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Sino-Vietnamese War: Causes and Consequences

China is considered the fastest growing economy in the world due to the high economic performance it has reported over time. The Chinese operate in a capitalist economy that is more concerned with the value of money at the expense of relationships, contributing to its massive investments both locally and globally. Despite its current high economic growth and development, China had experienced periods of economic stagnation, mostly due to its involvement in different wars (Tretiak 741). The Sino-Vietnamese war was one of the most notable conflicts that the nation engaged in which had a considerable impact on its economy. While the causes of the war and its consequences have been discussed in the literature, contradictory information exists on who was the initiator of the conflict. Thus, it is unclear which nation must take responsibility for its onset and aftermath. China failed to remove the Vietnamese troops from Cambodia. However, they contended that their Cold War adversary, the USSR, likewise failed to support the Vietnamese. To further explore the events and effects of the war, the research will present a discussion on the causes of the conflict and identify its impacts on the two countries. The consequence of the war on China will also be explored with a specific focus on the changes in the country’s foreign relations and policy.

Historical Perspective on the Sino-Vietnamese War

The Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 received little attention in the context of Cold War geopolitics. However, the conflict was incredibly complex. It featured an array of casus belli where two countries that had been staunch allies turned into adversaries because of shared history, refugee influx, border tensions, and geopolitics. Towards the end of the war on March 18, 1979, China listed five reasons for the invasion as Vietnam’s refusal to respect Chinese border, Vietnamese hegemonic ambitions, and the mistreatment of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam or the Hoa, and the Soviet Union’s attempt to expand its geographical influence to Southeast Asia (Hood 55-56). Though there seems to be some truth in the Chinese explanation, the reality is considerably more complicated. Additionally, to better understand why the United States was drawn into the conflict, one must explore the historical causes that drew China and Vietnam into hostilities and the proximate causes that led to casus belli.

            The historical perspective on the Sino-Vietnamese War and the United States aid to China during the war are hard to explain without the context of improving the relationship between Vietnam and Russia and consequently the deteriorating relationship between Russia and China. At the beginning of the 1950s, the Soviet Union and China cooperated on a number of issues. The relationship between the Soviet Union and China began to change in the late 1950s. This went on to the early 1960s due to the ideological differences (Stalinist social-economic developments and de-Stalinization policies) embraced by the Soviet Union leader Nikita Khrushchev’s (Luthi 2). As the process of decolonization escalated throughout the “Third World,” China and Russia got into conflict since they could not handle the process effectively. While Khrushchev advocated for peaceful coexistence between the USSR and the West; Chinese leader Mao and his contemporaries felt the urge to support a series of Third World guerillas in an attempt to spark a global revolution. Instead, their actions aggravated Russia, and they withdrew their 1400 advisors from China (Brothers 1). Thus, the ideological differences between Russia and China were among the prerequisites for the Sino-Vietnamese conflict.

            The dispute was first driven by strong ideological differences, and it drastically affected the relationship between Vietnam and China since the conflict expanded to cover the national stage. The issue of delineation of Sino-Russian border was a constant point of contention; as the relationship deteriorated, China became more assertive arguing against what it perceived as unequal treaty poised against weak China by imperialist communists (Gerson 1). On March 2, 1969, a firefight broke on the border between the Soviet Union and China, setting the path for years to come. Though this conflict ended before full-blown Sino-Vietnamese war, it served as a clear indication of tense Sino-Russian ties.

Causes of the War

By 1978, Russians deployed modern weaponry; with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev traveling to the border to witness the extensive military training that stimulated a war between Russia and China. The unending Sino-Russian border tension clearly affected Sino-Vietnamese ties since it closely corresponded to warming Russo-Vietnamese relations which greatly alarmed the Chinese leadership. Until the rapprochement of the United States of America, Vietnam had walked a thin line and accepted aid from both China and Russia. Yet, as U.S. military activities in Vietnam accelerated, North Vietnam began depending on the Soviet Union for sophisticated weapons that China could not make (Ross 125). The fragile position of Vietnam deteriorated as a result of escalating rivalry between the world superpowers, namely the USA, the USSR, and China.

