The Sino-Vietnamese war ( 中越战争in Chinese) was fought between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from February 17 to March 16, 1979. The PRC launched the offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia and persecution of ethnic Chinese, which ended the reign of the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge.

map of Vietnamese-Chinese border, click to enlarge



The Chinese Army in the Sino Vietnamese War


The Sino-Vietnamese war ( 中越战争in Chinese, Chiến tranh biên giới Việt-Trung in Vietnamese ) was fought between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam from February 17 to March 16, 1979. The PRC launched the offensive in response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia and persecution of ethnic Chinese, which ended the reign of the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge.


Vietnamese soldiers on a destroyed Chinese 8th Army tank

Although the Vietnamese Communists and the Khmer Rouge had previously cooperated, the relationship deteriorated when Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot came to power and established Democratic Kampuchea. The Cambodian regime demanded that certain tracts of land be "returned" to Cambodia, lands that had been "lost" centuries earlier. Unsurprisingly, the Vietnamese refused the demands, and Pol Pot responded by massacring ethnic Vietnamese inside Cambodia (see History of Cambodia), and, by 1978, supporting a Vietnamese guerrilla army making incursions into western Vietnam.


clip from Chinese movie about Sino Vietnamese War

Realizing that Cambodia was being supported by the PRC, Vietnam approached the Soviets about possible actions. The Soviets saw this as a major opportunity. The Vietnamese army, fresh from combat with the US's ground forces, would easily be able to defeat the Cambodian forces. This would not only remove the only major PRC-aligned political force in the area but also demonstrate the benefits of being aligned with the USSR. The Vietnamese were equally excited about the potential outcome. Laos was already a strong ally; if Cambodia could be "turned," Vietnam would emerge as a major regional power, political master of Indochina.

Video overview of the Sino Vietnamese War

The Vietnamese feared reprisals from the PRC. Over a period of several months in 1978, the Soviets made it clear that they were supporting the Vietnamese against Cambodian incursions. They felt this political show of force would keep the Chinese out of any sort of direct confrontation, allowing the Vietnamese and Cambodians to fight out what was to some extent a Sino-Soviet war by proxy.


In late 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. As expected, their experienced and well-equipped troops had little difficulty defeating the Khmer Rouge forces. On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese-backed Cambodian forces seized Phnom Penh, thus ending the Khmer Rouge regime.

Thus, according to the official Chinese view, the racially biased expulsion and persecution of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam (Hoa) within Vietnam that began in the late 1970s was one of the reasons. Persecution began when Vietnamese Chinese were stripped of their Vietnamese citizenship as well as rights to own businesses and hold political positions of any kind. Within the cities, large Chinese-owned businesses were seized by the Vietnamese government and their goods confiscated overnight. Any remaining small businesses were subjected to additional taxation not applicable to ethnic Vietnamese-owned business. The Vietnamese government's rationale regarding these actions was to prevent disruption in services and goods in the event that the ethnic Chinese population in Vietnam chose to sympathize with China if conflict arose between the two countries. Vietnamese Chinese living near the China-Vietnam border were simply forced back into Chinese territory.

The second and more official reason for the Chinese incursion into Vietnamese territory was Vietnam's intrusion onto the Spratly Islands chain; claimed by China as her territory. Vietnamese Navy vessels would move into the area, then fire at Chinese fishermen if they were found operating in the area. Military establishments were also built in the face of official protest by the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China. These Vietnamese actions were viewed by the Chinese Government as provocative and aggressive.

The third reason was the ongoing issue of the artillery harassment of frontier villages and agricultural assets on the Chinese side by the Vietnamese army. Farmlands could not be cultivated due to risk from explosions, created by Vietnamese artillery impacts. This affected the local economy and decreased productivity. Subsequently, this led to dissent amongst the local population regarding the Chinese government's inaction. As a result, this further raised cross-border tensions and escalated the situation.

On February 15, 1979 the PRC publicly announced their intention to strike back the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Few observers realized the symbolic importance of this date. In an attempt to disrupt Vietnam, PRC snipers killed Vietnamese along the Chinese-Vietnam border. It marked the expiration of the 30 year-old 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, and thus the first time that the PRC could strike back a Soviet ally without breaking their own treaties. The reason cited for the counterstrike was the supposed mistreatment of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands (claimed by the PRC).

