Forgotten War: How China Was Crushed By Vietnam in a 1979 Conflict

September 25, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaVietnamMilitaryWarHistory

Forgotten War: How China Was Crushed By Vietnam in a 1979 Conflict

The Chinese war intended to “teach Vietnam a lesson”. History tells a very different story.  


Beijing and Hanoi released wildly contradictory claims regarding the casualties in the war. External studies estimate around 26,000 PLA killed in action and around 30 to 35,000 Vietnamese troops.

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.