            From the Vietnamese perspective, the manipulations of the three countries were evident. They began to accuse China of reaching a covert agreement with the United States in 1970-72 when China was attempting to postpone unification of North and South Vietnam. These allegations aside, President Nixon’s visits to China in 1972 was viewed by Vietnam as a terrible betrayal. On the other hand, co-operation between Vietnam and the Soviet Union continued after Vietnam’s unification and cessation of aid by the Chinese due to the mistreatment of Hoa people. It was also evident to Chinese that military operations continued to increase between the Soviets and Vietnam, and indeed the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement. The agreement between Soviet Union and Vietnam meant that the two countries will have access to the Danang and Cam Ranh Bay naval bases (Ross 274-275). Vietnam took what it saw as preventive measures against possible Chinese aggression and stopped relying on the country due to disappointing outcomes in the past.

            By June 1977, Vietnam joined the COMECON (Soviet Council for Mutual Economic Assistance). Vietnam’s joining of COMECON concurred with military shipments from Russia to Vietnam in large quantities as Vietnam continued Cambodia occupation. Russia also offered direct support to Vietnam’s presence in Laos, with estimated 1500 Soviet advisers present alongside the Vietnamese during the occupation. Furthermore, the Soviets constructed military bases in Vietnam in 1977. They were practically designed to threaten the Chinese. By November 2, 1978, Vietnam formalized the treaty by signing the cooperation and friendship agreement in the event they were attacked or threatened (Chen 147). China immediately denounced the overt military alliance.

            Therefore, Vietnam’s close ties with the Soviet Union, heavy military troops in China’s northern border, Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia and Laos, and Russian cooperation with India made Chinese leadership believe that they were surrounded by enemies and on the verge of an attack. A closer analysis of Vietnam’s growing ties with Russia shows that the country considered itself vulnerable to China’s potential aggression. Nevertheless, they represented a major hindrance to China’s own security in the eyes of their leadership.

The Consequences of the War

The consequences of the Sino-Vietnamese war on the Vietnamese economy have been explored in various contexts. The changing relationship between China and Vietnam escalated after the war and adversely affected Vietnamese economic policies initiated during the period (Chan). The recognition of Ho Chi Minh in 1950 was expected to restore the relations between the two countries. However, much was not attained in the process of rebuilding the ties between the two nations.

            The victory at Dien Bien Phu by the Vietnamese, a battle that largely involved the Chinese at the planning stage, escalated the conflicts, leading to the minimization of the Chinese involvement in the activities of Vietnam. The increase in the number of advisers sent to Ho Chi Minh saw an escalation in the involvement of the Chinese in the economic planning of the region (Hai 205). Consequently, China provided low levels of aid to Vietnam. However, the Chinese were kind enough to send more than 800,000 engineering troops to the region with the aim of rebuilding the transportation sector and other infrastructural developments that were destroyed during the war.

Even though the Chinese took part in rebuilding the communication and infrastructural development of Vietnam after the war, some malice was evident in their actions. The reconstruction of the transportation sector was centralized south of the border between China and Vietnam (Zhang 851). The idea was to link the Northern Vietnamese corridor with the Chinese southern infrastructural system. The Chinese saw a vast opportunity to exploit the Vietnamese through expansion of their trade corridor that would open new markets for trade. The Chinese did not embark on a reconstruction of the infrastructure and communication system per se but only engaged in the expansion of the road system with an ulterior motive.

In the 1960s, the agricultural sector of Vietnam was stagnating. The hardships and destruction witnessed during the war led to Vietnamese leadership thinking of a solution. The decline in the performance of agriculture was linked to the bombing of the region by the US followed by the Vietnam War (Dosch and Alexander). The farmers in the region were forced to spend more time on private property instead of government collectively owned land that offered better opportunities. As much as the Vietnamese implemented a strategic plan to enhance their industrial development, much was not attained. The vision of developing a strong industry had not been accomplished by 1965.

