The Sino-Vietnamese War starts.
On February 17, 1979, troops from the People’s Republic of China attacked the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in what became known as the Sino-Vietnamese War. Although for many years China and the regime in Hanoi had been allies, “as close as lips and teeth,” this “marriage of convenience” slowly began to fall apart beginning in the 1970s when China was unable to match the Soviet Union in military support to Hanoi.
Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia directly threatened Chinese interests in the region. China could not sit idly by while the Vietnamese had their way in Cambodia. Beijing sent several thinly veiled warnings to Hanoi, but Vietnamese officials responded by agreeing to discuss long-standing “border/ territorial issues” only, refusing to address the presence of Vietnamese troops in Cambodia, which was the main point of contention in the escalating tensions between the two countries.
The invasion of Cambodia and the ouster of the pro-Beijing Pol Pot regime ultimately proved to be the final straw for China, which condemned the invasion of Cambodia and the installation of Heng Samrin as “Vietnamese hegemonism abetted by Soviet social-imperialism.” The growing antipathy between China and Vietnam was further exacerbated by what China saw as persecution of 200,000 ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. There was some truth to this charge; Vietnamese Chinese were stripped of their citizenship and forfeited their rights to own businesses and hold public office. This only added to the rapidly worsening situation. Several Chinese officials were quoted as saying that China was probably going to have to “teach Vietnam a lesson.”
On February 15, 1979, Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping publicly announced China’s intention to strike back at the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. At dawn on the morning of February 17, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army launched a “punitive” expedition against Vietnam, attacking at numerous points along the 480-mile Sino-Vietnamese border after a massive artillery and rocket barrage.
The overall commander of the PLA forces was General Xu Shiyou, a member of the Politburo and a longtime supporter of Deng Xiaoping. Xu’s deputy, General Yang Dezhi, was in tactical control of the operations. Yang also had been the deputy commander of Chinese troops during the Korean War, during which he had developed the tactics of infiltration and envelopment followed by mass attacks. Yang was chosen to take tactical control due to the similarity of the terrain in northern Vietnam to that in Korea.
Once the attack was joined in earnest, Beijing, concerned about Soviet reaction to the invasion, issued statements to deter Soviet intervention, justifying the action by claiming that it was in response to repeated violations of Chinese territory by Vietnamese troops. Furthermore, Beijing announced that Chinese troops would stay in Vietnam only for a short while and that talks should be initiated to resolve the border conflict as soon as possible.
In response to the Chinese attack across the border, the Soviets sent several naval vessels to Vietnamese waters and initiated a Soviet arms lift to Vietnam. The Soviet military attaché in Hanoi threatened that the USSR would “carry out its obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty,” but Moscow made it clear to Beijing that it would not intervene as long as the conflict remained localized along the common border between China and Vietnam.
The Chinese appear to have had several reasons for launching the attack. First, China wanted to punish Vietnam for the invasion of Cambodia and the toppling of the Pol Pot regime. They hoped that their massive attack would force Vietnam to withdraw troops from Cambodia and thereby remove the pressure on Pol Pot’s forces there. Second, the invasion was designed to deter extension of Vietnamese power across the border into China. Whether this threat was real or not was irrelevant; the Chinese made several statements reiterating their claims that there had been Vietnamese incursions into Chinese territory and that China would defend its territory and people from any Vietnamese aggression. Third, China was concerned about increasing Soviet influence and power in Southeast Asia. By attacking Moscow’s key ally in the area, Beijing could cast doubt on the extent of Soviet power in the region and thus avoid a direct threat to China while dealing a blow to Soviet prestige.
The invading force included 11 Chinese armies of regular ground troops and militia from the Kunming, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Guangzhou military regions. It is thought that troops from Fuzhou and Jinan military regions also participated; if this is true, it means that troops from six of China’s 11 military regions were involved in the campaign. Estimates of the total number of Chinese troops committed range from 200,000 to 450,000. The attacking forces included about 200 tanks and massive amounts of supporting artillery.
After the initial broad thrust across the border, the Chinese attack focused on three objectives: Lang Son, Cao Bang and Lao Cai. Arrayed against the attacking Chinese forces were about 15 Vietnamese combat regiments controlled by four regular divisions – a total force of about 50,000 augmented by local militia and border guards. Most estimates put the total number of Vietnamese defenders at around 130,000.
