How China attacked Vietnam 42 years ago

42 years ago, on February 17, 1979, a short and strange war began: China and Vietnam entered the fray. The Communists went to war against the Communists to punish them for invading a communist-ruled country and overthrowing the Communists again.

Big brother and little brother

China and Vietnam have been neighbors for thousands of years and, of course, have been at war. For centuries, Vietnam’s military history has consisted of half of the Chinese conflicts, half of the civil wars. But by the second half of the twentieth century, the two Asian countries had nothing to fight with: China fought off the empires that tried to make it dependent for decades, and Vietnam, in general, became a French colony.

The same problems bring us closer together, and the two peoples actively made friends against common enemies. The Communists ‘ rise to power in China and North Vietnam also added to the proximity. Subsequently, the PRC provided great assistance to Ho Chi Minh in the Vietnam War, supplied weapons, food, and even sent military personnel. After the unification of all of Vietnam under the red flag, it seemed that the friendship was supposed to last forever.

But it turned out to be the opposite. The “big brother” that China seemed to be for Vietnam finally fell out with the “huge brother” — the USSR. And Hanoi was closely focused on the Soviet Union and did not want to change the union to a pro — Chinese orientation, especially since Beijing could give incomparably less than Moscow.

The second “cat” that ran between the countries was the Paracel Islands. At one time, China helped its ally North Vietnam by recapturing the region from South Vietnam. The war ended, the Vietnamese united, but the Chinese troops did not withdraw from there (the PRC still considers the Paracel Islands its own).

The problem was also the large number of Chinese living in Vietnam. Hanoi considered them a “fifth column,” which is just waiting for Chinese tanks, discriminated against, and tried to squeeze them out of the country.

“We are ready to fight with Vietnam for 700 years”

However, the main problem was in a third country — Cambodia. As in China and Vietnam, local communists took power here in 1975, only very peculiar ones. The policy of the Khmer Rouge under the leadership of Pol Pot was terrible by any standards. Those who wish can delve into the topic (you can write on it for a very, very long time), but it is still unclear exactly how many Cambodians were taken away by the “communist experiment” of Pol Pot.

Considering that the cities are a hotbed of the bourgeoisie, the Khmer Rouge did not stint, evicting residents to the countryside, simultaneously destroying the economy and destroying or starving to death up to 2-3 million people. Legal subtleties in executions did not bother, often used ordinary hoes, which pierced the head. However, there was also ingenuity such as killing with explosives (so you can eliminate several people at once), cutting the throat with a palm leaf (it is easy to get the murder weapon), or feeding crocodiles.

The cannibalistic regime existed for less than five years, as the Khmer Rouge decided to kill not only their own people. When he came to power, Pol Pot instantly forgot that communist Vietnam had provided invaluable assistance to Cambodia and remembered that Kampuchea (as he ordered the country to be renamed) had some territorial claims to Vietnam. Provocations began on the border of the two countries. The Khmer people, of course, did not have the strength to defeat the battle-hardened Vietnamese army. Well, what of it?

The patience of the Vietnamese broke down when the Khmer raided the border in April 1978 and broke into the village of Ba Chuc, where they created hell on earth. A few people managed to escape, but the main population, more than 3,100 people, were slaughtered in cold blood.

Of course, after the bloody years of war, the Vietnamese were not the first to shed blood. But to allow the murder of thousands of their fellow citizens by some maniacs from abroad is too much. And the Vietnamese People’s Army took up arms. Anticipating possible diplomatic complications, Hanoi prudently concluded a separate treaty of friendship and cooperation with the USSR in November 1978. A month later, he moved troops to the capital of Kampuchea.

Pol Pot wasn’t afraid. He was not afraid of anything at all. Otherwise, he would hardly have allowed demarches such as the slaughter of thousands of citizens of a country whose army is much stronger. The soldiers of democratic Kampuchea were prepared for war mainly with such slogans: “Ready to fight Vietnam for 700 years!” and “Kampuchea, kill 30 Vietnamese, and we will win!”

The plan was not bad, but usually, a person can kill 30 enemies if he has an overwhelming superiority in weapons, equipment, and tactics. Kampuchea, where Pol Pot and his comrades killed the city’s economy, science, and education, could not provide its troops with either materiel or specialists. And under the hoes, the armed Vietnamese, unlike the defenseless locals, were in no hurry to substitute their heads.

The “Seven Hundred years of war with Vietnam” called for by the Khmer Rouge shrank to less than two weeks: Vietnamese tanks entered Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. Although it has remained in history as one of the bloodiest in history, Pol Pot’s regime was also the most short-lived.

China is eager to teach a lesson

By the time of the capture of Phnom Penh, relations between Vietnam and China had deteriorated completely. Despite the nightmare of the Khmer Rouge regime, China was considered a foreign policy ally of Kampuchea (in fact, it was the only country that maintained close ties with the Pol Pot regime), while Vietnam was a pro-Soviet state.

