Reassessing the Sino-Vietnamese conflict 1979 III

October 14, 1986: After leading the attack on the Vietnamese position, Ma Quanbin, captain of the Chinese strike force, reports to the command.

The Battles of Laoshan and Bailihedongshan, 1984–1987

Vietnamese Strategy and Tactics

Prior to the late 1970s, the PLA paid scant attention to the combat doctrine and tactics of the PAVN and had never thought that their two communist countries would engage in an armed conflict against one another. As a result, the PLA underestimated the PAVN’s fighting abilities. After the 1979 war, PLA leaders conducted a thorough assessment of the PAVN’s strategy, strength, military objectives, and operational tactics. According to Zhou Deli, chief of staff of the Guangzhou Military Region, Vietnam’s military thought and combat principles emphasized “the national defense by all the people” (quanmin guofang) and “carrying out the people’s war” (shixing renmin zhanzheng), consisting of four basic approaches.

1. Tenaciously defending the border and seeking to win victory on the first line of defense. The Hanoi leadership opposed the strategy of luring the enemy deep into Vietnamese territory given the fact that the area between Hanoi and Lang Son was the heartland of Vietnamese industry. Instead, a military fortress strategy was adopted, turning villages, towns, and cities into strongholds against the invasion. Regular and local forces were employed to defend key positions along the highways and railroads, paramilitary troops were responsible for the first line of defense, and villagers were encouraged to take up arms to help defend areas where military forces were weak.

2. Aggressive defense. Vietnamese defenders needed actively and aggressively to engage the enemy at long range using offensive methods to defeat enemy attacks. Preferred defense tactics included the division of a company-sized force into three-to five-soldier squads and using platoon-size groupings of squads to defend strong points. When positions were lost, defenders would stage successive counterattacks with small groups ranging in strength from a squad to a platoon or a full company. (The PLA nevertheless concluded that the PAVN had too few troops overall and was inferior in combat power and that as a result, few Vietnamese counterattacks broke into Chinese defensive positions).

3. The use of small force to defeat a bigger enemy force. Surprisingly, given the traditionally strong centralized control pursued by Soviet-style forces, the PAVN (likely reflecting its guerrilla heritage back to the anti-Japanese days of the Second World War) fought using both decentralized control and decentralized execution. The Chinese discovered that Vietnamese defenders fought each engagement on their own and did not contact or support each other. While this structure made it difficult to get inside their command and control (their “decision loop”), it also generated problems for the PAVN that were exacerbated by Hanoi’s decision making and thus created opportunities that the PLA exploited. For example, throughout the fighting, Hanoi made no attempts to send reinforcements to help the badly battered PAVN divisions in the Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai areas, determined to hold its strategic reserves to engage the Chinese if they invaded the Red River Delta. The Vietnamese defensive strategy—taking no action, failing to send reinforcements, and refusing to run away—made it easy for Chinese forces to encircle and annihilate them piecemeal.

4. Relying on guerrilla warfare tactics to conduct positional defense and counterattacks. According to the Chinese assessment, when Vietnamese troops (both PAVN and militia) were unable to hold their fighting positions, they always dispersed into small groups and then used complex terrain (such as mountain saddles, high growths of grass, small clumps of trees, and limestone caves) to organize guerrilla defense along the roads, trails, and routes PLA troops were likely to traverse. The guerrilla-type attacks inflicted significant casualties on Chinese forces, and PAVN sapper teams effectively sabotaged Chinese rear echelons and rear area supply lines.

It is difficult to know to what extent the PLA’s assessment of the Vietnamese forces’ tactical characteristics is objective when Vietnam’s own assessment remains absent. In retrospect, the Chinese military leadership found itself in a contradictory position when conducting such an assessment. While claiming victory, China nevertheless had to acknowledge the heavy toll the PAVN and Vietnamese militia units had inflicted. In the view of the PLA’s leadership, an impartial evaluation of PLA deficiencies was imperative. However, at the same time, they worried about overestimating Vietnamese military capabilities and performance. In the end, national pride and cultural prejudice prevented the PLA from making truly objective assessments about the Vietnamese military and its tactics. Moreover, for fear of giving too much credit to the Vietnamese military, the PLA assessment concluded that the PAVN’s regular forces lacked persistence in offense and defense and had few coordinated operations. The PLA was also particularly critical of Hanoi’s response to Chinese campaign objectives. It believed that the PLA’s multidirectional attacks on Vietnam had confused Vietnamese leaders, preventing them from recognizing in a timely fashion the main thrust of the Chinese invasion. Facing multipronged attacks, the Vietnamese military command appeared befuddled and frequently changed the mission and location of their reinforcement forces. For the Chinese, the Vietnamese military leadership’s hesitation created favorable conditions for the PLA to concentrate a large number of forces to overpower the PAVN. The PLA’s tactic of pushing its infantrymen into close mass combat against the PAVN and its acceptance of high human losses may help explain why the PLA overwhelmed the PAVN and why the PLA subsequently proclaimed the PAVN incapable of defending against China’s attacks.

