Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Behind China’s counter-strike in Vietnam:
Questions and Answers on the China-Vietnam Conflict

First Published: The Call, Vol. 8, No. 11, March 19, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Many of our readers have expressed questions about the recent border conflict between China and Vietnam. Below The Call responds to some of the most commonly asked of these questions:

1) What is the background to the border conflict between China and Vietnam? What evidence is there to support the view that Vietnamese expansionism is the cause of the conflict?

While China and Vietnam cooperated throughout the war against U.S. aggression in Indochina, problems in their relations emerged soon after the U.S. defeat.

Following the end of the Indochina war in April 1975 and the reunification of north and south Vietnam, the Vietnamese government took a number of actions which showed it was embarking in an expansionist direction. This expansionism, which has a history in Vietnam’s relations with its neighbors, also dovetailed with growing Soviet influence and with the USSR’s global expansionist aims.

For example, after April 1975, the Vietnamese government did not demobilize their armed forces to a peacetime level. Instead, the army was expanded.

In the last year alone, the draft in Vietnam surpassed the most intensive period of the anti-U.S. war, with the total amount of new recruits estimated at 400,000. Some 200,000 ex-soldiers have been called back into active duty and, presently, according to Western news agencies, the total strength of the Vietnamese army has reached 1.5 million, or 50% more troops than at the end of the war against U.S. imperialism.

The Vietnamese leadership also challenged China’s sovereignty on the Xisha and Nansha (Paracel and Sprightly) Islands in the South China Sea. Back in 1958, Pham Van Dong had stated publicly that these islands were China’s legitimate territory, but in 1975, the Vietnamese leaders reversed their position and claimed the islands as Vietnamese territory.

The Vietnamese leadership also demonstrated concretely that their historic aim of building an “Indochina Federation” with Vietnam in charge was still their objective. This is true despite the fact that the “Federation” idea, which had been inscribed in Vietnamese policies since 1930, was abandoned in words in the early 1950s.

Vietnam dispatched 50,000 troops to Laos who remain there to the present day, placing that country under Vietnamese control.

Towards Kampuchea’s fiercely independent government, Vietnam, soon after the conclusion of the anti-U.S. war, made demands for territory that had previously been agreed upon by all parties as Kampuchean. This recognition had been formalized in 1966 and 1967 in communiques signed by both the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam and the DRV.

Because Kampuchea refused to allow Vietnamese encroachment on their territory, Vietnamese military attacks escalated from 1975 on, culminating in the December 1978 launching of a full-scale invasion of Kampuchea. At present, a Vietnamese occupation army of over 150,000 men controls Phnom Penh and a number of major towns and highways in Kampuchea.

In the last year, the Vietnamese authorities have also stepped up their anti-China activities. They began a campaign of harassment against Vietnamese of Chinese origin and Chinese nationals living in Vietnam, forcibly driving 200,000 Chinese over the border into China.

This took place against the backdrop of increasing Vietnamese border provocations against China. According to Chinese sources, over 3,000 such provocations occurred in the last five years, with over 100 Vietnamese military incursions into Chinese territory in just the first one and a half months of 1979.

The Chinese government frequently protested to the Vietnamese leaders, pointing out that, from August 1978 to February 1979 alone, over 300 Chinese soldiers and civilians had been killed by Vietnamese attacks. The Chinese government repeatedly warned in these official protests: “If the Vietnamese authorities ignore the warnings of the Chinese Government and continue to make military provocations along the Sino-Vietnamese border, the Vietnamese Government must be held responsible for all the consequences arising therefrom.” In this way, the Chinese leaders made it clear that they would not continue to tolerate Vietnam’s aggression.

From China’s point of view, she could no longer tolerate the killing of Chinese soldiers and civilians and disruption of the economy. China had to act. Vietnam, egged on by the USSR, ignored the Chinese warnings.

Facts show that the Vietnamese leaders’ expansionist aims and their actual plans to annex the Southeast Asian countries into an “Indochina Federation” were bolstered and made possible by Vietnam’s cementing its alliance with the Soviet Union.

For its part, the USSR has great interest in establishing a foothold in Southeast Asia. This would allow the Soviets to send their fleet through the Straits of Malacca into the Indian Ocean and on to the Red Sea and the African Horn. Such a foothold will give Moscow the ability to control the vital sea routes from the Middle East to Europe, the U.S. and Japan.

On June 29, 1979, the Soviet Union admitted Vietnam into the “Council for Mutual Economic Assistance,” shoring up Vietnam economically. Then two months later, Moscow delivered large quantities of arms, including rockets, to Vietnam. Over 4,000 Soviet advisors were sent to Vietnam in the months that followed.

Last November, the Soviet and Vietnamese leadership concluded a “treaty of friendship and cooperation,” openly proclaiming “military cooperation” between both countries. Subsequently, Moscow provided Vietnam with MIG-23s and two 2,000-ton escort vessels.

