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Conflicts with China

In the last of my blogs about Vietnam's recent wars, we'll focus on conflicts with China which will bring us back around the to disputes in the South China Sea. The factions which now make up modern Vietnam fought off invasions from China during ancient and medieval times, but the two countries had enjoyed over 400 years of living as neighbours before conflict broke out in 1979 when China once again surged across Vietnam's norther border.

The pretext for China's invasion was ill-treatment of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, the newly unified Vietnam's continued presence among the Spratly Islands, and to relieve pressure on Khmer Rogue forces in Cambodia who had been ousted from Phnom Penh by Vietnamese troops. It might be noted at this point that ethnic Chinese still thrive in Vietnam, and in one district of Ho Chi Minh city, Chinese is the most commonly spoken language. Whereas in Cambodia, the Khmer Rogue had 'cleansed' all outside influences among their population, including Vietnamese and Chinese. That issue was probably beside the point when Communist Vietnam was an ally of the Soviet Union, leaving China concerned over a possible expansion of the USSR.

That the Communist factions in the East didn't get along was something which wasn't understood in the West at the time. If it had, the American-Vietnam war might not have happened. Cautious of reawakening US fears of Communist dominance in South East Asia, the Chinese premier, Deng Xiaoping sought assurance from the US of their neutrality shortly before the invasion. Deng gambled that Russia wouldn't support Vietnam; they failed to do so during the US-Vietnamese conflict, and he guessed correctly that as always- Vietnam was it's own.

I've spent a lot of time in Vietnam, and I've met veterans of the American War and the Cambodian War. But I've not met anyone who was involved in the conflict with China. Maybe that's because conflict was largely limited to the regions bordering China. The conflict is I think one of the little-known wars of modern times. One of the main reasons for this may be the short duration; China invaded on 17th February '79 and four weeks later were back in China.

Despite the short duration of the conflict, it was bloody. There are no trustworthy official figures, as both sides underestimate their own losses and overestimate their opponents. It seems reasonable to assume that casualties on the Vietnamese side were around 20-30,000 and 30-50,000 on the Chinese side. The highest estimates would put the total military casualties at around a quarter of a million. Civilian casualties are likewise unknown although at the time Vietnam proclaimed up to 100,000 civilian deaths.

With the bulk of Vietnamese forces tied up in Cambodia, China's invasion force of 20 divisions progressed quickly. Despite initial gains, Chinese tactics were outdated and costly. Human wave attacks supported by artillery and without air support. The Vietnamese had been fighting almost constantly for decades and ever the masters of hit-and-run, they played havoc with the Chinese supply lines.

Both sides claimed victory in the short conflict, but I think Deng was concerned about getting bogged down in a conflict with an adversary who had more than proved they would fight to the last man (or woman) and who had already inflicted massive losses on the Chinese. Deng declared the invasion a 'punitive mission' and withdrew. None of the goals used as a pretext for the invasion had been achieved; Vietnam still occupied Cambodia, and still sat on the same islands in the South China Sea.

That wasn't quite the end of it though; until the early 1990's China still made the occasional incursion into Vietnamese territory and during the 1980's fired over two million shells into Vietnam. In 1988 China secured it's only real victory over Vietnam; in the battle of Johnson Reef in the South China Sea, which saw China oust Vietnam from the small reef and fortify it.

Although there has been peace between Vietnam and China since the early 1990's, the threat of conflict has arisen again in recent years. That's the reason I wrote 'The March of the Dragons'. It's a conflict which isn't likely, but possible. Chinese activity in the South China Sea is increasingly belligerent. The USA is concerned enough to have made its 'pivot' toward Asia, and aggressive Chinese foreign policy is making almost daily news. Only this week we've seen China's latest snub toward Obama on his arrival in China. Hopefully there will never be a war over the South China Sea, if there is I think we may see things play out a little as they do in 'The March of the Dragons'; with Vietnam standing alone as it has done so many times before.

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