Chinese forces


Two days later, on February 17, a PRC force of about 85,000 supported by 200 tanks from the PRC People's Liberation Army entered northern Vietnam. The Chinese force consisted of units from the Kunming Military Region—later abolished—and the Guangzhou Military Region. Troops from both military regions had been assigned to assist Vietnam in its struggle against the United States just a few years earlier during the Vietnam War. Contrary to the belief that over 200,000 Chinese troops entered Vietnam, the actual number was only 85,000. However, 200,000 Chinese troops were mobilized, of which 100,000 were deployed away from their original bases. Around 400 tanks were also deployed.


Chinese female fighters and entertaing the troops

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The Chinese troop deployments were observed by US spy satellites, and the KH-9 Big Bird photographic reconnaissance satellite played an important role. In his state visit to the US in 1979, the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was presented with this information and asked to confirm the numbers. He replied that the information was completely accurate. After this public confirmation in the U.S., the domestic Chinese media were finally allowed to report on these deployments.

Vietnamese soldiers with RPGs

Vietnamese forces

Many of Vietnam's elite troops were in Cambodia keeping a tight grip on its newly occupied territory. The Vietnamese government claimed they left only a force of about 70,000 including several army regular divisions and divisions of the Public Security Army (the Vietnamese equivalent of KGB border guards) in its northern area.

However, the Chinese encountered twice this number of Vietnamese forces as regular troops were augmented by an additional large force of militias that outnumbered the regular force. This concept of using local militias to fight the enemy has been a staple of Vietnamese defense strategy since antiquity. The PLA managed to advance about forty kilometers into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lao Cai and Lang Son. On March 6, the Chinese occupied the city of Lang Son. They claimed the gate to Hanoi was open, declared their punitive mission achieved, and withdrew quickly. Their strategic aim of changing the situation in Cambodia was not met.

captured Chinese soldiers

Chinese casualties

To this day, both sides of the conflict describe themselves as the victor. The number of casualties is disputed, with some Western sources claim PLA losses at more than 60,000 casualties, including about 26,000 killed

captured Vietnamese soldiers


There were many reasons why it could be argued that the war was a disaster for the Chinese armed forces. First, the Chinese military was using equipment and tactics from the era of the Long March, World War II and the Korean war, which meant for example, that only Chinese officers carried assault rifles, while the Vietnamese had more modern Soviet (and U.S.) equipment, combined with assault rifles for every soldier. Second, under Deng's order, China did not use their naval power and air force to suppress enemy fire, neutralize strong points, and support their ground forces Therefore, the Chinese ground forces were forced into absorbing the full impact of the Vietnamese forces' firepower. Third, the PLA lacked adequate communications, transport, and logistics. Further, they were burdened with an elaborate and archaic command structure which proved inefficient in the FEBA (Forward Edge of Battle Area). Their maps were 75 years old. Runners were employed to relay orders because there were few radios—those that they did have were not secure. Fourth, China was one of the only two countries in the world at the time that lacked the military rank system (the other being Albania), and thus commands were not effective. Fifth, the Cultural Revolution had significantly weakened Chinese industry, and military hardware produced suffered from poor quality, and thus did not perform well. Finally, the Chinese struck back at an enemy that was highly trained, experienced, and confident due to successive victories in wars with France, the U.S., and Cambodia.


Chinese Sino-Vietnamese memorial

The legacy of the war is lasting, especially in Vietnam. The Chinese implemented an effective "scorched-earth policy" while retreating back to China. They caused extensive damage to the Vietnamese countryside and infrastructure, through destruction of Vietnamese villages, roads, and railroads.

Border skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s, including a significant skirmish in April of 1984; this saw the first use of the Type 81 Assault Rifle by the Chinese. In 1999, after many years of negotiations, China and Vietnam signed a border pact, though the line of demarcation remained secret.] There was a very slight adjustment of the land border at this time, resulting in land being given back to China. Vietnam's official news service reported the actual implementation of the new border around August 2001.

the Friendship Gate between China and Vietnam

The war also resulted in the discrimination and consequent migration of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese. Many of these people fled as "boat people" who eventually resettled in Asian communities in Australia, Europe, North America, and back to China.

The Vietnamese government continuously requested an official apology from the Chinese government for its invasion of Vietnam, but the Chinese government has never apologized. After the normalization of relations between the two countries, Vietnam officially dropped its demand for an apology.

A catalyst to improved relations between the two communist countries was the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, at which point Vietnam showed strong support for the Chinese measures, despite the fact that many Chinese officers who had served in the Sino-Vietnamese War were active in suppressing the protest movement. Borders remained militarized, however.

The December 2007 announcement of a plan to build a Hanoi-Kunming highway was a landmark in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The road will traverse the border that once served as a battleground. It should contribute to demilitarizing the border region, as well as facilitating trade and industrial cooperation between the nations.


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