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Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979: A Brief Overview

A border war between China and Vietnam in the early time period of the year of 1979 is most famously known as the Sino-Vietnamese War.

“On February 17, 1979, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border to invade the country, waging a bloody strike along the 600-kilometre border that the two nations share.

From the standpoint of historians, China’s month-long invasion of Vietnam is understood to as a response to what China considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies undertaken by Hanoi,” writes an article in The Diplomat. However, an offensive approach was launched by China in response to Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in the year of 1978.

Moreover, this also saw the end of the rule of Khmer Rouge, a name that was popularly given to members of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) who ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. 

History will reveal that China supported Hanoi (capital of Vietnam) during the Vietnam War. But this relationship was strained when Hanoi decided to build a commendatory relationship with Soviet Union.

“But their comradeship swiftly began to deteriorate in the mid-1970s, especially when Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union (USSR) – then China’s greatest rival – in 1978.

China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the ‘Cuba of the East,’ pursuing hegemonistic ‘imperial dreams’ in Southeast Asia,” explains The Diplomat.

Pieces of evidence suggest that Chinese troops captured cities of Vietnam near the borders. On March 6, 1979, it was declared by China that the gate to Hanoi was open.

As a result of this, their mission is successful.

However, as Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia till 1989, it can be said that the main intention of Chinese troops, faltered as they could not dissuade Vietnam from being involved with Cambodia till 1989. Nevertheless, it did make clear how Soviet Union is incapable of helping its ally, Vietnam.

Post severe bloodshed from both the sides, China suddenly declared that it was done teaching Vietnam a “lesson” and soon began to withdraw completely by March 16th, 1979.

The Diplomat states that the campaign regarding the dispute was not over yet as right after this, China launched a series of border incidents which was less than a limited scale war.

“On  one hand, the PLA maintained a level of steady harassment through artillery fire, intrusions by infantry patrols, naval intrusions, and mine planting both at sea and in inland waterways.

On the other hand, China pursued psychological warfare operations to sabotage Vietnam’s attempts to restore its war-torn border economic centers by igniting anti-Vietnamese sentiments among the border ethnic minorities and encouraging them to engage illicit activities like smuggling,” further explains the article.

Research clarifies it that the armed conflicts that flared in the subsequent years resulted in heavy losses of both the sides in terms of man power and depletion of economy.

Though neither China nor Vietnam made it public, Western think tanks have estimated that 28,000 Chinese have died whereas 43,000 wounded; the number for the Vietnamese soldiers were estimated at or under 10,000.

Late 1991, however, saw the relationship between Vietnam and China to return to a normalcy. Although victory had been claimed by both Hanoi and Beijing, the media on both the sides have decided to stay mum regarding this controversial issue.

Moreover, it has been pointed out that China since the war has been teaching how it was the Chinese side that won the war.

This point has been refuted by several scholars as it stands in complete opposition to what the evidence actually suggests.

Scholars like Gerald Segal, Bruce Elleman, and Carlyle Thayer explained how China’s 1979 war was a complete failure.

Firstly, Chinese forces failed to move the Vietnamese soldiers from Cambodia and thereby relieve the pressure on the Khmer Rouge.

Secondly, Beijing involved its main forces while fighting Vietnamese troops on the border whereas Vietnam used its militia and local forces to fight.

Thereby, preserving its main forces. Thirdly, China failed to draw the United States into a coalition against the Soviet Union.

However, certain actions have made it clear that both the nations are in favour of confining their period of a tussle to the past.

In order to deepen their bilateral relations, China and Vietnam signed a treaty to settle their border disputes once and for all.

The year 1999 saw the ratification of a historic treaty between the two nations, namely, Treaty of Land Border. The same year leaders of both the nations agreed on   the “16-golden-word motto” to guide their relation into long term stability and cooperation.

By:- Sagarika Mukhopadhyay

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