For much of the Cold War, Vietnam was where world powers sent their armies to be defeated. The French deployed a quarter million troops to Indochina following the Second World War to maintain its colonies in the region only to be defeated there in 1954. A decade later, America intervened and then suffered its worst military humiliation in history. In 1979, it would be China’s turn. In this week’s Wars You Never Knew About, we’ll take a look at the short but bloody (and often forgotten) conflict between the Peoples’ Republic and Vietnam, also known as the Third Indochina War.
On February 17, 1979, 250,000 Chinese troops supported by 200 tanks poured over the border into northern Vietnam. The invaders stormed the country at 26 points along the 500 mile frontier. Within hours, some elements had advanced as far as 20 kilometers.
Beijing claimed the attack was being carried out against its former ally to protect ethnic Chinese from persecution at the hands of the government in Hanoi.  In reality, the incursion was intended to pressure Vietnam to abandon its occupation of nearby Cambodia. But there was even more to it than that. China also wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s closest strategic patron, to stay out of South East Asia. Once partners themselves, by the 1970s, China and Russia were increasingly seeing each other as geopolitical competitors. And Beijing, a long time supporter of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, considered Vietnam’s invasion of Camboda in 1978 as more evidence of Russia’s master plan to dominate the region at China’s expense.
The fighting between China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Vietnamese forces, which lasted less than a month, was surprisingly intense. The Chinese game plan was to bleed the defending forces dry, even if it meant taking horrendous casualties in the process. China compared its strategy to a “meat grinder” and artlessly sent wave after wave of infantry against enemy positions in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition with sheer numbers.
The Vietnamese largely avoided direct confrontation with the PLA, keeping its best regular army units in reserve to safeguard the capital. Instead it marshalled 150,000 local militia and border guards who employed guerrilla tactics to wear down the invaders. While not considered front-line units, these second tier Vietnamese troops had something the Chinese soldiers lacked: Experience. After all, Vietnam had spent much of the previous 30 years at war against the Saigon regime, France and the U.S. and still had hundreds of thousands of combat veterans at its disposal.
While China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, counted on an easy victory in Vietnam, he also expected the attack to prompt some sort of retaliation from the Soviets, possibly even full-scale war. In the days leading up to his Vietnamese gambit, Deng pushed more than a million regulars up to China’s border with Russia and placed all his forces on a war footing. Despite being Vietnam’s principal ally, the Soviet Union, remained on the sidelines for the duration of the conflict. Moscow was simply unwilling to risk war with China for the sake of Hanoi. Save for flying in a handful cargo planes full of ammunition into the Vietnamese capital, it stayed out of the action.
Even without direct help from the Soviets, Vietnam was still able to contain the Chinese. After 17 days of fighting, during which the PLA had sustained crippling casualties, China cynically declared victory, saying it had ‘punished’ Vietnam enough, and began a general retreat, but not before laying waste to the cities and countryside on their way out. Ten days later, the last Chinese troops would be out of Vietnam.
For such a short war, the death toll was staggering. Roughly a quarter of the Chinese invasion force, about 60,000 men, became casualties – of those 26,000 died. The Vietnamese suffered too. Of the 150,000 border guards and militia sent forward to meet the invaders, 10,000 were killed, along with another 10,000 civilians who were caught in the crossfire.
Despite China’s hollow claims of victory, the invasion had little effect on Hanoi’s policy vis-a-vis Cambodia. During the PLA onslaught, Vietnam never withdrew one soldier to reinforce the capital and actually kept its forces in Cambodia for another 10 years. It finally caved to international and Soviet pressure to relinquish its hold on its dysfunctional neighbour in 1989.
The war with Vietnam did serve as a wake up call for the Chinese military (albeit bloody one). China’s inability to prevail against the much smaller (although better equipped) Vietnamese demonstrated the need for the PLA to modernize – it’s a process that has been continuing to this day.
China and Vietnam continued to clash along their shared border for another 10 years, only signing an accord resolving a demarcation line dispute in 2007. According to some observers, tension between the two powers over the nearby Spratly Islands may soon draw both into another war sometime in the near future.
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