Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 I

A Vietnamese military officer standing on the wreckage of a destroyed Chinese tank in Cao Bang during the Sino-Vietnamese War

China’s invasion of Vietnam, 1979

PLA Operations along the Sino-Vietnamese Border, 1981–1984

The classic Sun Tzu adage of war, “Know the enemy and know yourself,” writ large, is a fundamental tenet of Chinese military strategy. The PLA always maintained an active self-evaluation program to be fully aware of its strengths and weaknesses. Deng Xiaoping reckoned that the invasion of Vietnam was a remarkable experience for the PLA since so many troops endured the combat test. Shortly after military operations ended, he ordered all troops involved in the conflict to write summaries of their combat experience as their primary job. The PLA Daily subsequently published an article, “Transforming the Self-Defense Counterattack Experiences into the Treasury of the Whole Army,” suggesting that the combat experience gained in the war against Vietnam would hold tremendous significance for the PLA. Special teams were assigned to help units document almost all aspects of the military operation in Vietnam, including planning, intelligence, command and control, operations and tactics, logistics, political work, and the aid-the-front work. Since the PLA was a highly politicized military force, analysts paid particular attention to the political work, the principal mechanism for mobilizing Chinese forces.

China claimed military victory on the basis of the geopolitical outcomes that resulted from the PLA’s performance on the battlefield, reflecting the peculiarities of how the PLA undertook its postwar “lessons learned” analysis of the conflict. China’s approach to evaluating military operations differs from Western approaches largely as a result of China’s preference for “subjective measures versus quantitative indicators of performance.” But the differences are at once less and more subtle than such a simplistic interpretation suggests. The PLA does employ quantitative measures, using them to evaluate the direct results of military operations and to understand to what extent the enemy’s effective strength has been annihilated or paralyzed. However, this use of quantitative indicators is secondary to the subjective factors that are embedded in Chinese strategic culture—most notably, the emphasis on “wits, wisdom, and strategy” that largely determine a war’s outcome.

Though the PLA conducted a thorough evaluation with both quantitative and subjective measurements, it failed to disassociate the lessons learned from the conflict from the army’s outdated military philosophy and tradition. Consequently, this failed process restricted the PLA’s subsequent modernization and transformation.

Early Assessments

Various scholars and intelligence analysts undertook a series of early assessments of the PLA’s performance in the 1979 war. These early assessments offer a foundation for better understanding the PLA’s assessment process and methodology. Harlan Jencks, a postdoctoral researcher at Berkeley, published the first scholarly analysis of the war in August 1979. Jencks acknowledged that “many critical facts remain unknown” and analyzed China’s military performance based solely on media reports. As late as 2002, lack of access to Chinese sources meant that Jencks’s study was described as the “very best work” on the 1979 war.

Jencks examined China’s war objectives and military operations, including timing, command arrangements, forces committed, strategy, and tactics. He found that China had achieved some positive results: Vietnamese military and civilian installations in the border area had been completely destroyed; the PLA had inflicted significant casualties on some Vietnamese regular units; troops had gained valuable combat experience; and the invasion demonstrated to foreign powers that China meant what it said. Nevertheless, he concluded that China had lost more than it had gained. Strategically, the Chinese invasion strengthened the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, intensifying regional tensions and consequently disturbing East Asian and Southeast Asian countries as well as the United States. Overall, the war proved that the PLA remained an ineffective force, fighting with outdated strategy and tactics in “two-dimensional” ground warfare and suffering heavy losses as a consequence.

Other initial assessments emphasized that Vietnam’s combat-seasoned force, equipped with modern Soviet weapons, outperformed the inexperienced PLA. However, the lack of transparency in both China’s and Vietnam’s military establishments made these assessments more speculative than factually insightful. Those writing English-language accounts seemed unwilling to include information from Chinese newspapers, even though they printed a significant number of reports about the PLA’s performance. Though these accounts were often filled with political propaganda, ignoring them meant that scholars missed an opportunity to obtain an analysis untainted by an inadvertent pro-Vietnamese bias.

Complementing these academic and popular assessments, American government agencies undertook more official studies of China’s war with Vietnam. In March 1980, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) produced a highly classified assessment of the PLA’s combat performance and obvious lessons China learned from the war with Vietnam. Since the invasion failed to oust Vietnamese troops from Cambodia, the CIA report concluded that China achieved few of its political objectives. It noted that the PLA’s conservative tactics limited the operation’s scale, depth, and duration. The report asserted that the PLA’s slow advance was more a product of Chinese “cautiousness and concern for reducing casualties” than a consequence of “the difficult terrain and tenacious Vietnamese defense.” Given the fact that it was a short conventional military action with no air and naval power involved, CIA analysts concluded that China’s war with Vietnam did not present enough information for them to assess the PLA’s overall war capabilities.

