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.

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.

With tension rising in the South China Sea and the U.S. arms restrictions dialling back, the Sino-Vietnamese War deserves another look.

Matthew Pennekamp is a resident junior fellow at the Center for the National Interest.

Image: “ A Romanian T-55 Tank sends a blast downrange as it takes part in a live-fire exercise during Platinum Lynx 16-4 aboard Babadag Training Area, Romania, April 21, 2016. The purpose behind Platinum Lynx is to improve readiness and increase Marines’ ability to work seamlessly with other NATO and partner nations around the world. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Immanuel M. Johnson/Released)”