            The problems between China and Vietnam began in 1965 and escalated during the war. Even though the Vietnamese survived on large amounts of donations from the Chinese, they tended to support the Soviet Union (Hood 23). The aim of the Vietnamese was to improve their military and political direction, an endeavor that they were highly convinced they could accomplish by leaning towards the Soviet Union as opposed to China. As the Vietnamese leaders increased their engagement with the USSR, their relationship with the Chinese deteriorated further, leading to a severe cold war between the nations.

Economically, the performance of Vietnam stagnated after the war even when the country reported enhanced performance after the atrocities. It is reported that the agricultural production of the region declined further, even though there were no significant changes in the industrial production of the region (Dwight). The Vietnamese realized that some reforms were needed to shape the economy and enhance its growth. Agricultural reforms, such as the “Three-Five” system that supported rice growing in the regions, were proposed. The agricultural reform was successful and led to massive production of food in the subsequent years. In 1986, the policy was not effectively implemented, leading to a significant decline in the production of rice and a substantial famine.

The collapse of the “Three-Five” reform meant that another policy was needed to revive the economic performance of Vietnam after the war. The renovation of the economic reform initiated in 1987 was expected to enhance the economic performance of the region (Fravel 300). However, it was observed that the reform was politically driven and thus more focused on the political shifts as opposed to the economic transformation of Vietnam. A more market-oriented policy was initiated in the late 1980s, and the economy reported a sharp increase in terms of its industrial and food production. The growth and development of the agricultural sector led to Vietnam becoming one of the major exporters of rice in Asia.

Impacts of the War on China

The Chinese economy was significantly impacted by the Sino-Vietnamese war; the country ended up losing 3.45 billion Yuan in overhead. The war also affected the strategic interests of the Republic of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States and involved many months of strained relations between China and the neighbourhood states (Ross 125). During this time the economic sanctions between China and the United States were significant since the Soviet Union was declining and could not offer much help. China could not manage to support both an occupying force in Cambodia and a defensive force on the North Vietnamese border.

The Chinese were consistent on the fact that the only issue that was affecting the Sino-Vietnamese war was the Vietnamese border provocations. They, therefore, consider their conflict with Vietnam self-defense as the original attacks were border raids against China. However, the tensions of war were greatly escalated following the issue of ethnic Chinese living at Hoa, Vietnam. By 1978, more than 1.2 million ethnic Chinese were living in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government eliminated nearly all private economic activity in the country. The Vietnamese government claimed that this policy was meant for the entirety of Vietnam, but in the real sense, the step was aimed at the Hoa community that controlled a significant part of the commerce in the area.

The Vietnamese government though the Chinese were organizing to sabotage the Vietnamese economy through the Hoa community. A rule was set for them to relocate to rural areas and after that to flee the country together. Later, Hoa fled from Vietnam to China, causing a significant number of refugees. The influx impacted the Sino-Vietnamese relationship (Fravel 299). The Chinese government suspended the assistance and foreign aid to Vietnam arguing that the resources were needed for refugee resettlement in Hoa. This decision worsened the Sino-Vietnamese relationship which led them to seek help from the Soviet Union.

The relationship between China and Vietnam was normalized in late 1991. However, the aftermath of the wars has led to a debate among veterans, diplomats, and historians on whether it was worth sacrificing thousands of Chinese to support the Khmer Rouge (Dwight). The Chinese claim that the war was a victory is not supported by analysts and observers who classify the war as a complete failure for both the Chinese and Vietnamese economies. China waged a massive and costly invasion, and the deliberate oblivion of this history has been critically disapproved by the public in both nations. While both parties claim that they won the war, the accounts of the conflict is observed to have presented a chastening experience to the two nations.

