Backstabbing Friend And Serial Bully China: How Vietnam Defeated A Country 30 Times Bigger In 1979

by Swarajya Staff - Jul 9, 2020 02:22 PM +05:30 IST
Backstabbing Friend And Serial Bully China: How Vietnam Defeated A Country 30 Times Bigger In 1979Vietnamese officer standing on a destroyed Chinese tank (Wikimedia Commons)
  • China has a record of betraying its friends and allies for short-term gains.

After the United States completely withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the common enemy of different communist powers operating in the Indochina peninsula was gone.

On the other hand, the split between China and USSR, the two leading communist powers in the world at the time, was increasing. The Sino-American rapprochement was apparent with the US president Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese Vice-premier, visited the US.

He reportedly told the US president Jimmy Carter, “The little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked” regarding Vietnam. This was in January. The very next month, Xiaoping declared a limited attack on its neighbour.

The reason cited by China for the attack was to support China's ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia. In 1978, after the Ba Chuc massacre which resulted in the deaths of over 3,000 Vietnamese civilians at hands of Khmer Rouge Army, Vietnam had launched a full scale war against Cambodia.

The Khmer regime had supported the Vietnamese communists in the US-Vietnam war. However, it feared that the Vietnamese were planning to Indochinese socialist federation on the lines of USSR in the region, with Vietnam as the centre.

The Khmer Rouge leader of Cambodia, Pol Pot, one of the 20th century's bloodiest tyrants, was a Chinese ally. The Khmer regime was backed by China, and the Vietnamese were backed by the Soviet Union.

The day after declaring war, China warned USSR that if the latter interfered on the behalf of its ally, it would launch a full-scale war against the Soviet Union.

To show that its threat wasn’t empty, China reportedly put as many as one-and-a-half million troops along China's border with the Soviet Union, all on an emergency war alert; set up a new military command in Xinjiang; and evacuated an estimated 3 lakh civilians from the Sino-Soviet border.

The Soviets couldn’t stop the Chinese from attacking their ally. This was an indication of the weakening USSR hold on the communist world. USSR didn’t directly intervene in the war, but did supply intelligence and equipment, apart from airlifting Vietnamese soldiers to northern Vietnam.

There was some reluctance on the part of the Russians because China had assured them (just like the US) that it was going to be a limited war.

The Chinese military was larger, but had to deploy a large force on Sino-Soviet border. Around 2 lakh soldiers entered northern Vietnam in February 1979. They faced stiff resistance from the Vietnamese.

Within a month, the Chinese decided to retreat. On 6 March, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and they would retreat. The Chinese army caused huge damage to northern Vietnam while retreating that pushed the region into extreme deprivation.

Both sides declared victory but the general consensus among scholars is that the Vietnemese outperformed the Chinese in the battlefield. Also, Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia, so China was unsuccessful in its goal.

Some scholars argue that the Vietnam war by China was almost pointless, except that Deng Xiaoping used it as a distraction while dealing with problems at home while keeping the army occupied at the border.

Some historians argue that the war fit into the modernisation plans of Deng Xiaoping in highlighting the technological deficiencies of the Maoist People's Liberation Army. Today, the Chinese government actively suppresses memories and debates of this "pointless" war.

This was not the first time. China had conducted a similar pointless war against another neighbour, India, in 1962. Within a month of the attack, it announced its withdrawal. The Indian leadership was singing the peans of Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai (India-China brotherhood) to the day of the attack.

China has a long record of being untrustworthy. As one scholar argues:

“The negative influence and legacy of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War...has been neglected. China attacking a close ally in 1979 — one which it had supported since the first Indo-China War in the early 1950s — underlined the perception that Beijing, despite Chinese intervention in the Korean War and the signing of the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Friendship Treaty, is ultimately not to be trusted.”

Like a typical authoritarian regime, each time China faces challenges at home, it starts trouble with its neighbours as a distraction, and a muscle-flexing exercise.

This coupled with its opportunism, lack of principles has rendered China isolated. Recently, Chinese officials picked a bone with Russia by claiming Vladivostok as a Chinese territory.

The lack of principles is also the reason behind the overly aggressive, bullying and threatening posture of China — it only has violence as a response, hence zero soft power.

China can today cry colonialism when the western world raises the issue with its treatment of Hong Kongers, but the reality is that China has acted no less as a colonial power when it came to other Third World countries, be it wars against Vietnam, India or debt trap diplomacy with African nations.

Also read: As US-China Cold War Intensifies Over Hong-Kong, India May Have To Choose Between Post-Colonial Solidarity And Realism

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