1979: The Sino-Vietnamese War (Part II)
Enter Deng Xiaoping
After Vietnam’s swift invasion of Cambodia, tensions between Vietnam and China finally flared to the breaking point. Deng Xiaoping was enraged by Vietnam’s total domination in the Cambodian conflict and felt obligated to teach Vietnam a lesson in war. The arrogant Communist leader labelled Vietnam a “hooligan” and vowed to move his PLA into Hanoi in a matter of days. However, the Chinese Communist leader would be forced to swallow his own harsh words. Invading Vietnam, as Deng would soon learn, is not an easy endeavour.
Deng Xiaoping had two core objectives when he deployed his forces into Vietnam. The first reason was personal, the Chinese wanted to defeat Vietnam overwhelmingly, the same way that Cambodia was taken down at the hands of the Vietnamese. This is why Deng Xiapoing claimed that he would teach Vietnam a lesson, boasting to show how superior [he thought] the Chinese military was over Vietnam. The second reason was political, for Deng wanted to remove Vietnam from Cambodia, thus ending their occupation of a former Chinese ally. Unfortunately for Deng, as one will find out, neither of these objectives would be met by his PLA.
Le Duan’s Plan
With Deng’s army on the march, Le Duan, Vietnam’s General Secretary, made his own preparations to deal with the Chinese forces. He had just defeated Pol Pot in war and was now overseeing his country’s occupation. For this reason, Le Duan had to keep most of his forces stationed in Cambodia, leaving him with only the secondary militia to take on the forces of Deng Xiaoping. This secondary army of Vietnam, to the surprise of all (except the Vietnamese), would be more than enough to take on the Chinese forces.
The Chinese entered Vietnam on February 17, 1979, successfully marching only 7-8 kilometres for the first several days. The Chinese saw heavy resistance from the People’s Army of Vietnam, who caused them to remain idle for the three days of their invasion. On the fourth day, after the standstill at the hands of the Vietnamese secondary army, the Chinese forces fought their way towards Cao Bang and Lang Son. After six days of excruciating battles, the Chinese managed to capture Cao Bang on February 27, with another two days to occupy Lang Son. It was throughout this period that the Chinese army were encountering difficulties on the battlefield, with the Vietnamese forces waiting at the opposite end.
The Retreat & The Aftermath
On March 5, with the hopes of marching into Hanoi all but crushed, Deng Xiaoping had no other option but to retreat his forces. On the way back, the Chinese forces, under Deng’s orders, hunted down and killed all of the Vietnamese civilians in their path. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians, which consisted mostly of women, children, and the elderly, were ruthlessly slaughtered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The forces of Le Duan were now pursuing the Chinese back to the border, but were slowed down by the trail of land mines left by the murderers of Deng Xiaoping. The massacre could not be stopped in time, and many thousand innocent lives were lost at the hands of the ever bitter and humiliated Deng Xiaoping.
When his forces were finally withdrawn from Vietnam on March 16, Deng Xiaoping had the nerve to claim victory over Vietnam, shamelessly declaring that he had achieved all his objectives in the war. What he failed to mention accurately was the three day standstill at the beginning, the seven day halt that followed, and the complete and utter deterioration of his dream of ever reaching Hanoi in the end. Furthermore, Deng Xiaoping felt no remorse for the many thousands of innocent lives that he had taken on his retreat back to China. This act of violence happened to such a scale that it can be labelled a war crime. To sum up, his expedition into Vietnam was a complete disaster, one that he could not bring himself to admit.
Prior to his invasion, Mr. Deng pompously proclaimed that he would teach Vietnam a valuable lesson, pledging to move his army into Hanoi by dinner time. Because of his arrogance, Deng pushed his soldiers into a military conflict that dragged on for nearly 30 days, costing him an undisclosed number of military bodies said to be around 60,000, possibly even higher. What did he gain out of this? Not very much. In the words of author Gerald Segal, “China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from [Cambodia], failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition.” Deng Xiaoping sent his army into Vietnam with the intention of teaching the country a lesson, but with his humiliating defeat at the hands of Le Duan and the Vietnamese, it is clear that it was Deng who has been taught a lesson.