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In 1979, China and Vietnam Went to War (And Changed History Forever)

March 2, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaVietnamMilitaryTechnologyWorldHistory

In 1979, China and Vietnam Went to War (And Changed History Forever)

At 5 AM on February 17, 1979, a massive artillery bombardment rippled across Vietnam’s mountainous northern border with China. Waves of soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) swarmed towards the startled Vietnamese soldiers hunkered down in border forts, bunkers and caves.

The PLA officially records total hull loss of 44 tanks, while Vietnam claimed to have knocked out 134 tanks at Cao Bang, 76 at Lang Son and 66 tanks at Lao Cai. Other sources claim hundreds, or 50 to 90 percent, of Chinese tanks were damaged or destroyed. The higher numbers likely better reflect combat losses, though many may have been recovered and repaired.

The Sino-Vietnamese war is generally perceived in the West as humiliating for Chinese forces. Undeniably, the PLA sustained heavy casualties, took longer than it expected to achieve its objectives, and demonstrated the obsolesces of its equipment, doctrine and organization. However, it also inflicted greater casualties on a determined enemy benefiting from fortifications and favorable terrain.

Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping used the PLA’s demonstrated shortcomings to consolidate political power and begin a modernization effort, downsizing it by over a million personnel to improve its quality. The PLA also began upgrading Type 62s with additional armor and developing more survivable tank designs.

Thus, the Chinese war intended to “teach Vietnam a lesson” ended up being instructive both politically and operationally, though only at a terrible cost in human life for both sides.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.