As China Threatens to Punish India, It Should Consider the Lessons of Its 1979 Invasion of Vietnam

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The China-Indian military confrontation in the High Himalayas, resulting from China’s military occupation of Tibet in 1950 and the Chinese invasion of India at the end of 1962, has escalated over the last few years from a boundary dispute to an intense geopolitical struggle. As a result of a growing number of border incidents, China and India are in a state of military confrontation that threatens to flare into a limited border war or even explode into a much more destructive high-intensity conflict. In a recent editorial in Global Times, published under the auspices of the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, People’s Daily, China ramped up its rhetoric in an ongoing military dispute with India on the Sino-Indian border. Under the headline “India will suffer worse losses than in 1962 if it incites border clash” the newspaper said that New Delhi needed to be taught “a bitter lesson” for allegedly trespassing into the Chinese controlled sector of the border. The last time China intervened militarily to teach another country a bitter lesson over its border was in 1979, when it invaded Vietnam. Beijing’s limited war turned out badly for China, revealing numerous weaknesses in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Chinese armed forces, and leading to major military reforms. More importantly, it tainted Beijing’s relations with Hanoi and Moscow for decades, reinforced the impression of China as a hegemonic threat in Asia and the Pacific among its neighbors, and undermined Beijing’s standing in the international community

Following the end of the Vietnam War, tensions mounted between Hanoi and Beijing, leading to thousands of border incidents between 1974 and 1978. Hundreds of soldier and civilians from both sides were killed or maimed. In 1978, the Chinese reinforced their border with Vietnam with 20 infantry divisions. When Hanoi challenged Beijing’s goal of stabilizing China’s relations in southeast Asia and creating a peaceful international environment by sending 200,000 troops to Cambodia in December 1977, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping denounced the invasion and decided to “punish” Vietnam. China saw a good opportunity for invasion, not only because Vietnam’s national defense was weakened, but also because an attack could be morally justified. On February 17, 1979, China’s Central Military Commission ordered the attack. Deng set up three principles for the Chinese invasion: (1) Limited Attack; (2) Quick Victory; (3) Avoidance of Mission Creep.

Although the Chinese mobilized some 600,000 men and 44 divisions for the conflict, only 200,000 men and 25 infantry divisions, supported by 400 to 500 tanks, were actually committed to battle. Facing the PLA were 70,000 to 100,000 troops of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) backed by 150,000 local troops and militia. The two armies clashed with virtually the same armored fighting vehicles. Though considerably smaller than the PLA invading force, the PAVN was a much more combat experienced army, having spent the last several decades fighting the French and the Americans, whom they bested. The PLA’s last war had been two decades earlier in Korea, where it had performed credibly, but failed to defeat the United States led UN coalition supporting South Korea.

On February 17, ten PLA armies crossed into north Vietnam from two directions, supported by tanks and hundreds of artillery pieces. Notified by the Soviets of Chinese intentions, Vietnamese troops refused to be lured into major battles.Instead, they gave ground slowly, harassing and ambushing PLA forces, while the Russians airlifted PAVN troops and heavy equipment from Cambodia back to Vietnam. Moscow also provided Hanoi with 400 tanks and APCs, 500 artillery pieces and mortars, 50 multiple-rocket launchers, 400 portable surface-to-air missile launchers, 800 anti-tank missiles, and 20 jet fighters, a military windfall for the PAVN. Additionally, the USSR sent 5,000 to 8,000 Soviet military advisers to Vietnam during the conflict to train the PAVN on the use of the new weaponry, advise on the conduct of the war, and collect intelligence on the PLA. The Soviet Union also deployed troops to the troublesome Sino-Soviet and Mongolian-Chinese borders as an act of support for Vietnam and a means of tying down PLA troops. The Soviet Pacific Fleet also deployed 15 ships to the Vietnamese coast to relay Chinese battlefield communications to the PAVN. However, Moscow refused to take any direct action to defend their Vietnamese ally. 

