A Costly Victory
Sino-Vietnamese War 1979
by Nick Brazil
"The child is getting naughty"
On 29th January 1979, the Communist Chinese Vice Premiere paid his first visit to the United States. This was all part of the growing rapprochement between the American and Chinese giants that had started during Nixon’s presidency. During his talks with President Carter, the subject of Vietnam was broached. It was then that Deng made a somewhat cryptic remark. “The child is getting naughty,” he said. “It is time he got spanked.”
The defeat of the Khmer Rouge
This enigmatic statement referred to North Vietnam whom China felt was getting above itself. The cause of the Chinese ire was the defeat of the Khmer Rouge, one of their favourite clients, by the North Vietnamese. The fact that Pol Pot and his gang of murderers had been replaced by a North Vietnamese backed government in Phnom Penh was intolerable to the Chinese Communist Party. A secondary point of friction was the alleged mistreatment of Vietnam’s Chinese minority.
Deng’s chastisement would come on 17th February 1979 when 200,000 Chinese troops backed by six hundred tanks and armoured personnel carriers, poured over North Vietnam’s northern borders. With much of its army in Cambodia North Vietnam had only 70,000 – 100,000 regular soldiers and 100,000 irregulars to defend the homeland.
A rapid advance by the PLA
Initially the PLA advance was rapid and they eventually captured three key Vietnamese cities near the border. These were not bloodless victories for the invaders. At Lao Cai, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) encountered stiff resistance from the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN). It took the Chinese sixteen days to take the city at an estimated cost of nearly 8,000 casualties including 2,812 dead. The Vietnamese also paid a high price with an estimated 13,500 casualties. This was a victory of sorts for the Chinese but a rather pyrrhic one.
The Battle for Cao Bang, a sister city to Lao Cai situated along the border to the east was a similar story. Once again, the PLA finally took the city but after a long hard fight with many casualties. The actual total number of dead and injured is unknown but is likely to have been in the thousands. Significantly, in this battle, between 90,000 and 200,000 PLA troops were up against about 20,000 PAVN and irregular troops such as militia and border guards. All along the war front there were other battles with similar outcomes. After the actual city of Cao Bang fell, the PLA were tied down fighting Vietnamese units in the surrounding province.
Human wave tactics
Without doubt, the Chinese were able to make progress, but it was at a terrible human cost. Using the same human waves they had adopted in the Korean War their forces swept forward devastating the land and killing thousands of innocent civilians. With no independent journalists or observers on the battlefield there is no way of coming up with accurate figures. However, Vietnam’s estimate that 100,000 civilians were killed seems feasible.
In spite of this ruthless scorched earth policy, the Vietnamese forces fought extremely hard to slow the Chinese advance. Not for the first or last time in the history of warfare had a much larger military force drastically underestimated its adversary. In the case of the People’s Liberation Army, Deng’s spanking had proved to be a painful and bloody experience for both sides. After twenty-eight days, the PLA quit Vietnam having loudly proclaimed they had achieved their objectives. These amounted to Chinese occupation of some of the North Vietnamese border areas until 1992 and showing up the Soviet Union for failing to adequately support their North Vietnamese ally. However, the Chinese totally failed to dislodge the Pro-Vietnamese Government in Cambodia.
The Chinese occupation
Nevertheless, the Chinese occupation of some of their territory, albeit temporarily, was a great irritant to the Vietnamese. Whilst much of the land held was of doubtful strategic value it was symbolically important. This resulted in low level hostilities continuing after the actual war had finished until 1991.
Total casualties at the end of the fighting vary wildly depending on whose figures you are given. The Chinese claim to have lost just under seven thousand killed against 42-57,000 Vietnamese troops. On the other hand, the Vietnamese claim 62,000 Chinese were killed. They give no figures for their own side. Perhaps the most reliable figure is from western sources who claim 26,000 Chinese soldiers were killed with Vietnam suffering 30,000 fatalities. That is a huge number of bereaved families after a month’s fighting.
Both sides claim to have won
Both the Chinese and the Vietnamese have always maintained they won the war. Picking through the available facts and figures, it becomes clear that the Vietnamese managed to fight the Chinese for every piece of territory. The furthest the PLA managed to advance was 40 kilometres inside Vietnam. Although the Chinese claimed “the gates to Hanoi are open” at the end of hostilities, they never attempted to advance and take the Vietnamese capital. This would have cost far too much in troops and arms to be worth the prize.
The reason the PLA fared relatively badly against the Vietnamese forces is reasonably clear cut. Firstly, it was battle readiness. The last time the PLA had fought in a war was Korea which had ended twenty-six years earlier. Having a million men marching in unison and shouting slogans is really no substitute for actual fighting experience. On the other hand, the Vietnamese had only recently emerged victorious from fighting both the Americans and Khmer Rouge. Then there is the important factor of motivation. In the case of the Vietnamese, they were defending their lands against what they considered to be a hated aggressor. One wonders how many of those 200,000 PLA troops felt the same about fighting and dying in Vietnam, probably very few. Linked to this was the politicisation of the command structure of the PLA. At the time of the war, the army had been largely unreformed since the days of Mao. This meant that party cadres would call the shots rather than the military commanders. Finally, the PLA often found themselves against PAVN troops with more modern and better arms. Many of these were either from the Soviet Union or captured US weaponry.
The implications of this war
The political, social and economic implications of this border war were far reaching. It proved to be very damaging economically to North Vietnam. As a result, a deep level of hatred for and mistrust of China still exists in Vietnam to this day. Paradoxically, because the official Vietnamese Government line is to patch matters up with Beijing, the war has been played down to the extent that today’s students are not even taught about it. Official commemorations each February of this nasty little conflict and those killed in it are few if any in Vietnam. However, in recent years, the belligerent behaviour of Xi Jinping’s China, particularly concerning the South China Sea has begun to stir bitter memories in 1979.
China also learned lessons from the conflict, particularly military ones. Apart from “teaching the Vietnamese a lesson”, many analysts believe Deng had another motive for going to war against the Vietnamese. He knew it would expose the weaknesses of the PLA with its outdated weaponry and outmoded political structure. Having achieved this he had the excuse to clear out its old guard and start a wholesale modernization of China’s armed forces. This continues today at a much greater pace under Xi Jinping. The full consequences of this for the rest of the World, particularly the West are yet to be seen.
© Nick Brazil 2023
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