In 1979, two former allies, China and Vietnam, went to war. The month long struggle killed tens of thousands and resolved nothing.
For much of the Cold War, Vietnam was where world powers sent their armies to be defeated.
The French deployed a quarter million troops to Indochina following the Second World War to maintain its colonies in the region only to be defeated there in 1954. A decade later, America intervened and then suffered its worst military humiliation in history.
In 1979, it would be China’s turn. In this week’s Wars You Never Knew About, we’ll take a look at the short but bloody (and often forgotten) conflict between the Peoples’ Republic and Vietnam, also known as the Third Indochina War.
ON FEB. 17, 1979, 250,000 Chinese troops supported by 200 tanks invaded Vietnam. The attackers poured over the border at 26 points along the 500 mile front. Within hours, elements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had advanced as far as 20 kilometres into Vietnamese territory.
Beijing claimed the attack was being carried out against its former ally to protect ethnic Chinese from persecution at the hands of the government in Hanoi.  In reality, the incursion was intended to pressure Vietnam to abandon its occupation of nearby Cambodia. But there was more to it than that. China also wanted to send a message to the Soviet Union — Vietnam’s closest strategic partner — to stay out of South East Asia. For years Moscow and Beijing had worked in concert, but by the 1970s, the two communist powers were increasingly seeing each other as geopolitical competitors. And China, a long time supporter of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, considered Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 as more evidence of a Soviet master plan to dominate Southeast Asia at China’s expense.
The fighting between the PLA and the Vietnamese lasted less than a month, but was surprisingly intense. The Chinese plan was to bleed the defending forces dry, even if it meant taking horrendous casualties in the process. China compared its strategy to a “meat grinder” and artlessly sent wave after wave of infantry against enemy positions in an attempt to overwhelm the opposition by way of sheer numbers.
The Vietnamese largely avoided direct confrontation with the PLA by falling back, keeping its best regular army units in reserve to safeguard the capital. To hold off the Chinese, Hanoi marshalled 150,000 local militia and border guards who employed guerrilla tactics to wear down the invaders. While far from front-line units, these second tier Vietnamese troops had something the Chinese soldiers lacked: experience. Vietnam had spent much of the previous 30 years in a state of war, first with the French and then against the Saigon regime and the U.S. and the country still had hundreds of thousands of combat veterans at its disposal.
For their part, the Chinese seized a number of provincial capitals in the northern border regions in the opening days of the war, but the PLA never did penetrate more than 30 or 40 kms into Vietnam.
While China’s leader Deng Xiaoping, counted on an easy victory in Vietnam, Beijing also expected the attack to prompt a military response from the Soviets, possibly even full-scale war. In the days leading up to his Vietnamese gambit, Deng pushed more than a million regulars up to China’s border with Russia and placed all his forces on a war footing. Yet despite being Vietnam’s principal ally, the Soviet Union, remained on the sidelines for the duration of the conflict. Moscow was simply unwilling to risk war with China for the sake of Hanoi. Save for flying in a handful cargo planes full of ammunition into the Vietnamese capital, Russia stayed out of the action.
Even without direct help from the Soviets, Vietnam was still able to contain the Chinese. After 17 days of fighting, during which the PLA had sustained crippling casualties, China cynically declared victory, saying it had ‘punished’ Vietnam enough, and began a general retreat. On their way out, the attackers did their best to lay waste to the cities and countryside. Ten days later, the last Chinese troops had left Vietnam.
For such a short war, the death toll was staggering. According to Vietnamese estimates, roughly a quarter of the Chinese invasion force — about 60,000 men — became casualties. Of those 26,000 died. The Vietnamese suffered too. Of the 150,000 border guards and militia sent forward to meet the invaders, 10,000 were killed, along with another 10,000 civilians who were caught in the crossfire.
Despite China’s hollow claims of victory, the invasion had little effect on Hanoi’s policy vis-a-vis Cambodia. During the PLA onslaught, Vietnam never withdrew any troops to reinforce the capital and actually kept its forces in Cambodia for another 10 years. It finally caved to international and Soviet pressure to relinquish its hold on its dysfunctional neighbour in 1989.
The war with Vietnam did serve as a wake up call for the Chinese military (albeit bloody one). China’s inability to prevail against the much smaller (although better equipped) Vietnamese demonstrated the need for the PLA to modernize. It’s a process that has been continuing to this day.
China and Vietnam continued to clash along their shared border for another 10 years, only signing an accord resolving a demarcation line dispute in 2007. According to some observers, tension between the two powers over the nearby Spratly Islands may soon draw both into another war sometime in the near future.