soviet Union and North Vietnam became important allies together due to the fact that if South Vietnam was successfully taken over by North Vietnam, then communism in the far east would find its strategic position bolstered. In the eyes of the People's Republic of China, the growing Soviet-Vietnamese relationship was a disturbing development; they feared an encirclement by the less-than-hospitable Soviet sphere of influence.
The United States and the Soviet Union could not agree on a plan for a proposed 1956 election meant to unify the partitioned Vietnam. Instead, the South held a separate election that was widely considered fraudulent, leading to continued internal conflict with communist factions led by the Viet Cong that intensified through the late 1950s. With supplies and support from the Soviet Union, North Vietnamese forces became directly involved in the ongoing guerrilla war by 1959 and openly invaded the South in 1964.
The United States played an ever-increasing role in supporting South Vietnam through the period. The U.S. had supported French forces in the First Indochina War, sent supplies and military advisers to South Vietnam throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, and eventually took over most of the fighting against both North Vietnam and the Viet Cong by the mid-1960s. By 1968, over 500,000 American troops were involved in the Vietnam War. Due to a lack of clear military success and facing increasingly strident opposition to the war in the U.S., American forces began a slow withdrawal in 1969 while attempting to bolster South Vietnam's military so that they could take over the fighting. In accordance with the Paris Peace Accords by 29 March 1973 all U.S. combat forces had left South Vietnam, however North Vietnamese combat forces were allowed to remain in place. North Vietnam attacked South Vietnam in early 1975 and South Vietnam fell on 30 April 1975.
The People's Republic of China started talks with the United States 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 toward the United States. Meanwhile, the People's Republic of China also supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
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 on 17 April 1975. Communist China, in the other hand, also supported the Maoist Khmer Rouge against Lon Nol's regime during the Cambodian Civil War and its subsequent take-over of Cambodia. China provided extensive political, logistical and military support for the Khmer Rouge during its rule. After numerous clashes along the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, and with encouragement from Khmer Rouge defectors fleeing a purge of the Eastern Zone, Vietnam invaded Cambodia on 25 December 1978. By 7 January 1979 Vietnamese forces had entered Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge leadership had fled to western Cambodia.
China supported the ethnic minority United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races against Vietnam during the FULRO insurgency against Vietnam.
The Chinese received a significant amount of defectors from the Thu Lao ethnic minority in Vietnam during the war. During the war China received as migrants the entire A Lù based population of the Phù Lá ethnic minority. China received so many defectors from the ethnic minorities in Vietnam that it raised shock among Vietnam which had to launch a new effort re-assert dominance over the ethnic minorities and classify them. Post Vietnam War, insurgency against Vietnam lasted among the indigenous Mon-Khmer and Malayo-Polynesians of the Central Highlands. Assistance was sought from China by the Hmong ethnic minority. The border was frequently crossed by Chinese, Lao, Kinh, Hmong, Yao, Nung, and Tai. The Laotian Hmong and FULRO were both supported against Vietnam by China and Thailand.
China, now under Deng Xiaoping, was starting the Chinese economic reform and opening trade with the West, in turn, growing increasingly defiant of the Soviet Union. On November 3, 1978, the Soviet Union and Vietnam signed a 25-year mutual defense treaty, which made Vietnam the "linchpin" in the Soviet Union's "drive to contain China."
On January 1, 1979, Chinese Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping visited the United States for the first time and told American president Jimmy Carter: "The little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked." (original Chinese words: 小朋友不听话，该打打屁股了。). On February 15, the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam.
The reason cited for the attack was to support China's ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, in addition to the mistreatment of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands which were claimed by China. 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 Soviet Union; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of its 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 border with the Soviet Union.
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Although the People's Liberation Army vastly outnumbered the Vietnamese forces, the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance compelled the Chinese to deploy the majority of their forces along China's northern frontier with the Soviet Union (as well as, to a lesser extent, Soviet-allied Mongolia) as a deterrent to Soviet intervention.
The Chinese force that engaged the Vietnamese consisted of units from the Kunming Military Region, Chengdu Military Region, Wuhan Military Region and Guangzhou Military Region, but commanded by the headquarters of Kunming 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 North Vietnam in its war against South Vietnam just a few years earlier during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief that over 600,000 Chinese troops entered North Vietnam, the actual number was only 200,000, while 600,000 Chinese troops were mobilized, of which 400,000 were deployed away from their original bases during the one-month conflict.
The Chinese troop deployments were observed by U.S. spy satellites. In his state visit to the U.S. 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.