The influx of Hoa refugees in China led to the first border skirmish between China and Vietnam, which prompted the use of weapons. According to Chen, the Sino-Vietnamese war analysis acknowledges the major shortfalls in the established historiography of the conflict (147). Starting from the absence of a substantial media presence, relative geographic remoteness of the conflict, and the authoritarian nature of the governments involved, the most basic details of the Sino-Vietnamese War remain unclear.

Even though the People’s Liberation Army numbers exceeded those of the Vietnamese militaries, the Soviet-Vietnamese coalition forced the Chinese to organize most of their resources along the border with Soviet Union as a deterrent. However, the fortified battle ended in 1989 and reluctantly the Vietnamese withdrew from Cambodia. Chengdu was chosen as a place of celebrating the end of hostilities in September 1990. In November 1991, the two formerly warring parties resumed their diplomatic and trade relations. Eight years later, China and Vietnam finally negotiated a border pack. According to Luthi (17), the bilateral trade between the two states has grown from USD 32 million in 1992 to USD 28 billion in 2010, making China the greatest trade partner. Moreover, the Ai Nam Quan Gate resumed its role as the traditional border marker between the two former enemies.

It is clear that the Sino-Vietnamese War impacted both the Chinese economy and its international relations. According to Chen, Beijing’s objectives were destructing various Vietnamese regular armies and military centers with the aim of retaliation to the expulsion of Chinese residents and border conflicts (147). However, this slowed China’s determination to meet the challenge of Soviet -Vietnamese encirclement. The war resulted in multinational conflicts where the Soviet Union aided the Vietnamese, while the U.S sided with China in the Sino-Vietnamese War.

Lessons Learned

Military power is a brutish and costly approach to resolving matters that can be handled better diplomatically or economically. The Vietnamese learned a great lesson while dealing with China in terms of military and politics following the aftermath of the Sino-Vietnamese war. Both sides recklessly continued the conflict despite the casualties. According to Zhang, China declared itself the winner because it captured three provincial capitals, a dozen border cities, and killed or wounded 57,000 Vietnamese soldiers (866). On the other hand, independent sources estimate that 25,000 soldiers of the People’s liberation army were killed in action (Zhang 867). None of the parties successfully reported an evidence based number of casualties, tending to exaggerate the number of killed enemies and play down their own losses. However, estimation by China suggested that Vietnam lost heavily on industrial and agriculture properties.

It is worth noting that China itself sought an alliance with the USSR in 1979. During this time, it supported Khmer Rouge, a genocidal regime that eliminated a quarter of Cambodia’s population. Some researchers see this backing as something of a proxy war against Vietnam. Vietnam also considers the 1979 war an important lesson is diplomacy and politics. Currently, the nation is much more peace minded with a focus on its own affairs and preserving good relations with its members.

1979 also proved that China has been a dominant enemy of Vietnam throughout its history. According to Ross, Vietnam experienced 2000 years of struggle against countless invasions and attacks by China (125). The battle started with the general uprising against the Han dynasty that was led by Trung sisters. However, Vietnam got their real independence from China after the battle of Bach Dang River. China was waging war against Vietnam all this time, and the two nations were involved in bloody wars since the 10th century to the 18th century (Ross 129). Thus, it is a fallacy to consider the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979 the first of the conflicts between the two countries.

Vietnam also learned that China armies are as brutal as armies of any imperialist globally. In his The Diplomat artile, Nguyen writes, “in the pre-dawn hours of February 17, Chinese spearheads, supported by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces, concurrently attacked in the direction of Vietnam’s border provincial capitals.” (Nguyen). The war proved deadly. Vietnam experienced the brutality of the People Liberation Army for the first time; they watched the burning their homes and killing innocent people and children. The PLA, therefore, was not different from any of the imperialist armies that the Vietnamese fought during their thirty years of independence.

