When China and Vietnam Went to War: Four Lessons for History

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Beijing and Hanoi have tangled before.

It was the Sino-Vietnamese War that made these fault lines plain for all to see. In 1978, Vietnam, tiring of the instability caused on the Vietnamese/Cambodian border by the Khmer Rouge government in power since 1975, launched an offensive into Cambodia and took Phnom Penh. However, in the great game of Moscow/Beijing rivalry, this was interpreted (correctly) as a Moscow-aligned nation making war on a Beijing-allied nation. In a minuet somewhat reminiscent of August 1914, China, which could not allow this affront to its ally to go unanswered, intervened against Vietnam, staging the invasion that led to the Sino-Vietnamese War. It is interesting to note as well that before it was clear the Vietnamese would hold their own against the PLA, the Soviet Union was supplying Hanoi with materiel and had already dispatched naval support to the South China Sea to assist in intelligence-gathering.     

2. Beware a new leader who needs to prove his strength. He might just lash outward.

By 1979, the diminutive Deng Xiaoping was newly ensconced in power, having seen off the rival threat posed by the ultra-Maoist Gang of Four (headed by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing). Deng  intended for his leadership to be disruptive and a break from Maoist orthodoxy. However, the lurch toward economic liberalization that defined the Chinese experience after the 1980s could not have occurred without Deng first consolidating power and proving his capacity for leadership (the old imperial concept of the Mandate of Heaven, while no longer formalized, has never really exited the Chinese imagination). Unsurprisingly, waging war against a historic and long-standing enemy was the surest means to achieve both.

Additionally, for a Chinese leader to ascent to the summa of paramount leader, his power must rest on an effective tripod: control of the state, control of the Communist Party, and control of the military. In choosing to fight where—and more importantly, when—he did, Deng may have bought himself precious time in his first full year in charge to cement his own power in Beijing while the PLA was too distracted by an active campaign to throw up any hurdles.

3. The ethnic minority as a readily available excuse.

Whether it be Hitler’s insistence that Sudeten Germans were being marginalized in Czechoslovakia, Putin’s belief in Russia’s role as the protector of ethnic Russians beyond its borders, Milosevic’s and Tudjman’s divvying-up of Bosnia on behalf of its respective Serb and Croat populations or, indeed, Western support for the Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in the same conflict, the use of the supposedly mistreated ethnic minority as a casus belli is a tried and tested tactic. This proved to be true in the case of the Sino-Vietnamese War, with Beijing accusing Hanoi of mistreating the ethnic Han Hoa population within Vietnam. Like many instances of this excuse, the actual mistreatment was hyperbolized; indeed, agents provocateurs from the Chinese embassy leaned on the Hoa press to print anti-Soviet (and, with the chess match of the Sino-Soviet split in mind, implicitly anti-Vietnamese) tracts. Nor was Hanoi’s treatment punitive—it was focused on trying to assimilate them more deeply into Vietnamese culture. Hoa sufferings, to the extent they existed, were a pretext.

4. Redefining the objective if the original no longer works.

Most of the Washington foreign-policy establishment knows a slight of hand when it sees one. When Barack Obama announced in August 2012 that the deployment and use of chemical weapons by Syrian forces still loyal to Bashar al-Assad would constitute the crossing of a “red line,” the phrase was suitably ambiguous for the president to fill in at a later date a precise explanation of what would occur if the line were crossed—though most (including Obama, according to Jeffrey Goldberg’s study of the president’s decision-making) assumed it would involve airstrikes. When that proved to be politically infeasible, John Kerry, in taking a reporter’s question regarding whether commandeering Assad’s existing chemical weapons stockpile with Russian assistance would fulfil the action necessitated by having drawn the red line in the first place, suddenly found his out. This was the foreign-policy equivalent of moving the goalpost and claiming the match.

The Chinese had to use the same move once they discovered just how intractable their Vietnamese adversaries were. With two hundred thousand troops were committed to the venture, a further million mobilized, and Deng personally seeking Jimmy Carter’s assurance that the United States would not interfere in the forthcoming war, there was every indication that Beijing had far more ambitious goals in mind. China’s admission that it was intervening in order to aid its Cambodian ally would lead one to believe that it intended to fight on until actionable progress had been made on the Cambodian front. Yet three weeks later, once it was established that the Vietnamese would neither quit Hanoi nor remove any forces from Cambodia to counter the northern threat, Beijing began to hedge its rhetoric, claiming that proving the Soviet Union incapable of defending its ally was a victory in itself.

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