On this day in 1979 China invaded Vietnam. The Sino-Vietnamese War is a somewhat confusing one at first glance. The Communist nations of China and Vietnam had battled against American neo-imperialistic economic hegemony and free market capitalism and won, however the tendencies of factionalism and nationalism within the communist ideology, was encouraged by the jingoism of beating the world’s foremost superpower, leading to the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, and which lasted for 3 decades, and, eventually, a polarisation of countries who aligned themselves to the USSR’s understanding of the communist doctrine against those aligned with China’s. It should also be noted that some – though very few – nations, like North Korea, avoided this partisanship due to their desperation to maintain support from both nations. Vietnam, however, did not and, despite receiving support from over nearly 200,000 Chinese soldiers during the Vietnam War, aligned themselves with the Soviet Union.
Despite this, Vietnam’s neighbour Cambodia aligned itself with China and they supported the Khmer Rouge government and the founding of the Democratic Kampuchea which was a typical authoritarian communist nation. Despite the initial unity in the face of American opposition the Khmer Rouge feared that once Vietnam was strong enough it would attempt to establish itself as the leading force in Indochina. To prevent such domination, Cambodia pre-emptively attacked leading to the Cambodian-Vietnamese War, which would go on into the 1990s, with Vietnam having the support of the USSR and Cambodia being supported by China. The Vietnamese invasion of 1979 saw them establish the People’s Republic of Kampuchea after defeating the Kampuchean Revolutionary army in just two weeks.
On November 3, 1978, the Soviet Union and Vietnam had signed a 25-year mutual defense treaty, guaranteeing protection mainly from China as the Soviet Union attempted to contain them. This proved ineffective as China eventually decided to invade on February 17th 1979 to protect its interests in Cambodia, quell Vietnamese expansionism, exhibit a show of strength to the Soviet Union and attempt to expand their appeal to other communist nations like Somalia who had switched allegiance from the Soviet Union to China in 1977.
The war lasted a day short of four weeks and saw remarkably little geographic change. China’s force is claimed to have been 200,000, but Vietnamese estimations put that closer to 600,000, whilst the Vietnamese regular force of between 70,000 and 100,000 soldiers were vastly outnumbered and outgunned. The addition of around 150,000 armed Vietnamese militia did little to extend the nations military strength as a lack of training and weaponry forced them to focus on guerrilla warfare. Around 50% of all of the Vietnamese forces died, and whilst estimates vary, China claimed it lost less than 10,000 soldiers. Moreover, despite the promises made, the Soviet Union did very little to support their ally. Vietnam was considered of high importance however all land routes were either through American or Chinese controlled nations and the distances were too great for any real manoeuvring of troops.
Despite the lack of military achievement, the war was significant in a number of ways. Firstly, it showed the USSR to be an ineffective ally and a considerable weaker and more tamed military force than it had been at the end of the Second World War. Secondly, it proved that Vietnam was a significant force in Indochina, threatening the global hegemony not only of capitalist nations but also communist ones. Thirdly, historians like Howard French argue that the war was encouraged by Chinese leader Deng to allow him to mobilise the army in such a way that they would be unable to prevent him consolidating power following the death of Mao, thus the war changed Chinese politics. Finally, it led to a lack of clarity in regard to borders which is still prevalent today, for example in regard to islands in the South China Sea like the Parcel and Spratly islands.