On the 17th February 1979 the People's Republic of China (PRC) launched a large-scale attack into Vietnam in order « to teach Vietnam a lesson » , according to the words of Deng Xiao Ping, general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party since Mao Zedong's death. Vietnam answered to the attack to defend its sacred independence and sovereignty and until the 16 March 1979 the two countries waged war. The attack led by China was supposed to be decisive and short in order to overwhelm the People's army of Vietnam (PAVN) with massive amount of troops, to capture some provincial capitals and then retreat. Many observers at the time though that this short punitive mission by China was due to the Vietnam invasion of the China's ally, Cambodia, to end the regime of Pol Pot who was exterminating a part of the population to implement his socialist plans .
Clearly, the timing of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict two months after the 25th December 1978 invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam suggests that the war was mainly about Cambodia. However, the causes of this war need to be investigated further, because a mono-causal explanation to this real reversal in Sino-Vietnamese relations seems simplistic. Indeed, after the two Vietnam wars, the Sino-Vietnamese's closeness was compared to « lips and teeth » because China had supported the exile of Ho Chi Minh, helped in the revolutionary struggle against France with war material, and sent troops against the USA invaders before 1970.
But in fact, in spite of their rapprochement in the 1950s and 1960s to support the communist cause, Vietnam and China were not natural friends and there are probably other underlying factors, external to the situation in Cambodia, to this sudden punitive mission of China. According to Nguyen Mang Hung, the origins of the conflict are deeply rooted in « history, geography, clash of national interests and policy differences ».
[...] Two years earlier, in October 1977 Pol Pot had asked China for military protection in case of Vietnamese attack; when Vietnam invade Cambodia, China pledge its promise of continuing support and aid to Phnom Penh as a justification for the intervention in Vietnam. However, it was more about Cambodia itself than about the “situation”, i.e the genocide, in Cambodia. Vietnam said the intervention was for humanitarian purpose and that US and China were to blame in supporting the Khmer rouge. [...]
[...] Sharpe LAWSON Eugene, (1984), The Sino-Vietnamese conflict, New York Praeger MANH HUNG Nguyen, (1979), ‘The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict: Power Play among Communist Neighbours', in Asian Survey Volume 19, N°11 SEGAL Gerald, (1985), Defending China, Oxford University Press WOMACK Brantly, J(une 2003), ‘Asymetry and systemic misperception: China, Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1970s', in Journal of Strategic studies, Volume 26, N°2 ZHANG Xiaoming, (December 2005), ‘China's 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment', China Quaterly, Issue N°184 KENNY, H.J., (2003), Vietnamese perception of the 1979 war with China, P217 ibid. P218 ZHANG X. (2005), China's 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment, P853 MANH HUNG N. (1979), The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict: Power Play among Communist Neighbours, P1037 ibid., P1037 SEGAL G. (1985), Defending china, P212 LAWSON E. (1984), The Sino-Vietnamese conflict ZHANG X. (2005), China's 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment, P855 ZHANG X. [...]
[...] The Hoa people was the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam and have lived there for many generations. For Vietnam, these overseas Chinese had the potential to be the a fifth column of China abroad because they controlled most of the trade and manufactories, had good economic positions and sent back remittance to China. They were not fully integrated, even if many of them joined the Viet Cong army, but Hanoi decided that they should gradually gained Vietnamese citizenship and China recognized the Vietnamese jurisdiction over them. [...]
[...] The deployment of about a million Soviet troops along the Chinese borders in the mid-1970s, followed by the invasion of Cambodia, made China fear a double-front attack. As a result, the war led by China on Vietnam was also a way to attack the ally of the Soviet Union (because China was not powerful enough to attack directly the Soviet union) and to show the world that with this quick mission, the Soviet Union did not had the time to intervene to help Vietnam. [...]
[...] Considering this, it is legitimate to question the extent in which the Sino-Vietnamese war was linked to the situation in Cambodia and to wonder whether or not it was linked to other underlying factors. I am going to argue that it is clear that in some extent the Sino Vietnamese war was about the situation in Cambodia because the invasion of Cambodia was the precipitant of the war but that it was also a pretext for China to sort out other issues, and that the war was mainly about a game of influence in Asia and some other practical issues, i.e territorial disputes and the question of overseas Chinese (III). [...]
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