PLA literature certainly conceded that the PAVN’s guerrilla-type tactics, its sappers, and its local militias were surprisingly successful in keeping the Chinese forces off balance as they anxiously sought to engage the PAVN in decisive battles during the lightning war. One Chinese frustration was distinguishing civilian refugees from defeated PAVN soldiers, who would shed their uniforms and blend in. These disguised PAVN soldiers would then coerce Vietnamese civilians to instigate attacks on Chinese forces.

The PLA assessment also recognized the effectiveness of Vietnamese defense tactics such as placing mortars and heavy antiaircraft machine guns on the top of hills to suppress PLA infantry movement. The long-range and heavy-hitting multiple 12.7mm antiaircraft machine guns were extremely deadly, particularly because none of the PLA’s infantry soldier weapons had sufficient range to engage them in counterfire. As an American officer once noted, it was impossible “to penetrate, flank, or envelop” the Vietnamese fortified positions “without taking extremely heavy casualties.”

Some Vietnamese accounts supported the PLA’s interpretation of both the performance and the perceived weaknesses of the PAVN. Interviews with senior Vietnamese officers led Henry Kenny to conclude that although the Vietnamese army would have preferred to exploit mobile rather than positional tactics against the Chinese advance, the employment of “mines, mortar attack, and direct-fire ambushes from dominating terrain features” by dug-in Vietnamese defenders had proven an effective means of inflicting heavy losses on PLA forces and delaying their advance. The Vietnamese claimed that three PLA regiments and eighteen battalions had been either destroyed or suffered heavy attrition, while 550 vehicles, including 280 tanks and armored vehicles, and 115 artillery pieces had been destroyed or damaged. The Vietnamese have consistently asserted that they fought a “people’s war,” relying heavily on an armed peasantry and crediting these militias for defending the key border towns of Dong Dang, Cao Bang, and Lao Kai. Hanoi has never publicly admitted the extensive involvement of its regular forces in the conflict. Uncritically accepting Vietnamese accounts—in fact, Vietnamese propaganda—otherwise informed Western observers have stated incorrectly that the PLA failed to achieve its intervention objectives and “did not account itself well in the fighting.” Any honest evaluation of Vietnamese performance in the 1979 war remains dependent on the opening of Vietnamese records, however.

Lessons Learned

Today, notwithstanding the PLA’s persistent assertions of military victory, several critical questions remain to be addressed. How did the PLA perceive its performance in Vietnam in terms of planning, command and control, fighting, and combat tactics? What lessons did it learn from the campaign? And to what degree did this experience affect PLA thinking about its future? Although the PLA’s tradition placed importance on writing summaries of combat experience, Chinese national pride and cultural prejudice prevented the PLA from making candid conclusions about the war. Nonetheless, the PLA synthesized the lessons learned from the war into six themes.

The first theme was in keeping with a traditional PLA maxim that any correct military decision and strategy must involve thoroughly comprehending the situation. But the 1979 war showed that the PLA’s reconnaissance capability and battlefield situational awareness and intelligence were limited. The lack of human intelligence severely hampered the PLA throughout the military campaign. One leading reason was that most of the PLA’s reconnaissance units lacked adequate training before the invasion. During the operation, they were often taken off intelligence duties and simply assigned as replacement forces or adjuncts to assault strongpoints and defend key points along with infantry units. The political officers who were responsible for the POW work had no training in interrogation techniques, further hampering intelligence collection. During the campaign, lower-level units constantly complained that leadership at higher levels did not provide with detailed information about the enemy but failed to conduct any reconnaissance missions to obtain information. This problem was further aggravated by the fact that the PLA’s assessment of the geography and terrain of northern Vietnam often relied on outdated maps and geographic information. In addition, PLA forces generally had poor map-reading skills. As a result of all these deficiencies, the PLA’s postaction report admitted that its forces engaged in many muddle-headed actions in the 1979 war.

The unexpected operational difficulties posed by Vietnam’s surprisingly active militia units led to a second lesson, one involving conflict planning. A key PLA combat principle stressed the concentration of superior forces  to ensure annihilation of an enemy. One major deficiency of the Vietnam operation was that planners failed to consider the large number of militia forces in their calculation of Vietnamese military strength. Indeed, in retrospect, the PLA believed that the militia put up a more relentless resistance and launched more surprise attacks than the PAVN’s vaunted regulars. PLA planners thought they had an overwhelming 8:1 force disparity over the Vietnamese. But the Cao Bang area alone had 40,000 to 50,000 militia members, altering the force ratio to 2:1. During the campaign, the PLA thus never possessed sufficient forces to deliver the knockout strike that its doctrine advocated and its leaders sought, seriously slowing PLA combat operations. The Battle of Cao Bang took ten days rather than the planned five, requiring the deployment of additional troops. In response to these difficulties, the PLA had to adapt quickly to the “objective reality” of the battlefield, doing so in time to engage in a mopping-up campaign against the dispersed Vietnamese forces. Analysts concluded that this adaptation helped the PLA secure its victory, but it was a very close call.