By that time, Mao Zedong had already died, and Deng Xiaoping was actually at the head of China. The future reformer promised to “teach a lesson” to disloyal Vietnam. Like the Vietnamese, the Chinese prepared for war in political terms: on January 1, 1979, Beijing and Washington established diplomatic relations.

On February 17, Chinese guns opened fire on the territory of Vietnam. There are still disputes about what China wanted to achieve with this war: whether to take the capital, destroy the Vietnamese army, or force the enemy to leave Cambodia and return Pol Pot. Anyway, the PRC put up to 600 thousand people underarms, and a third of them crossed the border.

At that time, China had not fought for a long time, and the Vietnamese army only a few years ago emerged victorious from a multi-year war. The Chinese command was not confused by this: the most combat-ready Vietnam units were still in Cambodia. The combat experience of the Vietnamese armies was increasingly reduced to guerrilla warfare (major operations with artillery and armored vehicles began only at the end of the war). Vietnam could oppose China mainly with border guards and second-rate divisions that did not participate in the invasion of Cambodia. Numerically, the Vietnamese were far inferior.

The goal of the Chinese was three border provinces of Vietnam and their three capitals: Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai. The latter fell two days later: the five-fold superiority of the Chinese in manpower and absolute in technology left no chance for the resisters. True, the Chinese commanders did not show much skill: crowds of PLAC soldiers rushed to the enemy machine guns and sooner or later achieved their goal — though at a high price. However, a large amount of equipment made it possible to push through the Vietnamese defense even without sophisticated tactical techniques.

But not always. In the province of Cao Bang, the advancing waves of the Chinese ran into a solid defense and broke through it for more than a week. The only regular Vietnamese division stationed there was a bone in the throat for a long time, and it was only after seven days of fighting that the provincial capital fell.

The main blow of the Chinese army fell on Lang Son: taking the province, China got a direct road to Hanoi and a chance of a complete defeat of Vietnam (if it planned anything like that). Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese concentrated their best forces here (this was the only province where Vietnam had elite troops-the famous 3rd Division of the “Golden Star” since the war). However, the first blow was taken, as usual, by the militia and border guards of the DRV: the best troops were saved to cover the capital.

Chinese artillery and infantry strikes (the air force in this war was almost not used by both sides), coupled with the “infiltration” of saboteurs into the rear, disorganized the Vietnamese defense. Still, in the first days, 130,000 Chinese soldiers could not capture any important point. The capital of the province was taken only on March 5. The way to Hanoi was opened, and Vietnam announced the mobilization of all those able to bear arms. And then… it was over. The Chinese military burned everything they could, took out everything of value, and went home. The war is over. The Vietnamese Army (that is, its largest and best part) has not had time to leave Cambodia.

Why did the war end so suddenly? Surprisingly, there is still no consensus on this. It was believed that the battle-hardened Vietnamese gave the “Chinese disorganized hordes” a powerful rebuff, and they retreated from sin for a long time. It does not sound entirely convincing: China fought, even if not brilliantly, but achieved all its goals. And the Vietnamese troops opposing him showed themselves not invincible. The losses of the parties were about the same, 20-30 thousand people each.

True, if the Chinese had faced the best parts of the VNA, the outcome might have been different — but by the time they arrived, Hanoi might have been taken. And the loss of the capital could hardly arouse the enthusiasm of the Vietnamese leadership.

There is a version that the whole thing is in the USSR. Having learned about the beginning of the war, the Soviet leadership put the troops in Transbaikalia on alert, whose combat capability was clearly higher than that of the Chinese. Perhaps Beijing stopped the war, realizing that it could not win on two fronts.

In China, they defend the version that the PLAC achieved everything it wanted, taught a “lesson” for Vietnam, and returned home victorious. This version is opposed by the fact that China never revived Pol Pot’s Kampuchea: the Vietnamese did not leave Phnom Penh, and Pol Pot himself spent the last 18 years of his life to partisan in the jungle until he died (and it is not known for certain from what).

The West may have benefited most from the Sino-Vietnamese war. The seventies within the framework of the Cold War were not brilliant for NATO and Western countries in general: the United States lost the Vietnam War, the sharp rise in oil prices almost buried the economies of developed countries, there were no noticeable foreign policy successes for a long time, more and more third world countries chose to focus on the USSR. An open full-scale war between one communist country and another turned out to be excellent news in such circumstances. Of course, those who called themselves communists had shot at each other before (the same Vietnam invasion of Kampuchea, the Soviet-Chinese conflict on Damansky), but here everything was brighter and more noticeable.

For China and Vietnam, this strange war led to casualties and destruction and the actual freezing of relations for more than 10 years. Who won it and what was its purpose-it is still unclear.

Author: Julia Harris
Graduated from Stanford University. Previously, he worked in various free news media. Currently, it is a columnist of the economy section in the Free News editors.
Function: Reporter