Vietnam learned to be ready for war. After savage fighting, China was forced to accept Vietnam as a sovereign country. Its attempts to distort Vietnamese history likewise came to an end (Zhang 868). The independence of Vietnam was no longer threatened either by direct military action or propaganda. On the other hand, China realized their mistake of underestimating Vietnam and overestimating the People’s Liberation Army. If Deng had not led China to war, the lurch towards economic liberalization could not have occurred. China also learned that the involvement of the United States of America in the Vietnamese war was founded on a faulty premise, and the Sino-Vietnamese war proved this.

Even though China had succeeded in the previous wars, the performance of the nation and specifically its PLA army has been questioned. Several questions were raised on how the PLA performed in the Sino-Vietnam war, what lessons were drawn, and to what extent the experience of the war influenced the future decisions of the Chinese army. The feedback from the troops engaged in the war provided a contradictory position on performance and their experience. Majority of the combatants claimed that China won the war; however, they also reported that high costs were incurred during the war (Tretiak 741). The deficiencies of the army in the fight were also detrimental to victory. According to the leadership, their underestimation of the Vietnamese military capacity and capability might have attributed to the performance of the army. Thus, China learned about the need to focus more on analysis of the opponent’s capabilities in future wars.

            Further analysis of the traditional maxim of PLA shows that the military paid minimal attention to the doctrine and tactics prior to the war. The implications were an underestimation of the fighting ability of the opponents. As much as it has been argued that the Vietnamese lack consistency in their offense and defense it is worth noting that the guerilla wars and the sapper strategy employed by the Vietnamese enabled them to keep the forces away (Tretiak 742). The international community learned from this account that an evaluation of the tactics and strategies of the opponents is required in any war situation if a better performance is to be attained.

            Another lesson that can be drawn from the war and its aftermath is on planning and intelligence. The PLA assessment of Vietnamese terrain was based on outside information and geographical maps. Moreover, the Chinese military failed to take into consideration the high number of militia that was engaged in the fight. Initially, the Chinese hoped to have a force of 8 combatants against 1 Vietnamese fighter (Hood). However, with the poor estimation of the number of soldiers to include in the war, the country managed a 2 to 1 ratio that was not effective in the fight. The challenges observed show the difficulties encountered when fighting a foreign nation. However, a lesson can be drawn that understanding of the geography of the region as well as engaging an overwhelming force in the war are essential in accomplishing force superiority that is capable of defeating the opponent.

            Successful war has a number of principles that inform the process. One of the principles is to mobilize the common people to support the war. The Sino-Vietnamese war showed that it was impossible for the Chinese army to complete the war without mobilization of external support. The country involved the locals’ support in the war. In the province of Guanxi, about 215000 locals were engaged in the war (Zhang 851). They acted as stretch barriers, security guards and messengers that carried supplies to the front line. The principle of locals’ mobilization is an undertaking that can be embraced due to its vital contribution to victory.

            The initial goal of the Chinese to go to war was to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” However from the accounts presented, it was evident that China learned more lessons than Vietnam. As much as there is no clear indication of the country that won in the fight, it can be attested that China did not perform better than its opponent.


The Sino-Vietnamese war may appear as a small conflict between China and Vietnam. However, its impacts were more massive than anticipated. Besides the casualties that were reported, the war negatively affected the economy of the two nations. A significant reduction in the agricultural production and industrial performance of Vietnam was reported. Additionally, the relations between Vietnam and China changed irrevocably. The foreign policy and relationship between China and other countries such as Japan and the US that did not support the war were also negatively affected. Besides the disadvantages of the war, certain lessons can be drawn from its outcome. Even though China had a goal of teaching Vietnam a lesson, the outcome of the war shows that the country had more to learn from the war. Lessons such as proper evaluation of geographical terrain, mobilization of locals, and use of a sophisticated strategy were drawn. These lessons are not only relevant to the nations involved in the war, but also to other countries of the world. 

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