The Vietnamese government claimed they only had a force of about 70,000 including several army regular divisions in its northern area. However, the Chinese estimates indicate more than twice this number. Some Vietnamese forces used American military equipment captured during the Vietnam War.
In addition, Vietnamese forces were supported by about 50,000 militia at each Military Region
The Vietnam People's Air Force did not participate in the combat directly, instead they provided support to the ground troops, transported troops from Cambodia to northern Vietnam as well as performed reconnaissance purposes.
According to Vietnam, since January 1979 Chinese forces performed numerous reconnaissance activities across the border and made 230 violations into Vietnamese land. To prepare for a possible Chinese invasion, the Central Military Committee of the Communist Party ordered all armed forces across the border to be on stand-by mode.
On 17 February 1979, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) force of about 200,000 troops supported by 200 Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks entered northern Vietnam in the PLA's first major combat operation since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The PLA invasion was conducted in two directions: western and eastern
Vietnam quickly mobilized all its main forces in Cambodia, southern Vietnam and central Vietnam to the northern border. From 18 February to 25 February, the 327th Infantry Division of Military District 3 and the 337th Infantry Division of Military District 4 were deployed to join Military District 1 for the defense of northwestern region. From 6 March to 11 March the Second Corp (Huong Giang Corp) stationed in Cambodia was deployed back to Hanoi.
The 372nd Air Division in central Vietnam as well as the 917th, 935th and 937th Air Regiments in southern Vietnam were quickly deployed to the north.
The Soviet Union, although it did not take direct military action, provided intelligence and equipment support for Vietnam. A large airlift was established by the Soviet Union to move Vietnamese troops from Cambodia to Northern Vietnam. Moscow also provided a total of 400 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), 500 mortar artillery and air defense artillery, 50 BM-21 rocket launchers, 400 portable surface-to-air missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles and 20 jet fighters. About 5,000 to 8,000 Soviet military advisers were present in Vietnam from August 1979 to mid-1979[clarification needed] to train Vietnamese soldiers.
During the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Soviet Union deployed troops at the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolian-Chinese border as an act of showing support to Vietnam, as well as tying up Chinese troops. However, the Soviets refused to take any direct action to defend their ally.
The Soviet Union did not directly intervene because they felt that there was simply no way that they could directly support Vietnam against China; the distances were too great to be an effective ally, and any sort of reinforcements would have to cross territory controlled by China or U.S. allies. The only realistic option would be to restart the unresolved border conflict with China. 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 Soviet Union had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam.
Another reason why Moscow did not intervene was because Beijing had promised both Moscow and Washington that the invasion was only a limited war, and that Chinese forces would withdraw after a short incursion. After moderation by the U.S., Moscow decided to adopt a "wait and see" approach to see if Beijing would actually limit their offense. Deng Xiaoping, because Vietnam's anti-air capabilities were among the best in the world at the time and in order to reassure Moscow it was conducting a limited war, ordered the Chinese navy and air force to remain out of the war; only limited support was provided by the air force. When Beijing kept its promise, Moscow did not retaliate.
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The PLA quickly advanced about 15–20 kilometres into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bằng, Lào Cai and Lạng Sơn. The Vietnamese avoided mobilizing their regular divisions, and held back some 300,000 troops for the defence of Hanoi. The People's Army of Vietnam (VPA) tried to avoid direct combat and often used guerrilla tactics.
The initial PLA attack soon lost its momentum and a new attack wave was sent in with eight PLA divisions joining the battle. After capturing the northern heights above Lạng Sơn, the PLA surrounded and paused in front of the city in order to lure the VPA into reinforcing it with units from Cambodia. This was the main strategic ploy in the Chinese war plan as Deng did not want to risk escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. Once this became clear to the PLA, the war was practically over. After three days of bloody house-to-house fighting, Lạng Sơn fell on 6 March. The PLA then took the southern heights above Lạng Sơn and occupied Sa Pa. The PLA claimed to have crushed several of the VPA regular units.
On 6 March, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved. On the way back to the Chinese border, the PLA destroyed all local infrastructure and housing and looted all useful equipment and resources (including livestock), severely weakening the economy of Vietnam's northernmost provinces. The PLA crossed the border back into China on 16 March. Both sides declared victory with China claiming to have crushed the Vietnamese resistance and Vietnam claiming to have repelled the invasion using mostly border militias. Henry J. Kenny, a research scientist for US Center for Naval Analyses, notes that most Western writers agree that Vietnam outperformed the PLA on the battlefield.
