A Brief History
On February 17, 1979, two Communist nations that had collaborated in the Vietnam War against the United States went to war with each other, as China sought to punish Vietnam for invading Cambodia.
Although China had provided weapons, supplies, technical assistance and advisers to Communist North Vietnam during the war against South Vietnam and its United States ally, and even perhaps combat involvement of Chinese pilots and soldiers. (I personally was told by a USMC Vietnam Vet that he had seen Chinese KIA during the War.) The Chinese led by Chairman Mao sought to shepherd the Communist movement in Asia, while presumably the Soviets would look after the European conversion to Communism. Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh had actively sought Chinese assistance against the French and later the Americans, but Vietnam is reluctant today to refer to such assistance as it detracts from the Vietnamese narrative of self-liberation from Western Imperialists. (The referred to assistance in the First and Second Indo-China War was massive.)
After the US had abandoned South Vietnam and the North forcibly united the North and South halves of the country in 1975, the region remained in a state of unrest, with other Indo-China countries (Laos and Cambodia) in turmoil. China supported the Khmer Rouge movement in Cambodia, and when Vietnam invaded and occupied Cambodia the Khmer Rouge regime was dethroned.
The fighting between the former Communist allies lasted only 4 weeks, but involved perhaps 200,000 Chinese and over 250,000 Vietnamese troops.
One thing that the Chinese did successfully demonstrate was that the Soviet Union was powerless to assist its ally, Vietnam, in an Asian struggle against China. At this time in history the Communist bloc had been split by a rivalry between China and the USSR for leadership of the world Communist movement. Chinese and Soviet relations had deteriorated as early as 1953 when Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin died and the follow-on regime of Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin and his policies, while the Chinese Communist philosophy was more in line with that of Stalin.
Another area of friction between China and Vietnam centered on the ethnic Chinese minority that resides in Vietnam, a minority China perceives as being somewhat oppressed.
The United States watched the action with close attention, and undoubtedly some satisfaction that these 2 Cold War enemies of the US were fighting each other, while the USSR was losing face for its inability to intervene. Can something along these lines happen again in today’s world? Probably, and with North Korea developing nuclear arms in the region such combat could have dire consequences. Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you think “won” the Third Indo-China (Sino-Vietnamese) War? Let us know your analysis in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Zhang, Xiaoming. Deng Xiaoping’s Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam, 1979-1991 (The New Cold War History). University of North Carolina Press, 2018.