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Sino-Vietnamese War

Years: 1978-1988
Battle deaths: 47,046 [1]

Nation(s) involved and/or conflict territory [note]
Vietnam, China

Published prior to 2013 | Altered: 2014-08-10 17:10:31
The Sino-Vietnamese War was a war fought in 1979 between the neighboring countries of the People’s Republic of China and Vietnam. After a brief incursion into northern Vietnam, Chinese troops withdrew less than a month later, and both sides claimed victory.

Sino-Soviet Split

During the initial stages of the Vietnam War with France, communist China and Vietnam had close ties, with both having a mutual distrust of the former French rulers of Vietnam. During the conflict both the Chinese and the Soviet Union were supplying Vietnam; partners against the common colonialist enemy.

With the death of Stalin, the situation changed. Mao Zedong despised Nikita Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor, and criticised the Soviet Union’s interpretation of Communism. This led to increasingly hostile relations, and eventually the Sino-Soviet Split. From this period on Vietnam aligned with the Soviet Union, who continued to supply what was now North Vietnam during their war against the South, and their US, French, and Australian supporters.

The Soviets welcomed this change, and saw Vietnam as a way to demonstrate themselves as the "real power" behind communism in the entire far east. In this respect the United States government’s fear of the domino effect may have been justified to some extent, as the Soviets were attempting to turn countries towards them. The problem with the US interpretation is that what they saw as a unified and growing chain of communist expansion was in fact motivated at least as much by Soviet interest in isolating China.

To China the Soviet-Vietnamese relationship was a worrying development. China and Vietnam had long been at conflict in the past, and it seemed all too easy for the Soviets to cause the Vietnamese to align against them. This was particularly worrying given the possibility of a combined war with a powerful Vietnam in the south and the USSR in the north.

China’s response was two-fold: for one they started talks with the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in high level meetings with Henry Kissinger and later Richard Nixon. These contributed to a Chinese shift toward the American camp. Meanwhile, they also set up their own supported state in Cambodia under the control of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. China supported Cambodia partly for ideological reasons (the Khmer Rouge’s philosophy was a variant of Maoism), and partly to keep Vietnam "boxed in" between China in the north and Cambodia in the west.

The relative success of the two neighboring states would have a powerful effect on opinions of China and USSR in the area: After the collapse of the Saigon government in 1975, Vietnam stabilized, and even prospered to some degree, while Cambodia descended into genocidal chaos.


Although the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge had once cooperated, the relationship deteriorated when Pol Pot’s faction came to power. The Cambodian regime started to demand 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.

Realizing that Cambodia was being supported by China, 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 be able to easily defeat the Cambodian forces. This would not only remove the only major Chinese-aligned political force in the area, but at the same time 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 superpower, political master of the majority of Southeast Asia.

Of course the Chinese would not be terribly happy with this course of events, and their possible counteractions had to be considered. 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 invaded Cambodia. As expected, their experienced and well equipped troops had little difficulty brushing the PRK’s forces aside. On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese-backed Cambodian forces seized Phnom Penh, ending the Khmer Rouge regime.

The war

Unknown to the USSR, China was growing increasingly defiant. They felt that there was simply no way the USSR could directly support Vietnam against the Chinese; the distances were too great to be effective, and any sort of reinforcement would have to cross territory controlled by the Chinese or US allies. The only realistic option open to them would be indirect, re-starting the simmering border war in northern China. Vietnam was important to Soviet policy, but they felt it was not important enough to go to war over.

On February 15th, China publicly announced their intention to invade. Few observers realized the symbolic importance of this date; it marked the expiry of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, and thus the first time that China could "legally" invade a Soviet ally without breaking their own treaties. The reason cited for the invasion was the supposed mistreatment of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands (claimed by China).

Two days later on February 17, around 120,000 troops of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army crossed into northern Vietnam. Most of the Vietnamese regular units had been placed to the south in order to protect the major populated centers, leaving a force of about 100,000 militia in the area. The Chinese managed to advance about thirty kilometres into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bang, Lao Cai, and Lang Son. On March 6 the Chinese declared the punitive mission over, and began withdrawing their forces. By March 16th they were all out of the country.

There is debate as to whether the Chinese withdrew entirely of their own volition or whether they were forced to withdraw by Vietnamese defenders — both sides of the conflict described themselves as the victor. The number of casualties is disputed, but one source estimates that the Chinese suffered 60,000 casualties and 20,000 deaths. The same source says that the Vietnamese lost an equal number of troops and about 10,000 civilians. Given the types of troops doing the fighting on both sides, the Chinese casualties appear shockingly high.

There is also debate about who "won" the war in the political sense. The answer most likely depends on what one believes each side’s objectives to have been. If China’s aim was to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia, it failed — while a certain number of troops were pulled out of Cambodia to fight the Chinese, Cambodia remained under Vietnamese military occupation for some time. Similarly, the border disputes between China and Vietnam were not settled. If, however, China’s goals were entirely punitive, the war may have been more successful. There are also claims that China was seeking to test the resolve of the Soviet Union, which had pledged to defend Vietnam — if so, this alliance may have been proven hollow, as the Soviet Union provided no direct assistance to Vietnam in the conflict. It may be argued, however, that no assistance was needed.


The legacy of the war is lasting, especially in Vietnam. Today Vietnam maintains one of the world’s largest armies, which some attribute almost entirely to fear of China. Occasional skirmishes continued over the border during the 1980s, with over a thousand people being killed in them. Relations between the two neighbours were only improved in the early 1990s.

The war also caused a forced migration of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese, who were discriminated against. They fled as "boat people" and were resettled in several Chinatowns and in other Asian communities in Australia, Europe, and North America.

In the People’s Republic of China, the war has largely been forgotten. It is rarely mentioned in official circles and most history textbooks do not give it much notice.

Source: Wikipedia | Wikipedia Article | Published under the GNU Free Licence


Data Sources

[1] Battle deaths: PRIO Battle Deaths Dataset v3.0 (link) (1946-88) ID: #138
Low: 31,296 High: 64,695

More about sources


NOTE! Nation data for this war may be inconlusive or incomplete. In most cases it reflects which nations were involved with troops in this war, but in some it may instead reflect the contested territory.


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