China and Vietnam each lost thousands of troops, and China lost 3,446 million yuan in overhead, which delayed completion of their 1979–80 economic plan. Following the war, the Vietnamese leadership took various repressive measures to deal with the problem of real or potential collaboration. In the spring of 1979, the authorities expelled approx. 8,000 Hoa people from Hanoi to the southern "New Economic Zones," and partially resettled the Hmong tribes and other ethnic minorities from the northernmost provinces. In response to the defection of Hoàng Văn Hoan, a purge was launched to cleanse the Communist Party of Vietnam of pro-Chinese elements and persons who had surrendered to the advancing Chinese troops during the war. In 1979, a total of 20,468 members were expelled from the party. Although Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia, China successfully mobilized international opposition to the occupation, rallying such leaders as Cambodia's deposed king Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian anticommunist leader Son Sann, and high-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge to deny the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian People's Party in Cambodia diplomatic recognition beyond the Soviet bloc. China improved relations with ASEAN by promising protection to Thailand and Singapore against "Vietnamese aggression". In contrast, Vietnam's decreasing prestige in the region led it to be more dependent on the Soviet Union, to which it leased a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. On 1 March 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...
The number of casualties during the war is disputed. Vietnamese sources claimed the PLA had suffered 62,500 total casualties, including 550 military vehicles, and 115 artillery pieces destroyed; while Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng told western media in 1980 that the Chinese troops had suffered 9,000 dead and about 10,000 wounded during the war. Leaks from Chinese military sources indicate that China suffered 6,954 dead.
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Vietnamese government has never officially announced any information on its actual military casualties. China estimated that Vietnam lost 57,000 soldiers and 70,000 militia members during the war. The official Nhân Dân newspaper claimed that Vietnam suffered more than 10,000 civilian deaths during the Chinese invasion and earlier on 17 May 1979, reported statistics on heavy losses of industry and agriculture properties.
The 238 Chinese soldiers surrendered after getting separated from their main unit during the withdrawal from Vietnam and became surrounded by Vietnamese. After surrendering, they were transferred by the Vietnamese soldiers to a prison. The Chinese prisoners reported that they were subjected to torturous and inhumane treatment, such as being blindfolded and having their bodies bound and restrained with metal wire.
Armed conflict only ended in 1989 after the Vietnamese agreed to fully withdraw from Cambodia. Both nations planned the normalization of their relations in a secret summit in Chengdu in September 1990, and officially normalized ties in November 1991.
In 1999, after many years of negotiations, China and Vietnam signed a border pact. There was an adjustment of the land border, resulting in Vietnam giving China part of its land which was lost during the battle, including the Ai Nam Quan Gate which served as the traditional border marker and entry point between Vietnam and China, which caused widespread frustration within Vietnam. Vietnam's official news service reported the implementation of the new border around August 2001. In January 2009 the border demarcation 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 Paracel (called Hoàng Sa in Vietnam, Xīshā in China) and Spratly (Trường Sa in Vietnam, Nansha in China) islands remain a point of contention.
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.
There are a number of Chinese songs, movies and T.V. programs depicting and discussing this conflict 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 veiled criticism of the war. The male protagonist of the television series Candle in the Tomb was a veteran of conflict. The 2017 Chinese movie Youth covers the period of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict from the perspective of the larger cultural changes taking place in China during that period of time.
The war was mentioned in the film Đất mẹ (Motherland) directed by Hải Ninh in 1980 and Thị xã trong tầm tay (Town at the Fingertips) directed by Đặng Nhật Minh in 1982. Besides in 1982, a documentary film called Hoa đưa hương nơi đất anh nằm (Flowers over Your Grave) was directed by Truong Thanh, the film told a story of a Japanese journalist who died during the war. During the war, there were numerous patriotic songs produced to boost the nationalism of Vietnamese people, including "Chiến đấu vì độc lập tự do" ("Fight for Independence and Freedom") composed by Phạm Tuyên, "Lời tạm biệt lúc lên đường" ("Farewell When Leaving") by Vu Trong Hoi, "40 thế kỷ cùng ra trận" ("40 Centuries We Fought Side By Side") by Hong Dang, "Những đôi mắt mang hình viên đạn" ("The Angry Gaze") by Tran Tien and "Hát về anh" (Sing for you) by The Hien. The Sino-Vietnamese War also appeared in some novels such as: Đêm tháng Hai (Night of February) written by Chu Lai in 1979 and Chân dung người hàng xóm (Portrait of My Neighbors) written by Duong Thu Huong in 1979.
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