Sino-Vietnamese War (1979): What was the end results of it ?

Viktor Jav

Senior Member
Registered Member
Following Terran's thread regarding the Korean War that can be viewed from this link (Korean War 70 years later Win Lose and A draw) . I feel that it is interesting to look back at another conflict and judge it in roughly a similar way.

The topic would be the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, aka the Third Indochina war. I will call it the S-V War for short. 2020 would mark the 41st anniversary of the conflict.

To give a brief background on the war, if you look up a textbook example regarding "pointless wars" the SV-War would be a perfect candidate, alongside the War of 1812. The end game of the conflict was never truly defined by China beyond Deng's quote of " "The little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked." (original Chinese words: 小朋友不听话,该打打屁股了。)
Ostensibly the war was launched in response to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia that was ruled by Chinese friendly Pol Pot at the time, though how the war would have helped reverse Chinese fortunes in Cambodia was never truly discussed.

For Vietnam the goal was very simple, repulsing the Chinese invasion.

The war started on the 17th of February 1979 and ended on the 16th of March 1979, both sides fielded huge armies with accordingly huge number of hardware and equipment. For a war that lasted just shy of 4 weeks the casualties was surprisingly horrendous. US estimated that both sides sustained almost 30,000 deaths and nearly 40,000 wounded each. And for such losses the gains were pitiful in return, apart from some extremely small territorial gains by China that was returned later in the 1990s, the border between the two countries were practically unchanged.

The immediate results of the war were mixed as both sides claimed victory based on differing standards .While the war did not restore Khmer Rouge rule to Cambodia, China was able to demonstrate that the USSR was unable to protect it's allies in extremely remote areas, Vietnam at that time was allied with the USSR that in turn was antagonistic to China. While the USSR did prove logistic, intelligence and training assistance to Vietnam it did not openly support it, of course China did assuage the USSR by stating that the war would be a limited one and did not use it's navy in the conflict and the PLAAF only provided limited support during the war.

The long term results of the war however are most substantial. While alot of military experts would say that it was during the first Gulf War that China realize the inadequacies of it's military, in my opinion however it should be the SV-War that deserves that credit. It was the first conflict China was involved in after the Cultural Revolution, and the PLA faced off against veteran VPA soldiers who had fought both the US-Vietnam war and the Cambodian-Vietnam war non-stop for decades. It was literally a rerun of the Korean War only that China found itself on the south side of the Yalu River so to say.

It was the SV-War that planted the first seeds of China's military modernization which during the 1980s saw the importation of numerous western systems. The Gulf War if anything mere drive home the importance of the reforms.

This is what I see from the SV-War. On the side note, one of the few lucky things that happen for China in this is how little effect the war had on Vietnam-Sino relationship in the future. That such a bloody war did not result in heighten enmity from Vietnam is truly a stroke of luck.
 
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Gatekeeper

Senior Member
Registered Member
This is not the right time or place to start this thread. It will only end one way, and is not going to end well!
 

solarz

Brigadier
Following Terran's thread regarding the Korean War that can be viewed from this link (Korean War 70 years later Win Lose and A draw) . I feel that it is interesting to look back at another conflict and judge it in roughly a similar way.

The topic would be the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, aka the Third Indochina war. I will call it the S-V War for short. 2020 would mark the 41st anniversary of the conflict.

To give a brief background on the war, if you look up a textbook example regarding "pointless wars" the SV-War would be a perfect candidate, alongside the War of 1812. The end game of the conflict was never truly defined by China beyond Deng's quote of " "The little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked." (original Chinese words: 小朋友不听话,该打打屁股了。)
Ostensibly the war was launched in response to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia that was ruled by Chinese friendly Pol Pot at the time, though how the war would have helped reverse Chinese fortunes in Cambodia was never truly discussed.

For Vietnam the goal was very simple, repulsing the Chinese invasion.

The war started on the 17th of February 1979 and ended on the 16th of March 1979, both sides fielded huge armies with accordingly huge number of hardware and equipment. For a war that lasted just shy of 4 weeks the casualties was surprisingly horrendous. US estimated that both sides sustained almost 30,000 deaths and nearly 40,000 wounded each. And for such losses the gains were pitiful in return, apart from some extremely small territorial gains by China that was returned later in the 1990s, the border between the two countries were practically unchanged.

The immediate results of the war were mixed as both sides claimed victory based on differing standards .While the war did not restore Khmer Rouge rule to Cambodia, China was able to demonstrate that the USSR was unable to protect it's allies in extremely remote areas, Vietnam at that time was allied with the USSR that in turn was antagonistic to China. While the USSR did prove logistic, intelligence and training assistance to Vietnam it did not openly support it, of course China did assuage the USSR by stating that the war would be a limited one and did not use it's navy in the conflict and the PLAAF only provided limited support during the war.

The long term results of the war however are most substantial. While alot of military experts would say that it was during the first Gulf War that China realize the inadequacies of it's military, in my opinion however it should be the SV-War that deserves that credit. It was the first conflict China was involved in after the Cultural Revolution, and the PLA faced off against veteran VPA soldiers who had fought both the US-Vietnam war and the Cambodian-Vietnam war non-stop for decades. It was literally a rerun of the Korean War only that China found itself on the south side of the Yalu River so to say.