The third lesson involved combined arms operations. The 1979 incursion marked the first time that the PLA leadership conducted combined arms operations with tank, artillery, and engineering elements in support of infantry attacks while assembling an air and naval force to provide cover (even though the latter did not enter combat). But backwardness in doctrine and tactics prevented Chinese forces from carrying out the kind of coordinated operation that could be undertaken at that time by, for example, NATO or the Warsaw Pact. While Beijing’s political constraints and outdated military thinking proscribed the commitment of air forces to support ground operations, ground forces also demonstrated poor coordination between infantry, tank, and artillery units, limiting the PLA’s ability to execute full combined arms tactics. For example, infantry units had never trained sufficiently with tank units and thus could not adequately maneuver with them. Such were the crudities of operational art that PLA infantry soldiers fastened themselves to the top of tanks with ropes so that they would not fall off. Accordingly, when they came under enemy fire, they were effectively bound in place. Conversely, tank units, which often operated without infantry support or direct communication with infantry units, suffered many unexpected losses and damage because they exposed themselves to Vietnamese tank-killing teams. Although the artillery forces performed better than tank units, they also often failed to provide timely support for coordinated infantry-armor assaults, and basic command and control architectures and procedures were clearly lacking. For example, during the PLA’s 1 March drive on Lang Son, the misreading of operational orders caused artillery batteries (under regimental infantry command) to fail to lay down suppressing fire against Vietnamese strongpoints before the infantry assault, which consequently failed, with heavy losses.

The fourth lesson was the general issue of command and control, and it, too, derived largely from the PLA’s traditions and culture. Personal relationships between commanding officers and troops, which had been cultivated in the past, still mattered to the PLA. Because interpersonal relationships were more important than institutional ones, it is not surprising that the leaders of the Guangzhou Military Region later acknowledged that they felt uncomfortable commanding troops transferred from the Wuhan and Chengdu Military Regions. These leaders also received many complaints from rank and filers about Xu’s leadership style because he had not previously commanded them. Even Xu acknowledged that he (and his subordinates as well as most PLA troops) had little knowledge of the challenges of fighting in a tropical, wooded mountain environment. They quickly realized that their combat experience in northern China did not apply to the battleground in Vietnam. The lack of combat-experienced officers further compounded the PLA’s command problems. Despite sending higher-ranking officers who were also war veterans to lower-level troop units to help with command, the PLA’s operations remained frustrated by most lower-ranking officers’ inability to make independent judgments and coordinate operations at critical moments. Instead of radios, the PLA’s squads and platoons received hand flags and horns, and soldiers were instructed in the use of hand signals for communication. But the heavy vegetation covering the hilly terrain prevented the effective use of the signals, forcing troops to stay in close and vulnerable formations lest communication be lost. This lack of radio equipment severely hampered battlefield communication and coordination between squads, platoons, and their company command.

Fifth, logistics posed another serious challenge and thus was a major area in which the PLA could draw lessons. The PLA lacked a modern logistics supply system and structure to support a fast-moving, distant, offensive action in which the average daily consumption included 700 tons of ammunition and another 700 tons of fuel. Instead, a makeshift supply system required every unit to be self-sufficient in “retail logistics,” the supply system employed on the battlefield. Up to 36 percent of supplies were carried into Vietnam by human and animal labor. Without adequate storage and transportation facilities, both the Guangzhou and Kunming Military Regions had to scramble to put together a supply system, and it never functioned smoothly and efficiently. The combination of poor PLA management and Vietnamese attacks caused the loss of considerable quantities of supplies. In one incident, PAVN artillery destroyed a column of thirty-seven trucks along with their loads. Some PLA troops carrying out deep-penetration tasks did not receive food supplies for seven days. As the forces advanced deeper into Vietnamese territory, the PLA’s logisticians had increasing difficulty keeping communication lines open without diverting a large number of forces to protect them. Based on this experience, the PLA concluded it needed a dedicated transportation command. In 2002, when the former vice commander of the PLA National Defense University spoke at a military symposium, he stressed the importance of “control of communication.”