The CIA’s assessment obviously included information furnished by Beijing. Two weeks after Chinese troops withdrew from Vietnam, Chinese ambassador Chai Zemin visited the White House, where he briefed national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski about the war. Chai discussed Vietnamese strength at the border, the PLA’s deployment, operations and casualties, and combat highlights. Chai tried to convince the Americans that China had achieved victory over Vietnam, emphasizing that the PLA had annihilated two Vietnamese divisions and four regiments, seriously weakened four other regiments, and inflicted five Vietnamese casualties for every one suffered by the PLA. According to the Chinese ambassador, Vietnamese troops performed poorly when fighting large battles but did well when using guerrilla tactics and sabotage attacks, something consistent with America’s experience in the 1960s and that of the French a generation earlier. The biggest lesson the PLA learned was that the hilly and jungle-like terrain impeded large-unit maneuvering, making it necessary to devise on-the-spot mid-battle adjustments that favored small-unit tactics against the Vietnamese guerrilla-type resistance. In conclusion, the Chinese were convinced that Vietnam would be more restrained after having suffered such severe punishment. In retrospect, Chai’s report was itself an incomplete assessment, containing inaccurate casualty information, but it was what Beijing was willing to share with Washington at that moment. Beijing appeared unwilling to furnish insights as to why the PLA did not perform as well as expected because the Chinese did not think it necessary to share anything beyond the outcome of the war with the Americans.

But even at this early point in postwar analysis, a growing discrepancy was evident between a Western view that tended to underscore the PLA’s shortcomings and a Chinese position that stressed the PLA’s victory over the PAVN. All these assessments suffered from the absence of many critical facts, including information about such basic matters as Chinese strategy and campaign objectives, Chinese operational tactics, and the number of casualties on both sides.

Battlefield Claims and Casualties

The PLA had not engaged in such a large-scale military operation since the Korean War. Based on Mao Zedong’s strategy that “in every battle, concentrate an absolute superior force against the enemy,” Beijing had deployed nine regular armies along with special and local units, amounting to over half a million troops. Air force fighter units flew 8,500 border air defense sorties, while transport and helicopter units flew 228 airlift sorties and the navy dispatched a task force to prepare for possible Soviet naval intervention. In addition, Guangxi and Yunnan Provinces mobilized tens of thousands of militiamen and laborers to support the PLA’s military operation in Vietnam. During the conflict, Chinese forces captured three Vietnamese provincial capitals along with a dozen other border cities and district towns, claiming to have killed and wounded 57,000 Vietnamese troops, severely damaged four PAVN regular divisions and ten other regiments, and captured 2,200 prisoners of war. Chinese victory claims also included the destruction of 340 pieces of artillery, 45 tanks, and some 480 trucks and the capture of 840 pieces of artillery and more than 11,000 small arms, along with many other types of military equipment. On this basis, Beijing asserted that military operations against Vietnam ended with China’s triumph.

However, based on the reported heavy casualties China suffered in the war and lack of information about Vietnamese casualties, most contemporary Western studies maintained that Vietnam “had indeed outperformed” the Chinese forces on the battlefield. Such reasoning accepted Hanoi’s disingenuous claims that Vietnam had committed only militia and local forces, who executed constant attacks against Chinese invaders. Apologists for the Hanoi regime argued that Vietnam had lost Lang Son and other cities only after Vietnamese defenders had killed a large number of PLA troops. (At the time, Hanoi Radio announced that a total of 42,000 Chinese troops were killed and wounded in the war, a third more than the PLA’s actual combat casualties.) Vietnam’s 1979 war records remain unavailable. However, the publication of PAVN unit histories reveals that a significant number of Vietnamese regular forces fought against the Chinese invasion, including some that engaged in “last-stand” actions before being overwhelmed by resolute PLA attackers.

A reassessment of the 1979 war based on China’s sources is equally one-sided but is still both intriguing and informative. Battlefield casualties are a common measure of combat effectiveness. Beijing publicly acknowledged that 20,000 Chinese soldiers were either killed or wounded. In reality, the PLA lost more than 31,000 soldiers (including almost 8,000 fatalities), divided between the two military regions: 5,103 dead and 15,412 injured in Guangxi and 2,812 killed and 7,886 wounded in Yunnan. Western observers, however, did not accept Chinese numbers and therefore speculated (with a misleading “precision” based on specious media reports) that the PLA could have had as many as 26,000 killed and 37,000 wounded in action. Over time, these figures have become accepted by scholars and subsequently have been widely cited to support the thesis that the PLA did not conduct itself successfully in the fighting. It is true that China’s casualties in such a short war were significantly high. However, the Chinese believed that their losses were still outstripped by Vietnamese losses.