It was the SV-War that planted the first seeds of China's military modernization which during the 1980s saw the importation of numerous western systems. The Gulf War if anything mere drive home the importance of the reforms.

This is what I see from the SV-War. On the side note, one of the few lucky things that happen for China in this is how little effect the war had on Vietnam-Sino relationship in the future. That such a bloody war did not result in heighten enmity from Vietnam is truly a stroke of luck.
You last sentence is exactly where you are mistaken.

The Sino-Vietnam War of 1979 paved the way for lasting peace between China and Vietnam.

Your view of this war is heavily influenced by the Western narrative, which seeks to downplay Chinese gains and exaggerate Chinese losses.

The truth is Chinese losses were ~8000 deaths and ~20,000 wounded, far below the 30,000 deaths and 40,000 wounded given by Western estimates.

Furthermore, Cambodia was only one issue leading to the war. The other issue was Vietnamese harassment of Chinese borders, including the commission of war crimes such as massacring a hospital.

If you want to understand this war, you need to look at the regional political situation at the end of the US-Vietnam war. The North Vietnamese were freshly victorious from their civil war, having defeated the world's number 1 superpower, and flush with battle-hardened veterans and modern soviet equipment. They quickly began to cast their ambitions on the surrounding countries.

The invasion of Cambodia was the catalyst that prompted China to take action. China had already been engaged in skirmishes with Vietnam along their borders, and the invasion of Cambodia was proof that Vietnam was beginning a campaign of expansion. Therefore, Deng made the decision to conduct a punitive strike against Vietnam in order to nip their ambitions in the bud.

There's a lot of misinformation in western media about the Chinese performance in this war. While it is true that lack of training (mostly green recruits) and logistic difficulties resulted in heavy casualties for the PLA (again, nowhere near Western propaganda), the Vietnamese forces were crushed. All of the PLA fronts achieved their objectives on schedule despite heavy resistance. The Vietnamese like to claim that they didn't use their regular forces against China, but the truth is they knew their regular forces didn't stand a chance either, and was throwing their militia into the meat grinder in the hope of delaying PLA advance long enough to prompt a Soviet intervention.

The Soviet intervention, of course, never came. The PLA had stationed their most elite units on the Soviet border to deter any notion of military intervention from the USSR. Shortly after capturing Lang Son, China announced a unilateral ceasefire and began withdrawing.

Once again, the Western narrative completely fails to understand the Chinese intentions. From the very outset of the war, China had announced that it was not interested in a single inch of Vietnamese territory. The capture of Lang Son was highly strategic, as the difficult terrain so far had prevented Chinese armor from being effective. With the capture of Lang Son, however, Chinese armor now had an open road to Hanoi, and Chinese commanders knew this sent an effective message to their Vietnamese counterparts. This is a combat philosophy known as "点到即止", meaning you stop your attack when your opponent's defense fails. This is used when you do not want to humiliate your opponent.

China is not interested in conquering Vietnam, it just wants a peaceful border to build their economy. The war of 1979 follows that objective. Of course, real life being rather messy, it took Vietnam another few years of heavy skirmishes along the border to finally accept the fact that it cannot challenge China. When this acceptance finally came, however, the peace that resulted has been long lasting.

It was never a matter of luck.
 

PiSigma

"the engineer"
One of the biggest changes to the PLA was the creation and rotation of special operation troops due to this war. Before this, there were only reconnaissance troops, and they were considered the elite. During the beginning of war, PLA suffered heavy casualties from a lot of raids by the Vietnamese from their more experienced " spec ops". To counter it, recon troops across the country was assembled within the first month and send in. These guys were then rotated back every month to train new techniques and experiences. This is what started the Chinese special operation groups. The result is basically a complete stop to raiding by the Vietnamese after a couple of months.

There were also couple of Vietnamese elite divisions in the north that got wiped off, don't remember their numbers
 

plawolf

Brigadier
My recollection of readings on the subject are somewhat fuzzy, but iirc, the effectiveness of Chinese artillery was a major bright spot from the war for the PLA.

The Vietnamese were used to dealing with American air power, which while were precise and rapid in response, did not have the sheer scale and staying power of PLA massed creeping artillery barrages.

American air power was largely neutered due to their inability to effectively locate and target Vietnamese forces in dense jungle cover; PLA crawling artillery barrages just didn’t care and methodically obliterated everything in its path, with infantry following close behind to mop up what was left.

The Vietnamese, who’s focus against the Americans relied overwhelmingly on light infantry tactics, and who had comparatively few heavy artillery pieces and armour, didn’t really have much in the way of a hard counter to Chinese artillery other than raids. But PLA numbers on the ground made raids against rear echelon artillery very difficult and costly for the Vietnamese.

Another under reported factor in favour of the PLA was that China sent a lot of advisors and volunteers across the boarder during the war against the Americans, so had pretty good intel on Vietnamese facilities and logistics networks, especially in the regions closest to China.
 