Finally, China’s experience in Vietnam in 1979 caused the PLA to reconsider its thinking about “people’s war” as applied to conflicts beyond China’s borders. The traditional principle of people’s war stressed the importance of mobilizing the citizenry to support the war effort. The 1979 war experience reemphasized this but also took it further, showing that it was almost impossible for huge PLA forces to operate outside the country without popular support for the war at home. Beijing’s propaganda machines had aroused great public patriotism and pride in Chinese soldiers. These strong expressions of patriotism helped the PLA get direct support from the people living in the two border provinces fronting Vietnam. Tens of thousands of local residents served as stretcher bearers, security guards, and porters, and militia soldiers from the border region were involved in direct combat activities. Local governments made things easy for troops by simplifying requisition procedures, thereby helping them receive adequate material and fresh food in the shortest possible time. Such experiences persuaded the PLA leadership that mobilization of local governments and civilians to support a war remained an enduring—and essential—key to victory.


The 1979 war with Vietnam baptized a young generation of army cadres on the battlefield, and many of them later rose to high PLA positions, carrying the experiences and lessons of the war into their subsequent careers. From a Western perspective, the lessons learned from the 1979 war with Vietnam may not seem coherent, comprehensive, or even fully objective, because the PLA evaluates its success in military operations not from the traditional perspective of operational “battlefield” outcomes but rather on the basis of the impact of the conflict on the overall geopolitical-military strategic situation. Deeply influenced by Mao’s teaching that war is fundamentally a political undertaking, as long as China could claim to achieve its strategic and military objectives, the PLA would consider any problems resulting from perceived tactical failures secondary. The PLA’s assessments are also colored by the belief that warfare can be learned through the experience of fighting and that knowledge can be gained rapidly enough to employ it even in the context of very brief conflicts. For example, the PLA was convinced that its forces performed much better during the second stage of the 1979 campaign than they did during the first stage. Overall, the PLA’s self-assessment of lessons learned in the 1979 conflict with Vietnam is comprehensive but varies significantly from those found in Western studies. While some of the Western studies are informative and correct to some extent, they share common failings in attempting to make overarching conclusions based on very limited sources. This approach, never satisfactory, is even less so when applied to an extremely complicated and nuanced subject such as the PLA, its structure, doctrine, culture, operational thought, and combat behavior.

Perhaps most significantly, PLA studies conclude that the infamous Cultural Revolution constituted the single most detrimental factor undermining the PLA’s previously successful—in its eyes—combat tradition. The “battlefield” lessons the PLA may have learned in this war overemphasize operation (command and control, coordination between troops, force structure and weaponry) at the expense of strategy and doctrine.

During its evaluation of the 1979 war, the PLA appeared to make no attempt to hide or overlook its own deficiencies and problems. The PLA nevertheless failed to take into account its flawed military thinking and traditions. If there is any one issue about which the PLA still seems disingenuous, it is airpower—specifically, the importance of air superiority and battlefield air support. PLA literature and textbooks continue to cite the PLAAF’s alleged “deterrent capability” as the primary reason the Vietnamese Air Force did not become more directly involved in the conflict. Marshal Ye Jianying even ridiculously commented that China’s show-of-force air operations in the war against Vietnam were an “ingenious way of employing the air force.” Such a remark demonstrates that China’s military leadership continues to fail to appreciate the critical and complex role of airpower in modern warfare.

While significant differences exist between the Western and Chinese perspectives on the 1979 conflict, the two are nevertheless consistent in some aspects of their review of how Chinese leaders approached matters of war and strategy. First, Chinese leaders were deliberative and calculating about when and how military power was to be used but did not hesitate to go to war once they decided that China’s national interests were at stake. Second, the PLA demonstrated a preference for seizing and maintaining operational initiatives by deploying superior and more powerful forces. Third, the Chinese sense of military victory lay more in their evaluation of the geopolitical outcomes than in their judgment of operational performance on the battlefield. Fourth, political work remains a unique PLA approach to ensure the effectiveness of its forces on the battlefield. This distinct set of Chinese characteristics deserves further scholarly attention and should be considered in any study of Chinese military doctrine, policy, and capabilities.

The war was designed not to pose a substantial threat to Hanoi but merely to erode Hanoi’s will to occupy Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge hoped that the PLA could strike deeply into Vietnamese territory, but China’s invasion was short and limited to the border area. Nonetheless, China’s “symbolic” attack helped the Khmer Rouge escape total annihilation and enabled them to sustain their resistance against the Vietnamese occupation forces. Was the punitive nature of the war a true objective, or was it just rhetoric and a reflection of Beijing’s anger toward Hanoi and the invasion of Cambodia? If teaching a lesson was China’s main objective, the PLA should have struck hard to achieve significant military results. But speaking to Japanese journalists in the middle of the war, Deng asserted that he did not “need military achievements.” He later explained, “Teaching Vietnam a lesson was not based on a consideration of what was happening between China and Vietnam or in Indochina but was based on a contemplation of the matter from the angle of Asia and the Pacific—in other words, from the high plane of global strategy.” His calculus was ultimately dominated by two priorities: improving China’s external security environment and reforming China’s economy and opening up the country.

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