Red vs. Red – China’s Bloody Month-Long War With Vietnam

In 1979, two former allies, China and Vietnam, went to war. The month long struggle killed tens of thousands and resolved nothing.

In 1979, two former allies, China and Vietnam, went to war. The month long struggle killed tens of thousands and resolved nothing.

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 FEB. 17, 1979, 250,000 Chinese troops supported by 200 tanks invaded Vietnam. The attackers poured over the border at 26 points along the 500 mile front. Within hours, elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had advanced as far as 20 kilometres into Vietnamese territory.

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. [1] In reality, the incursion was intended to pressure Vietnam to abandon its occupation of nearby Cambodia. But there was more to it than that. China also wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union — Vietnam’s closest strategic partner — to stay out of South East Asia. For years Moscow and Beijing had worked in concert, but by the 1970s, the two communist powers were increasingly seeing each other as geopolitical competitors. And China, a long time supporter of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, considered Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 as more evidence of a Soviet master plan to dominate Southeast Asia at China’s expense.

The fighting between the PLA and the Vietnamese lasted less than a month, but was surprisingly intense. The Chinese 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 by way of sheer numbers.

The Vietnamese largely avoided direct confrontation with the PLA by falling back, keeping its best regular army units in reserve to safeguard the capital. To hold off the Chinese, Hanoi marshalled 150,000 local militia and border guards who employed guerrilla tactics to wear down the invaders. While far from front-line units, these second tier Vietnamese troops had something the Chinese soldiers lacked: experience. Vietnam had spent much of the previous 30 years in a state of war, first with the French and then against the Saigon regime and the U.S. and the country still had hundreds of thousands of combat veterans at its disposal.

For their part, the Chinese seized a number of provincial capitals in the northern border regions in the opening days of the war, but the PLA never did penetrate more than 30 or 40 kms into Vietnam.

While China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, counted on an easy victory in Vietnam, Beijing also expected the attack to prompt a military response 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. Yet 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, Russia 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. On their way out, the attackers did their best to lay waste to the cities and countryside. Ten days later, the last Chinese troops had left Vietnam.

For such a short war, the death toll was staggering. According to Vietnamese estimates, 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 any troops 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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14 comments for “Red vs. Red – China’s Bloody Month-Long War With Vietnam

  1. 2 November, 2012 at 2:34 am

    Reblogged this on Asatru / Heathen South Africa.

  2. 2 November, 2012 at 9:33 am

    I recall reading someplace that N.Vietnam was the Sparta of Asia (at least back then). That little war was one of the reasons. Nice piece NH.

    • 2 November, 2012 at 12:20 pm

      They must have been a highly militarized society by the end of a war with France and then the US. Thanks for the note.

  3. Dan
    2 November, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    Vietnam’s war with Kampuchea (Cambodia) was in an effort to show China that Vietnam was not to be taken for granted, just like China attacked Vietnam to show the USSR not to mess with South East Asia.

  4. John
    16 May, 2013 at 10:09 am

    Another thing to keep in mind is the death of Mao (three years previously) and the lingering effects of his departure on the power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army.

    His successor, Deng Xiao Ping, favoured a more professional military – whereas much of the PLA leadership favoured (and was descended from) peasant-guerrilla cadres. Deng was not long in power at the time and most of the PLA’s senior officers were old Mao hands; Communist Chinese politics being what they were, this was not an ideal situation for Deng. That the short, sharp conflict with an assuredly weaker neighbour just happened to expose serious weaknesses in the PLA’s operational coordination (e.g. absence of aerial support, sloppy use of armour, logistical support barely exceeding the PLA’s infrastructure in Korea), while also putting Vietnam and the USSR on notice, was a happy coincidence indeed.

    • 16 May, 2013 at 11:04 am

      I studied Chinese politics under Dr. Charles Burton in the 1990s — he also described Deng’s shift from the peasant guerrilla style military of Chairman Mao to a more modern and professional PLA. It’s a process that took years. I neglected to work that aspect into the story. Thanks for bringing it up.

  5. Hien
    6 June, 2013 at 7:00 am

    Honestly and inhumanity to say that: If I – new generation of Vietnamese have a nuclear bomb, I will clear China because more than 2ooo years till now, they never let us have time for life. It would be clear until final roost of Chinese is the best way for Vietnam!
    That is not fair with our country which is the same with them. We will fight until we die without any claim for freedom and for our land & waters.

    • fk VN
      17 May, 2016 at 5:59 am

      haha, good imagine, “if”, if China get support from alien, the WHOLE EARTH will be theirs. Your poor little country never make a nuclear bomb.

  6. Anonymous
    14 December, 2013 at 3:06 am

    39 years ago ( 1974 ) I’m a south Vietnamese navy, when I heard my commending officer that the navy recruit elite troop ( navy seals) for class # 7, I volunteer for that class and ready to fight against the aggressors ( the chinese ). Our missions is to take back the islands that the aggressors already took it from ours. But my dreams to kick aggressors out of the islands never came…because I left Vietnam April 29, 1975 right after the war end. Today, everyday thinking about the islands that aggressors still there it make my blood boiling.

  7. Veritas
    1 February, 2016 at 2:43 am

    I may have missed the massive US defeat that the NVA handed the US military. Exactly where was that? If you mean the cowardly retreat and betrayal by the Dhimmies who cut off all aid to Saigon and refused any military assistance when Hanoi mounted a 2o division invasion speaheaded by 500 tanks I think the author is in lala land.

    As far as the war went the PRC never extended itself because it choose not to do so. It could have marched into Hanoi if it had wanted to and Hanoi could not have done anything. As for its vaunted guerrilla tactics one suspects without a safe haven they would not have been very successful. Combine this with the lack of the support of the PRC and USSR and the vast war industries of North Vietnam would have lasted how long?

    The PRC made the impression it wished and Hanoi’s overtures to the USSR were toned down. Cam Rhanh Bay never became the new Soviet “Pearl Harbor.” There was no massive air base nor military presence. Hanoi toned it down, not wishing to see it great northern neighbor become its new overlord.

  8. 6 March, 2017 at 7:49 am

    This short BBC Witness episode is a real eye-opener.

  9. Abomb
    10 October, 2017 at 4:06 am

    the 60000 casualties on China side is definitely a serious exaggeration. The true number of Chinese troops deployed along the border was no more than 200000, and then 80000 soldiers crossed the border to fight VN. In fact, the total casualy recognized by Chinese official was 27000 men, with 6000 killed and 21000 wounded. The death rate was so low for the Chinese was because the Chinese troops kept marching forward, so most wounded Chinese soldiers left behind could quickly be taken care of.

  10. 14 January, 2018 at 10:09 pm

    This is not a serious article at all. WWI has proven that the so called human wave tactic is nothing but a waste of lives in the face of modern automatic weapons. Even with WWI fire power, human waves could not advance more than 400 meters before being crushed. Then how did the Chinese advance into Vietnam for 30-40km relying on human waves?

    The so-called substantiated casualties number came from an obviously very impartial source of a professor at a well known Vietnamese university, who has no idea what 60,000 casualties for a 200,000 force meant.

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