Jura

General
that war was the first one I kind of followed -- I was seven years old at that time and watched TV news in then-Communistic Czechoslovakia -- I was a Spark, LOL how do I explain, a young member of
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I liked crayons and coloring pages with the Aurora etc., but I couldn't understand how it was possible for two socialistic countries to fight each other; I still recall a name from TV news: Lang Son but I don't what that is, I assume an area of heavy fights

OK using wiki now:
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PiSigma

"the engineer"
that war was the first one I kind of followed -- I was seven years old at that time and watched TV news in then-Communistic Czechoslovakia -- I was a Spark, LOL how do I explain, a young member of
Please, Log in or Register to view URLs content!
I liked crayons and coloring pages with the Aurora etc., but I couldn't understand how it was possible for two socialistic countries to fight each other; I still recall a name from TV news: Lang Son but I don't what that is, I assume an area of heavy fights

OK using wiki now:
Please, Log in or Register to view URLs content!
Sounds like Soviet propaganda that two communist countries can't fight each other... Just like American propaganda that two democracies or two countries with McDonald's can't fight a war against each other.

All been proven wrong.
Cambodia and Vietnam and China are all communist at the time.
And US invades all kind of democracies.
 

PiSigma

"the engineer"
Another under reported factor in favour of the PLA was that China sent a lot of advisors and volunteers across the boarder during the war against the Americans, so had pretty good intel on Vietnamese facilities and logistics networks, especially in the regions closest to China.
A lot of the organization of the Vietnamese army is based on the PLA. Also a lot of the viet officer corp went to Chinese military academies
 

vesicles

Major
To give a brief background on the war, if you look up a textbook example regarding "pointless wars" the SV-War would be a perfect candidate, alongside the War of 1812. The end game of the conflict was never truly defined by China beyond Deng's quote of " "The little child is getting naughty, it's time he get spanked." (original Chinese words: 小朋友不听话,该打打屁股了。)
Ostensibly the war was launched in response to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia that was ruled by Chinese friendly Pol Pot at the time, though how the war would have helped reverse Chinese fortunes in Cambodia was never truly discussed.
I don't think the Sino-Vietnam War was "pointless" at all. If you look at how the Chinese CCP and the PLA have treated all potential "flash points" along their wide borders, you will see that they are typically very restrained. China has border issues with many of their neighboring countries. They have relied mostly on peaceful diplomatic means to solve their border issues. In fact, Sino-Vietnam War was the only all-out war that the PLA has conducted outside of China's border, ever (the 1962 Sino-India border conflict was small and limited in scale). You can tell that the Chinese don't take wars lightly and don't just start attacking people on a whim. As such, China must have viewed this war as absolutely necessary, domestically and internationally. Domestically, Deng needed to mobilize the PLA to cement his command of the entire military forces. Internationally, The Soviets were gaining foothold all around China when Vietnam was becoming a strong ally of the Soviets and China needed to break the lock. China also needed to demonstrate to their own allies, in this case Cambodia, that they would not abandon their allies. To China, the CCP and Deng himself at the time, these were compelling motivations for them to "teach their little friend a lesson". Others may not agree with China's decision at the time. However, one should not simply assume that the Chinese made their decision on a whim and decided to do something pointless.
 

Viktor Jav

Senior Member
Registered Member
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I don't think the Sino-Vietnam War was "pointless" at all. If you look at how the Chinese CCP and the PLA have treated all potential "flash points" along their wide borders, you will see that they are typically very restrained. China has border issues with many of their neighboring countries. They have relied mostly on peaceful diplomatic means to solve their border issues. In fact, Sino-Vietnam War was the only all-out war that the PLA has conducted outside of China's border, ever (the 1962 Sino-India border conflict was small and limited in scale). You can tell that the Chinese don't take wars lightly and don't just start attacking people on a whim. As such, China must have viewed this war as absolutely necessary, domestically and internationally. Domestically, Deng needed to mobilize the PLA to cement his command of the entire military forces. Internationally, The Soviets were gaining foothold all around China when Vietnam was becoming a strong ally of the Soviets and China needed to break the lock. China also needed to demonstrate to their own allies, in this case Cambodia, that they would not abandon their allies. To China, the CCP and Deng himself at the time, these were compelling motivations for them to "teach their little friend a lesson". Others may not agree with China's decision at the time. However, one should not simply assume that the Chinese made their decision on a whim and decided to do something pointless.
However in this case, China friendly Cambodia fall anyway regardless of the results war. And Vietnam remained an ally of the USSR, and the Cam Ranh Bay lease to the USSR can also attributed to increased relationship between the 2 countries. More importantly China assured the USSR that the war will be a limited one, Vietnam was not informed of that to be sure but that is another issue entirely.

Of course hindsight is always 20/20 in regards to history.Perhaps Deng really was serious regarding the conduct of the war initially but balked at costs in the end. I will say that if China did not take this war lightly it would have made more concrete gains regardless of casualties.
 
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