Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Revolutionary Communist Party

China-Vietnam: Superpowers Accelerate Moves to World War III

First Published: Revolution, Vol. 4, No. 2-3, February-March 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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On Feb. 17, about 150,000 Chinese troops swept across the Vietnamese border. Within two days they had penetrated as much as 15 miles into Vietnam, capturing many villages and two provincial capitals. This move, coming shortly after Teng Hsiao-ping’s visit to the U.S., was a stark illustration of what it means for China to have joined the U.S. imperialist war bloc. While part of China’s ambition to serve as a big power in Southeast Asia–which has come into conflict with Vietnam’s similar ambition–even more importantly, the invasion and the events surrounding it point to the heightening contention between the two superpowers, the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They show that at an ever more rapid pace, these two are preparing for world war, and that as part of this preparation the bourgeoisie in every country is feeling, to varying degrees, increasing pressure to fall into the orbit of one or the other.

The Chinese action had the stated purpose of “punishing Vietnam”–as Teng had promised would be done–for its flimsily-disguised takeover of Kampuchea (Cambodia) last month (see Revolution, Jan. 1979). But what did China do after Vietnam seized Cambodia during the first week of January? Punish Vietnam? No. First, Teng made a trip to the United States to confer with Carter. Then he went to Japan. Then China acted against Vietnam.

In reality the Chinese are acting on behalf of the U.S. imperialists, allowing the latter to deal a proxy blow to Soviet political and military positions in the area, yet officially disclaim any responsibility and pose as the only legitimate arbiter of the conflict. The U.S. plays gentle lamb while “communist” powers fight it out. This appearance, built up by Carter and the press, obscures the essence of the situation–the rivalry of imperialist blocs–in which the U.S. is hardly a disinterested observer.

Speaking at Georgia Tech on Feb. 20, Carter put out the stand that the Vietnamese must withdraw from Cambodia, the Chinese must withdraw from Vietnam, and the Soviet Union must not intervene. By linking China’s invasion of Vietnam with the latter’s invasion of Cambodia, the U.S. “disapproval” amounted in fact to an endorsement of the Chinese position. Carter emphasized that the U.S. was the only great power in a position to talk to all countries concerned, and thus not only could play a central role in keeping the conflict from escalating, but was implicitly in a favorable position to pursue its interests through negotiations. Undoubtedly the U.S. was taking advantage of the greater maneuverability it enjoys as a result of having a client state of 900 million people in Asia.

But at the same time as he piously denied that the U.S. would “get involved in a conflict between Asian communist states,” Carter emphasized that the U.S. must give more assistance to its allies (in this context, principally China) and cited the whole state of affairs as confirmation of a need for the increased military budget which he had requested a few weeks earlier. In fact, his whole speech was a rather flagrant appeal for the people to get behind the ruling class’ war chariot.

For their part, the Soviets, who had entered into a military pact with Vietnam last December, sternly warned the Chinese to withdraw. While their official statement suggested that they would, for the time being, confine themselves to sending aid to Vietnam, the Soviet army was reportedly put on alert, and the possibility of a Soviet attack on China, particularly in Sinkiang, could not be ruled out.

Reflecting the view of powerful sections of the U.S. imperialists, who recognize this possibility, Senator Jacob Javits, an influential member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, bluntly remarked on national TV that there was a “.. .great danger of a great war” and warned that “.. .the United States... should make it clear that we cannot stand still for an attack on the People’s Republic of China.” All these moves and countermoves, this testing of military preparedness and diplomatic clout, show that the Chinese invasion, though it may have limited military objectives, is a portent of the time when much greater political and military objectives will be fought out.

Though the Vietnamese revisionists’ takeover of Kampuchea was despicable, there is nothing honorable in China’s so-called “punitive action” either. China is not acting out of any proletarian internationalist solidarity with the people of Kampuchea or any concern for the fate of the former revolutionary government there, in contrast to when China came to the defense of Korea against U.S. imperialism in 1950. The Chinese government, while continuing to give aid to the rural guerrillas in Kampuchea who are resisting Vietnamese domination, is doing this not to support revolution but to tie down the 100,000 Vietnamese occupation forces there and cause difficulties for the Soviet Union and its allies. In fact, in recent months the Chinese revisionists have made it clear that they prefer the bourgeois Sihanouk to the revolutionary Pol Pot, through numerous private references to the “divisive” and “ultra-left” policies of the latter and in other ways.

All this attests to the truth of Mao’s statement that “the rise to power of revisionism means the rise to power of the bourgeoisie.” And with the bourgeoisie comes imperialist war blocs and wars of aggression. For those like the Guardian muddleheads who refuse to recognize this and like to confine themselves to nestling between “peacefully competing revisionisms,” the outbreak of armed struggle between rival state bourgeoisies is an embarrassing and fundamentally incomprehensible puzzle. To hedge on this question, to suggest that either China or Vietnam or both are ruled by the working class, is not only to make a senseless mess of the current conflict but to give support to the Trotskyites and more importantly to the bourgeoisie with its slanders about “Red imperialism.”

It is also essential not to be swayed by the fact that at this time the fighting is going on in Vietnamese territory. Yesterday Vietnam was the invader, today it is the invaded. This is no grounds for supporting, or muting criticism of, the treacherous revisionists in Hanoi. In addition, the point is not that a socialist country can never send troops beyond its own borders. And in fact, when China was a socialist country, it did send its troops into Korea, as pointed out above, and into India to settle a border dispute in 1962. What gave these actions a fundamentally different character from the current incursion into Vietnam may be reduced to one fact: since the revisionist coup of October 1976, the working class no longer holds power in China, and as a result China’s moves in the international sphere are no longer the extension of socialist politics, but its own bourgeois politics, and in particular, those of imperialism.

China has moved into the U.S. imperialists’ war bloc, while Vietnam and its creation in Phnom Penh have come completely under the Soviet heel. The firming up of these alliances, the more frequent occurrence of “dress rehearsals” of the type we are now witnessing, all point to the bigger and more earthshaking confrontations of the not too distant future, in which all subservient bourgeoisies, no matter how grand their ambitions, must pursue their own interests in the context and as part of the global designs of “their” superpower. Those who fail to grasp these trends will be hopelessly confused by the unstable and rapid developments in international politics which are exemplified by the China-Vietnam conflict or end up apologizing for one or another set of imperialist bandits. They will be in no position to play a progressive role–much less a revolutionary one–when greater conflicts erupt.