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

June 21, 2016 Topic: Security Region: ChinaVietnam Tags: warMilitarydefenseHistoryChina military

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

Beijing and Hanoi have tangled before.

Last month, during President Barack Obama’s recent barnstorm through East and Southeast Asia, he announced in a joint press conference with his Vietnamese counterpart Tran Dai Quang that the embargo on weapon sales to Vietnam was to be lifted. Though the White House had hitherto reassured human-rights watchers that any negation of this Cold War–era policy would be directly tethered to Hanoi’s record of improvement on issues of freedom of conscience (admittedly described by Obama as “modest”), what ended up proving more important in the eyes of Washington officialdom was what Harold Macmillan once described as the primary determining factor in politics: “Events, dear boy, events!”

For Obama, the event foremost in mind is the frightening potential for a hollowing-out of the ambitious Pivot to Asia he christened seven and a half years ago. While the president has allowed his foreign-policy focus to be distracted by the Middle Eastern maelstrom as well as a revanchist Russia, he is not entirely to blame; indeed, both the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees have done nothing to massage Pacific Rim interests. Despite much of the language of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) having been crafted and negotiated in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s State Department, Candidate Clinton, sensing a rising gale coming in from her left, wrenched her campaign’s tiller sharply to port , tacking with the wind of Bernie Sanders’ “Revolution.” She survived the tempest, but her ability to swing back toward a pro-TPP position is effectively nil—to paraphrase yet another British prime minister, Winston Churchill, politicians can easily rat; it’s the re-ratting that comes far harder. And of course, Donald Trump’s rhetoric regarding the Japanese and South Korean alliances has caused its share of tremors .

For the Vietnamese, however, the “event” is not so much a single pinpoint in time as eons of accrued mistrust toward their northern neighbor. The first recorded Chinese invasion of Vietnam was back in the second century BC, when Emperor Qin Shi Huang expanded his newly united China into the reaches of northern Vietnam. This state of affairs, with the Chinese more or less exercising suzerainty over a Vietnamese client kingdom, lasted until 1884 when the French became the new colonial masters in Southeast Asia. It was ultimately Washington’s desire to buttress France’s status in Vietnam that in fact led to the first American involvement under President Truman . Yet all the while, Ho Chi Minh kept in mind who the more ominous foe was, actually working with the French to get the Chinese Nationalists out of northern Vietnam after World War II.

In 1979, ten years after Ho’s own life had come to an end, his suspicion was tested, with two hundred thousand soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army amassed on Vietnam’s northern border ready to invade. Their failure to make a substantive dent in the guerilla tactics that had served the Vietnamese so well against the French and Americans is an obvious takeaway. But in the larger realm of history, there are further lessons to be gleaned. Here are four others:

1. America’s involvement in Vietnam was founded on a faulty premise, and the Sino-Vietnamese War proved it.


Ever since President Eisenhower had employed the metaphor of dominos toppling one after another to explain the threat of Communism to the nations of Southeast Asia in the aftermath of Mao’s 1949 victory in the Chinese Civil War, this notion served as shorthand for the prevailing wisdom dictating American Cold War policy. The advance of Communism must be stopped in its tracks, the theory went, because the nations that had already turned red were in lock-step and had abandoned historical grievances in pursuit of the overriding common goal of spreading Marxist ideology. This was the logic that led Washington policymakers to defend South Vietnam for nearly two decades. But viewing the Communist threat as a monolith could have been prevented as early as the late 1950s when rumors of the Sino-Soviet split were starting to emerge (ironically, the only State Department veterans capable of analyzing such a development, the fabled China Hands, had seen their careers hammered by McCarthyist scare-mongering). In playing the 1972 opening to China off the pursuit of détente with Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, the Nixon/Kissinger duo signaled their appreciation for these intra-Communist fault lines.

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.