The most controversial statistic was the number of soldiers killed. The basis of PLA victory claims were body counts after the Vietnamese positions had been sacked, a practice ironically echoing that of the U.S. Army in South Vietnam a decade earlier. For example, the 163rd Division counted 5,293 Vietnamese soldiers killed and 612 Chinese dead. This claim did not include the unknown numbers of Vietnamese troops killed inside the underground bunkers at the French Fort and inside Nhi Thanh and Tam Thanh Caves.

However, that the figures claimed by the PLA forces may be inflated. The battlefield was a dangerous and chaotic place, and perfectly accurate casualty reporting was always difficult. On 16 March 1979, at a CCP Central Committee meeting, Deng noted that the number of Vietnamese wounded counted by the PLA might not be accurate, since battlefield experiences often supported a high wounded-to-killed ratio. This discrepancy cannot be resolved until the Vietnamese records become available. The Chinese leader, however, did not think that casualties were the best criterion for weighing military success. For him, China’s victory was determined by the overall strategic situation, which he thought concluded in China’s favor. According to Deng, the war improved China’s strategic position and China’s world prestige and inspired the Chinese people to be more devoted to the Four Modernizations.” He stressed that the PLA’s battlefield losses were “small” compared to the heroism and bravery manifested by Chinese troops in the war. Deng also felt a sense of relief, speaking of his satisfaction about the PLA’s performance during the invasion with a comment that Chinese troops had not behaved like “ducks” (fang yazi) even when they confronted extraordinary challenges and ordeals. The Chinese leader was convinced that any PLA deficiencies were less important than the strategic gains China had achieved.

Assessment from a Strategic Perspective

From a Chinese perspective, the 1979 war with Vietnam was a deliberately orchestrated military response to Vietnamese policy toward China and its expansion in Southeast Asia as well as to Soviet global aspirations.30 As Deng Xiaoping stressed on 19 February 1979, Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia placed at least some of the ASEAN countries under threat, and the Soviet Union could use Vietnam to create an “Asian Collective Security System” to contain China. “Although China’s action to teach Vietnam a lesson just began,” the Chinese leader continued, “it was a limited operation to be confined within the border region with a simple objective”—to “warn Vietnam not to be recklessly aggressive in the region.” The Chinese leader related China’s war with Vietnam to Hanoi’s Indochina policy but did not state that Beijing’s strategic objective was to compel Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia. Accordingly, the PLA’s performance must be assessed from a perspective that examines to what extent the 1979 war served China’s strategic interests.

The Chinese leadership believed that Beijing had met its goals. On 16 March, speaking in front of party, government, and military leaders at the Great Hall of the People, Deng declared China’s “victory” over Vietnam. He believed that the war had boosted China’s prestige and influence in the world, proving that China stood behind what it said and that the war was important for the fight against hegemony. He also believed that the war had inspired the Chinese people to shift the focal point of their work to economic development programs. Thus, for Deng Xiaoping, the war’s outcome had created a favorable situation for China both at home and abroad, enabling China to concentrate its energy and resources on achieving the Four Modernizations. Few Western observers would evaluate the war’s outcomes the same way that Deng did because the Chinese leader assessed the war from a larger international and domestic perspective. For him, the war produced the kind of strategic outcomes he had desired and anticipated.

The military campaign revealed the PLA’s deficiencies in modern doctrine and tactics, but from beginning to end, China controlled the conflict’s initiative and tempo. Beijing, not Hanoi, determined the pace, structure, battlefield and geostrategic engagement, and duration of the war. Beijing surprised Hanoi not only by waging massive attacks but also by its quick withdrawal without becoming bogged down, something that the Hanoi regime, overconfident from its experience against the Americans in a very different kind of conflict a decade earlier, never anticipated. China’s gauge of the Soviet response to the invasion also exposed Moscow’s inability or unwillingness to back Vietnam. This outcome proved Deng Xiaoping’s prophecy that the Soviet Union would not risk its strategic interests in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to confront China over Vietnam. Hanoi’s reliance on the Soviet Union for security was clearly a disappointing and even disillusioning experience.