The cementing of this relationship immediately prior to Vietnam’s large-scale invasion and occupation of Kampuchea and the increased frequency of its attacks on China indicate that Hanoi’s actions were well-planned and carried out in close consultation with the Soviet authorities.

2) What is the difference between China’s military action in Vietnam and the Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea? Shouldn’t both actions be equally condemned?

Examining each of the two military actions shows that Vietnam’s armed aggression and military occupation of Kampuchea is entirely different in character from China’s limited counterattack in response to repeated armed border provocations.

China’s action, as shown above, was only taken after repeated warnings and protests by the Chinese government to the Vietnamese leaders. When on February 17, 1979, the Chinese were forced to take military action against Vietnam, the Chinese government issued this Xinhua News Agency release:

“We do not want a single inch of Vietnamese territory, but neither will we tolerate wanton incursions into Chinese territory. All we want is a peaceful and stable border. After counterattacking the Vietnamese aggressors as they deserve, the Chinese frontier troops will strictly keep to defending the border of their own country.”

The limited character of the Chinese counterattack was shown by the Chinese troops’ activities, which were restricted primarily to the border areas and aimed against Vietnamese military installations which had been set up against China.

After only a few weeks, China has already begun the withdrawal of troops back to Chinese territory. Unlike the Vietnamese, who have troops permanently stationed in Laos and Kampuchea, there is no evidence that the Chinese intend to occupy Vietnam.

Their action, the Chinese have pointed out, is well within the boundaries of international law. Specifically, Article 51 of the United Nations Charter stipulates that UN members have the inherent right of self-defense if they are the victim of an armed attack.

There are many historical precedents for a retaliatory action like China’s. For instance, in 1962 China itself took action against the Indian government which, spurred on by the Soviet Union, sent troops into Chinese territory and established a network of military outposts. This forced China to send troops to drive the Indians out and back into Indian territory in order to secure Chinese borders. World opinion at that time and since has supported China’s action against India.

The Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea, on the other hand, is a gross violation of international law. It is a case of one country violating the territory of another, using military force to topple a legitimate government and establishing hegemony through military occupation.

Finally, Vietnam’s aggressive stance has been shown through their continued rejection of Chinese offers to resolve the Vietnam-China border conflict through peaceful negotiations and their refusal to accept a “mutual withdrawal” formula that has been proposed by many countries around the world.

The mutual withdrawal formula calls on Vietnam and China to withdraw their troops from others’ territories in order to peacefully solve the conflicts in Southeast Asia. In the sense that this formula reflects the principle of non-occupation of others’ territory and calls on this principle to be applied universally, it is a fair one.

3) What were China’s concrete objectives in attacking Vietnam? What was accomplished? Didn’t such an action endanger the whole world by possibly provoking a new world war?

In its February 17 statement, the Chinese government pointed out that their action against Vietnam “is in the interest of checking Vietnamese aggression and expansion and defending peace and stability in Southeast Asia as well as the Asian and Pacific region.”

From the beginning, the Chinese made it clear that their action was purely punitive and limited in time. By swiftly securing the border areas and dismantling Vietnamese military installations that had been set up for anti-China attacks, the Chinese PLA confirmed Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping’s statement to American reporters in Peking that “the myth of the invincibility of the Vietnamese is no longer reliable.”

The same conclusion could also be drawn in relation to the Soviet Union, Vietnam’s main backer. In the face of increased Soviet aggression in the Middle East, Africa and other regions, the Chinese action proved that militant opposition to aggression by a superpower or its proxies can successfully deter the superpower threat. This was summed up well in the progressive Hong Kong newspaper Wen Hui Pao, which pointed out that in spite of the Chinese action, the Soviet Union had remained relatively quiet:

“This gives the people in the world a new concept,” stated Wen Hui Pao. “The Soviet Union bullies the weak and is afraid of the strong. To oppose hegemonistic expansion does not necessarily create wars. On the contrary, it is a good method to relax a tense situation.”

This sentiment was also echoed by several of the Southeast Asian countries who feel the threat of Vietnamese and Soviet expansion very closely. The Bangkok Post in Thailand, for example, pointed out that a side-effect of the Chinese action was to awaken Vietnam to the fact that there would be strong resistance to further Vietnamese military adventures.

“If, for example, Vietnamese ’hawks’ call for an invasion of Thailand,” the article concluded, “other Hanoi leaders will have to think of the consequences that could arise and throw a wet blanket on their inflammatory aspirations.”

Finally, according to the most recent reports in the Western press, the Chinese action has forced the Vietnamese to withdraw a substantial number o1 occupation troops from Kampuchea in order to bolster their forces in Vietnam. This provides concrete aid to the Kampuchean resistance forces, who are continuing their fight to expel the Vietnamese invaders from their country.