13 December 2009
Last time we met, Pol Pot had just gotten too big for his britches and picked a fight with a much more powerful Vietnam. The next obscure war in our series follows hot on the heels of that one...
Who?: A red-hot Vietnam, fresh off of driving out the Americans, capturing South Vietnam, and showing the Khmer Rouge what for and the big, strong post-Sino-Soviet Split PRC, now in the midst of reform under the steady hand of Deng Xiaoping.
Toll: The Correlates of War dataset puts the battle deaths at 21K. Official figures are sketchy, but it seems likely that both sides suffered heavy casualties. The war was fought entirely in Vietnam, so civilian casualties were probably quite high among the Vietnamese (some civilians from northern Vietnam claimed that the PLA leveled every building in their towns and villages).
Why?: While the ostensible reasons for the Chinese invasion were poor treatment of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and Vietnam's occupation of the Spratly Islands, the broader regional and geopolitical picture is much more interesting.
As mentioned in the last entry, China was angry at Vietnam for deposing its Khmer Rouge proxies and for aligning so strongly with the USSR (Russian was now replacing Chinese in Vietnamese school curricula). China had just gotten out of its friendship treaty with the USSR and had a chip on its shoulder. It wanted to demonstrate that a) Vietnam could not dominate Southeast Asia and that b) the USSR could not protect "the Cuba of the East" from China.
At the same time, despite China's assistance against the Americans and the two states' shared communism, Vietnam and China had a long history of enmity that centered around China's historical domination of the smaller nation. This historical feud is probably best personified by the Trung Sisters, Vietnamese folk heroes who supposedly fought off Chinese invasions in the first century (riding elephants, no less).
A couple of other possible, more conspiratorial explanations for the invasion center around Deng Xiaoping's recent seizure of power in China. Some have speculated that Deng may have launched the war in order to a) point out flaws in the PLA and the need for modernization or b) distract the military while he eliminated leftist rivals in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and consolidated power.
Outcome: Chinese ground forces made a brief incursion into the northern part of Vietnam and fighting was fierce. China did not employ airpower. There were some naval engagements that China got the best of, not surprisingly. Overall, though, the plucky, battle-hardened Vietnamese military fought back fiercely against the Chinese force which has been estimated at somewhere around 100K to 200K strong. China actually employed very large forces along its border with the USSR at the same time just in case it decided to intervene on behalf of its client.
The fighting did serve to highlight serious flaws in the PLA, including antiquated technology and poor logistics. Less than a month into the invasion, China announced that Vietnam had been sufficiently punished and withdrew. Both sides spun the war as a victory. However, Vietnam continued its control over the puppet government in Phnom Penh and continued to hassle China along its border.
One small positive aspect of the conflict for China was that it demonstrated that the USSR would not intervene on behalf of Vietnam. The USSR did send arms shipments, but decided that deploying forces into the Southeast Asian theatre was impractical and that reopening the border war with China wasn't worth it. The lesson here, kiddos, is that extended deterrence is a dicey proposition at best!
Border clashes continued between the two communist states into the 90s.
Who Cares?: Once again, this war was strong proof that there was no monolithic communist bloc, although the Sino-Soviet Split and Vietnamese-Cambodian War had already made this quite clear. I'm sure, however, that such a thing continued to exist in the fevered minds of wingnuts in the US.
More interestingly, while we sometimes refer to the Korean War as "The Forgotten War" here in the US, the "Self-Defense and Counterattack Against Vietnam War," as it is referred to in China, is truly a forgotten war--no monuments, no account in textbooks, no nothing. Many veterans never really knew exactly why they had fought the war. A novel about the war almost won a national book award in China before mysteriously being removed from the competition! The actual course of the war does not square with the ruling party's national narrative of a China that has only fought to defend itself and has sought to live in peace with its neighbors, so it has simply been deleted from history.