Chinese soldiers called the conflict “a painful, little war”, “a ghost war”, and “a shadow war”. The Vietnamese made the same moves and used the same weapons as the Chinese. Thanks to Russian intelligence and their own experience and knowledge of the PLA, the PAVN knew exactly what their opponents were going to do and exploited all their problems and weaknesses. At the outbreak of the conflict, columns of PLA tanks were ambushed by PAVN T-34/85s (the only tanks the Vietnamese had immediately available, pending the arrival of newer and heavier tanks from Cambodia) and troops with Soviet anti-tank Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs). Vulnerable columns of road bound Chinese vehicles were pounded to pieces by PAVN artillery, with one group of PLA tanks laagering within range of camouflaged 100-mm anti-tank guns and suffering the consequences.

According to Xiaobing Li, former PLA soldier, expert on the Chinese armed forces, and author of “A History of the Modern Chinese Army” (2007), many of the PLA’s commanding officers were shocked by the poor discipline, low morale, combat ineffectiveness, and high casualties suffered by the PLA during the conflict, some 26,000 in all (or 1,350 a day). In comparison, the Chinese claimed to have killed 37,300 Vietnamese troops and captured 2,300. The PLA lost 420 tanks and APCs during the conflict, the PAVN 185. With good reason, Hanoi believed that the Vietnamese Army had taught the Chinese a lesson. Most western analysts agree that the PAVN outperformed the PLA on the battlefield. The termination of the conflict in March 1979 did not bring an end to the border conflict between the two countries. For the next decade, the PLA and PAVN clashed repeatedly, with the large battles taking place in April to May 1984. By the end of the 1980s, China and Vietnam had normalized their relations. In 1992 Chinese troops withdrew from Vietnam. The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was the last major war waged by the PLA.

In a recent study by the Chinese General Staff on the seminal World War II battle of Midway in the Pacific, the PLA’s military experts concluded that while it was easy for Imperial Japan to initiate a war with the United States, terminating such a conflict on terms acceptable to both the Japanese and America was practically impossible. Once attacked and humiliated at Pearl Harbor and in the Pacific, the Americans had no intentions of accepting any terms from the Japanese except unconditional surrender. Beijing would do well to heed the words of their military experts. 

China’s leaders should also consider whether today’s PLA can meet Deng Xiaoping’s sensible Vietnam criteria for “punishing” India of (1) Limited Attack; (2) Quick Victory; (3) Avoidance of Mission Creep. It is unlikely. Today’s Indian armed forces are not the PAVN of 1979. They are better trained, organized, led, and equipped. Furthermore, India possess a robust nuclear arsenal, estimated to consist of more than 100 warheads, as well as chemical weapons. Any country attempting to launch a “limited” punitive expedition against New Delhi, even today’s modern and powerful Chinese army, might find itself with a very bloody nose indeed and embarrassed militarily. Moreover, India has powerful allies in the form of the United States and Russia. Even a limited Chinese invasion of India would force Washington and/or Moscow to take action detrimental to Beijing’s national security interests. As happened during the PLA’s invasion of Vietnam, either America or Russia could respond with shipments of arms and equipment to India and intelligence sharing with New Delhi. 

Furthermore, the danger of the conflict spreading throughout the region and beyond would be high. Pakistan might be tempted to take advantage of Chinese strike to launch its own attacks on India. And seeing Islamabad preoccupied on another front, Kabul could decide to strike at Pakistan. Moreover, Islamic extremists reeling from unrelenting attacks by conventional forces in Southwest Asia and on the verge of final defeat, might use the respite, as the conventional armies of the region turn against each other, to fill their ranks, rearm, reorganize, and plan new attacks. Finally, those countries feeling threatened by Beijing, including Vietnam, might band together to create a more robust Asian military alliance aimed at China. Even a limited punitive expedition by Beijing against New Delhi could easily spin out of control. Thus, as bad as Beijing thinks things are with New Delhi along their mutual border, they could always be worse, as shown by the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

There is little doubt that the China-India military confrontation stands radically transformed in the 21st Century with the insertion of the nuclear and maritime dimensions diluting Beijing’s coercive capabilities against New Delhi. While we are likely to witness an intense Cold War between China and India, it behooves all the major powers of the world and the region to ensure that that Cold War doesn’t turn hot.