Even more critical, the 1979 war marked the beginning of Beijing’s policy of “bleeding” Vietnam in an effort to contain Hanoi’s further expansion in Southeast Asia. While a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia following China’s attack was desirable, the PRC’s leadership never anticipated an immediate withdrawal. After the war, Vietnamese claims notwithstanding, China still commanded all significant strategic options. It was free to maintain military pressure on Vietnam, including constant verbal threats of a second attack. Nor was the pressure limited to just verbal assaults. For almost the entire 1980s, the PLA engaged in occasional intense artillery shelling and major border battles. Indeed, as one study from the early 1990s concluded, “The war was most successful when seen as a tactic in China’s strategy of a protracted war of attrition” against Vietnam.

Similarly, the war did not produce significant international consequences for China. In Cambodia, the invasion not only enabled the Khmer Rouge to escape total annihilation but also encouraged the different political forces to formulate a joint alliance against the Vietnamese occupation as a legitimate course. However, the use of military force against Vietnam raised suspicions in Indonesia and Malaysia, always wary of China’s influence in the region. The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia, which threatened Thailand, enabled the continuing growth of the strong opposition coalition of ASEAN countries against Vietnam. Regarding the Sino-U.S. relationship, China’s punitive invasion appeared particularly successful. Washington publicly condemned both Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and China’s invasion of Vietnam but shared China’s interest in containing Soviet influence in Southeast Asia. Beijing’s willingness to use force, regardless of the casualties suffered, made China “a valuable deterrent” to Soviet-Vietnamese expansionism. Washington thus continued to seek a close relationship with China to counterbalance the Soviet Union.

Perhaps motivated by China’s use of force against Vietnam, in July 1979, the U.S. government signed a trade agreement that granted China most-favored-nation status, a significant economic coup for the Deng regime. In the following month, Vice President Walter Mondale visited Beijing and stressed to the Chinese leadership that the United States had decided to develop close trade and economic ties with China and to treat China differently than the Soviet Union. This new economic relationship, according to Mondale, included the relaxation of restrictions on U.S. exports to China, a two-billion-dollar government loan to China, and export licenses for two sets of advanced equipment (a $1 billion ore-processing complex and a 50 billion electron-volt high-energy accelerator). Deng had wanted an improved relationship with the United States: the war against Vietnam demonstrated China’s strategic value and importance to the ongoing struggle against Soviet hegemony (in Deng’s own phrase, “to the world anti-hegemony united front”), and, in return, the West “would provide money and equipment for a powerful China to deter Soviet revisionism.”

The Chinese leadership also perceived that the 1979 war served China’s domestic interests. Beginning in late 1978, the radical ideology and policies of Mao Zedong’s disastrous Cultural Revolution were increasingly repudiated. Democratic dissidents called for ideological and political changes in China, posting big-character posters and handbills calling for more democracy and freedom on the “Democracy Wall” in the national capital. This alarmed Deng, who wanted a fresh start for China but also believed that China’s new drive for the Four Modernizations required all “citizens being of one heart and one mind.” The Democracy Wall, Deng believed, stirred up sentiments corrosive to stability and unity. Moreover, he resented those people who posted letters on the wall requesting that President Jimmy Carter interfere in China’s human rights situation and the activists who burst into the Vietnamese embassy in Beijing voicing their opposition to the war against Vietnam. Following the Chinese forces’ withdrawal from Vietnam, he directed the Beijing municipal authority to ban all activities that undermined political and social stability and unity.

The Vietnamese leadership never seemed to comprehend the PRC’s strategy and war objectives, persistently maintaining that the 1979 invasion simply constituted a prelude to Beijing’s long-term scheme of infringing on Vietnamese sovereignty and independence. After China announced its withdrawal on 5 March, Hanoi called for a nationwide general mobilization for the war and began constructing defensive positions in and around Hanoi. By the end of May, the PLA had reverted to its normal alert status. Vietnam, however, remained on guard, stationing a large number of PAVN troops (allegedly 300,000) along border with China at a time when the economy was “in a worse state than at any time since 1975.” As a result, Hanoi’s attempts to fight simultaneously in Cambodia and on its northern border took a growing national economic and social toll, subsuming Hanoi’s effort to modernize its economy and, more important, undermining its geopolitical ambitions. According to Fred Charles Iklé, “Governments tend to lose sight of the ending of wars and the nation’s interests that lie beyond it,” and many are “blind in failing to perceive that it is the outcome of the war, not the outcome of the campaigns within it” that determines how well their policies serve the nation’s interests. The Vietnamese leadership clearly failed to grasp the gravity of the situation and continued depending on the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991. If the Vietnamese should draw any lessons from the 1979 war with China, one is, as one Vietnamese general later remarked, “We must learn how to live with our big neighbor.”