The initial Chinese plan was to forge a shallow penetration all along the front, hoping to draw into battle and destroy the regular Vietnamese divisions, which the Chinese felt would be compelled to react to protect the provincial capitals and important communication centers that were threatened by the advance. This would result in major battles of attrition in which Chinese forces would inflict heavy punishment on the Vietnamese defenders.
The main Chinese attack appeared to be against Lang Son, a provincial capital on the hills overlooking the Red River Delta, which lay only about 150 kilometers from Hanoi. The Chinese began their assault against Lang Son with an artillery barrage. After the barrage lifted, Chinese 55th Army attacked to seize Dong Dang and was to continue the attack toward Lang Son. At the same time, Chinese 43d Army initially focused on the Vietnamese positions in the hills around Chi Ma, and after taking the town was to turn northwest to secure its ultimate objective, Lang Son. For the attack on Lang Son, Chinese 54th Army was in reserve, following 55th Army. The plan called for 43d and 55th armies to link up southwest of Lang Son, effectively isolating Vietnamese 3d Division there, where it could be destroyed or forced to surrender.
The Chinese had hoped to fight “battles of quick decision,” but their attacks were conducted in a slow and deliberate manner, normally involving massive frontal attacks that relied upon the weight of numbers and firepower to defeat the Vietnamese defenders. The Chinese also used tanks, which surprised the Vietnamese given the hilly nature of the terrain in the area, but the tanks proved useful in bunker busting.
Chinese 43d Army achieved some success, but 55th Army’s attack was slowed by stiff resistance that employed spoiling attacks, minefields and heavy artillery to disrupt and disorganize the Chinese advance. The terrain favored the Vietnamese defenders, and they occupied hills from which they could place devastating plunging fire on the attackers. Against this resistance, the Chinese were unable to maintain sufficient operational tempo to overcome the Vietnamese. Ultimately, Chinese 54th Army had to be committed to the fight. The reinforcements made the difference, but even so, the battle for Lang Son was not over until March 5.
On the Cao Bang front, the attack began on February 17 with Chinese 41st and 42d armies attacking on two separate axes of advance toward the town. These forces would be supported by elements of 12th, 20th and 50th armies. The force allocated to this front numbered around 200,000 troops.
Chinese 41st Army was to cross the border and attack Cao Bang from the north, while 42d Army was to attack it from the southeast. As on the Lang Son front, the Chinese advances were slow and deliberate against stiff Vietnamese resistance. Chinese 42d Army made some progress, but the cost was high; in one engagement, the Vietnamese knocked out a number of Chinese tanks. As at Lang Son, the terrain favored the greatly outnumbered Vietnamese defenders, and they made the Chinese pay for every inch they advanced. Eventually, the sheer numbers of Chinese troops prevailed and Cao Bang fell on February 25. Heavy fighting continued on the Cao Bang front for the next five days, but on March 3, Chinese forces from the Cao Bang and Lang Son fronts linked up at Duet Long, on Highway 4, effectively closing the gap between the two Chinese thrusts.
On the Lao Cai front, the Chinese had attacked with elements of three armies, more than 125,000 troops. Chinese 11th Army attacked across the border from the northwest to seize the town of Phong Tho, about 65 kilometers from Lao Cai, to prevent reinforcement from the west. At the same time, 13th and 14th armies attacked south to seize Lao Cai itself. The Vietnamese defenders in this area included six regiments, totaling about 20,000 troops. As on the other fronts, the out numbered Vietnamese troops put up a stiff defense; after five days, the Chinese had advanced only a few kilometers. The Chinese employed human wave attacks to overcome the Vietnamese positions, but the battle continued until March 5 when Lao Cai fell to the attackers.
While the main Chinese thrusts focused on Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Lang Son, several supporting attacks were conducted elsewhere along the China-Vietnam border. Many of these attacks resembled the larger Chinese operations. For example, in Quang Ninh, on the eastern edge of the border, a platoon of Vietnamese held up an attack on Cao Ba Lanh Mountain for five hours, inflicting 360 casualties on the attacking Chinese force that numbered over 2,800 men.
The day after the Chinese captured Lang Son, Beijing declared that the gate to Hanoi was open; that the Vietnamese had been sufficiently chastised; and announced that it was withdrawing its forces. By March 16, all Chinese forces had crossed the border back into China, blowing bridges and railroads and generally laying waste to the Vietnamese countryside along the way.