A sudden breakthrough in U.S.-China relations occurred at the end of 1978. Deng Xiaoping’s unspoken alliance with America was widely viewed as a public relations triumph. However, it was not without its misunderstandings and its occasional abrasive moments. One of the repercussion of the breakthrough included China’s attempt to teach Vietnam a lesson.
Deng’s Unspoken Alliance
The most unsettling moment in Deng’s January 1979 US visit happened toward the end of the trip when he informed the White House of his solemn intention to punish Vietnam for its Christmas Day invasion of Cambodia. President Jimmy Carter was clearly taken aback, and he argued strongly against Chinese military action.
However, Carter, too, wanted to teach the Vietnamese (and their Soviet patrons) about the perils of invading other countries. And so, having gone on record as opposing China’s plan, Carter decided to let the Chinese do what they felt they needed to do.
Within weeks of his return to Beijing, Deng launched a large-scale “punitive counterattack” against Vietnam. Although the State Department formally protested the Chinese action, the U.S. government basically sat on its hands. The fact that the United States did nothing to prevent or punish the Chinese invasion spoke volumes about shifting strategic priorities and interests in East Asia.
China and the United States had become unspoken allies in resisting aggression by the Soviet Union and aggression of Soviet client states. Although the new partners were, in many respects, a rather odd couple, their mutual distrust of the Soviet Union kept them locked in a strategic embrace that would last for well over a decade until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Unpredicted Resistance to Deng’s Plan
Deng’s original plan for invading Vietnam had been to launch a sudden, massive attack across a broad swath of the Sino-Vietnamese border, penetrating a few dozen miles into enemy territory. There they thought to seize and hold a few small cities and towns to demonstrate China’s military superiority and determination to punish Vietnamese aggression.
Once Hanoi’s leaders had absorbed these lessons, the Chinese had planned on retreating across their border, having accomplished their mission.
But in this instance, the Vietnamese refused to play the role that Deng had assigned to them. Instead of being overwhelmed with “shock and awe” at the initial Chinese assault (which involved 80,000 PLA infantrymen, 200 tanks, and another 200,000 reinforcements held in ready reserve), the well-armed and battle-tested Vietnamese troops gave the invaders more than they could handle.
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Shooting Down Friendly Planes
Right from the start, Chinese troops became bogged down in the dense jungle terrain south of the Vietnamese border, and they suffered heavy casualties in the initial assault. Moreover, the PLA’s field maps turned out to be badly outdated, many of them dating back to World War I.
Making matters even worse, when Chinese fighter jets flew in to provide close air cover for their advancing infantry troops, several of the planes were shot down—by friendly fire. So thick was the “fog of war”—and the resulting confusion—that Chinese pilots refused to fly anywhere near their own troops.
After more than three weeks of bloody ground combat, the Chinese forces finally managed to take one of their key objectives, the city of Lang Son. After putting the city’s defenders to flight, they briefly celebrated their success and then abruptly turned around and headed for home. But the Vietnamese blocked their escape routes, inflicting heavy losses on the withdrawing Chinese soldiers.
In the end, it took the PLA almost three weeks—and thousands of additional casualties—to fight their way back across the border. By that time, the Chinese had an estimated 26,000 dead and another 35,000 or more wounded. Casualties were also high on the Vietnamese side, including at least 10 thousand killed civilians.
As the surviving Chinese troops struggled to get home, Beijing’s propagandists painted a happy face on a bleak situation. Declaring victory, the Chinese government claimed that the punitive campaign had been a resounding success.
But few people were fooled, least of all the Vietnamese. Not only had the mighty People’s Liberation Army been fought to a standstill by the smaller, more mobile Vietnamese units, but Vietnam’s army remained very much in control of neighboring Cambodia.
When it came to summing up the lessons learned from China’s Vietnam war, then, the most apparent lesson of all was that Deng Xiaoping had suffered his first significant setback as China’s new commander in chief.
Learn more about Deng’s triumphal visit to the United States in 1979.
Upgraded Version of People’s War
In the aftermath of the botched Vietnam campaign, Deng was furious. He unleashed a barrage of criticism at the PLA general staff, and he resolved to thoroughly shake up the army and upgrade its fighting capacity.
True to his word, over the next two years, hundreds of superannuated PLA generals—some of them having served before the Long March—were forced into retirement. The army’s budget was also severely slashed, and hundreds of thousands of poorly-trained, undisciplined peasant conscripts were demobilized and sent home.
Perhaps most importantly, Mao Zedong’s sacred principles of “people’s war” were now thoroughly re-examined and updated for the first time in almost 50 years. When completed a few years later, the newly revised doctrine was given a new name; it was called “people’s war under modern conditions.”
Common Questions about China’s Vietnam Campaign
Although President Carter first strongly disagreed with Deng’s plan to invade Vietnam, he eventually let Deng do what he wanted to because Carter, too, wanted to teach the Vietnamese (and their Soviet patrons) about the perils of invading other countries.
Deng planned to teach the Vietnamese a lesson and show them China’s military superiority. The plan was for the troops to capture a few towns and eventually return home honorably.
In the aftermath of the botched Vietnam campaign, hundreds of superannuated PLA generals were forced into retirement, the army’s budget was severely slashed, and hundreds of thousands of poorly-trained, undisciplined peasant conscripts were demobilized and sent home. Perhaps most importantly, Mao Zedong’s sacred principles of “people’s war” were re-examined and updated for the first time in almost 50 years.