The Relationship between China and Vietnam in 1979


Vietnam had been a close ally of the People’s Republic of China in the 1960s and early 1970s. Due to their cordial relationship, Vietnam always received both financial and material support from China during its time of need (Womuck 67).

For example, during Vietnam’s conflicts with its foes such as the US, China sent its troops to Vietnam to assist with the war. However, the relationship between the two countries later deteriorated in late 1970s (Womuck 72). In 1979, the relationship between the two countries degenerated into a war that greatly affected the financial stability and military strength of both countries.

The deterioration of the relationship between China and Vietnam is partly attributed to Vietnam’s failure to show gratitude for Chinese assistant. The collapse of the bilateral relationship between China and USSR also contributed to the strained relationship between China and Vietnam in 1979 (Feng 78). This paper analyzes the 1979 relationship between China and Vietnam as well as the cause of the strained relationship.

Sino-Vietnam War in 1979

Prior to the 1979 war between China and Vietnam, the two countries had a positive relationship (Feng 79). They cooperated in many ways including military support in time of need. Following the violation of the principles that formed the basis of the cordial relationship between the two countries, their association or friendship began to decline in 1975. China particularly felt that Vietnam had failed to reciprocate in their friendship and thus it needed to revenge (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 321).

External factors such as the collapse in the bilateral relationship between China and the Soviet Union also contributed to the conflict between China and Vietnam. The conflict culminated in a war between the two countries in 1979. The Sino-Vietnam war lasted for about three weeks and was characterized by severe casualties on both sides (DeRouen 57). Each country lost several troops and civilians. Several factors led to the Sino-Vietnam war and this can be explained as follows.

Causes of the Sino-Vietnam War

One of the main reasons that led to the conflict or war between China and Vietnam in 1979 was the manner in which the Vietnamese authorities treated the Chinese ethnic minority that lived within Vietnamese territory (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 325). The Chinese ethnic minority in Vietnam were not entitled to equal treatment as other Vietnamese citizens. They were considered outsiders and thus did not deserve to live in the country under the same conditions as the Vietnamese citizens.

In 1978, the Vietnamese authorities forced the Chinese ethnic minorities to move back to their country (Zhang 856). China was particularly angered by Vietnam’s decision to repatriate the Chinese. China considered Vietnam’s move an act of betrayal and decided to explore alternative ways to ravage against Vietnam (Zhang 857). Consequently, China stopped to assist Vietnam through financial and military support.

The withdrawal of Chinese support forced Vietnam to explore alternative options of getting support during its time of need. This led to the signing of a “cooperation and friendship pact” (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 326) between Hanoi and Moscow. The cooperation between Vietnam and the USSR only served to increase the tension between China and Vietnam.

In the countdown to the 1979 war, Vietnam and the Soviet Union signed a mutual defense treaty in November 1978 (Elleman). It is the signing of this pact that made Vietnam the target of military action by China. The Chinese authority felt that the pact was actually aimed at limiting their military strength and influence in the region. Besides, the relationship between China and the Soviet Union was at the verge of collapse thus it was not in the interest of China to watch two of its foes unite (Elleman).

One of the indications that the Vietnam-Soviet pact was aimed at China can be traced to its sixth clause. The cause stated that “Vietnam and the USSR would immediately consult each other either if attacked or threatened with attack” (Feng 76). The aim of the consultations was to eliminate the threat of attack. The protocols of the treaty also allowed the USSR military to access or use the airfields and ports owned by Vietnam.

In Chinese authorities’ view, the Soviet Union appeared to have succeeded in surrounding China diplomatically by signing the pact with Vietnam (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 327).

Thus the Chinese authorities believed that the only way to stop the insurgence of the Soviet Union was to break the treaty between it and Vietnam. In order to achieve this objective, China had to attack Vietnam in February 1979 (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 328). Vietnam on its part claimed that it opted to form an alliance with the Soviet Union in order to avert Chinese adventurist acts.

However, Beijing did not believe in Vietnam’s claim in regard to their pact with USSR. They instead interpreted the treaty as a strategy used by the Soviet Union to pressurize them to reconsider their stance on the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty (Womuck 87). This means that the Soviet Union intended to use its treaty with Vietnam to force China to renew the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty which was characterized by inequality.

It was apparent that if the Soviet managed to establish a foothold in Southern Asia by forming an alliance with Vietnam, it would be in a position to flank China on its southern and northern borders. Such a move would enable the Soviet Union to have power over China by weakening their military ability (DeRouen 62).

According to the Chinese authorities, the Soviet Union would use their military strength to force China to either renew or renegotiate the terms and conditions that formed the basis of the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty. Beijing was however, determined to terminate its relationship with the Soviet Union especially under the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty.

Renmin Ribco’s warning that the Soviet was using Vietnam against China after “trying and failing to use Cuba to exert diplomatic pressure against the United States” (Womuck 88) is one of the indications of China’s deep concern over the Soviet-Vietnam treaty. Renmin’s view was further reinforced by Beijing’s claim that Moscow’s eventual goal was to have the entire Indochina in its control.

This means that successful implementation of Soviet Union’s policies in Vietnam would enable the Soviet government to establish strategic diplomatic success as well as military power over China. Thus China was highly concerned about the Soviet-Vietnam treaty since its success would pose a great threat to its national security and sovereignty in the subsequent months.

With the signing of the Soviet-Vietnam treaty, the relationship between China and Vietnam worsened day by day (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 329). China having realized the danger posed by the treaty, had to move quickly and find a way of weakening the relationship between USSR and Vietnam.

Part of China’s strategic move was to form an alliance with its former enemies in order to boost its military strength as well as the chances of obtaining any material or financial need at the time of its need. Consequently, China officially formed an alliance with the United States in 1979 (DeRouen 63). The signing of the Sino-American alliance in 1979 had two implications.

First, it worsened the relationship between China, Vietnam and the Soviet Union. This is because the United States was a common foe of both Vietnam and the USSR. Thus its alliance with China was not in the interest of both Vietnam and the USSR (DeRouen 64). Second, the Soviet Union just like China became concerned over its security in the future following the signing of the Sino-America alliance.

Of great concern to the Soviet Union was the possibility of facing a two front war. This means that the chances of the USSR being attacked simultaneously by the America-led NATO troops from the west and Chinese troops from the east increased (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 331). In the event of such attack, the Soviet Union could have easily collapsed since it would not be able to stand the joint military action from the two countries.

Vietnam’s Inversion of Cambodia

As a response to the Sino-America alliance, the Soviet Union increased its support for Vietnam in regard to its (Vietnam) attack on Cambodia (Zhang 860). Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge’s regime was a close ally of China. The Chinese backed the Khmer Rouge administration thus Vietnam having parted ways with China was uncomfortable with Cambodia (Zhang 861). It was therefore in the interest of both Vietnam and the Soviet Union to attack Cambodia.

Their intention was to weaken China’s influence in the region. Besides, Vietnam’s victory in the war with Cambodia would mean that China was weak and was not able to defend its allies. In order to demonstrate its military ability, China had to intervene in the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia by attacking Vietnam (Zhang 862). However, China could not attack Vietnam directly in regard to the war in Cambodia. Consequently, border conflicts that had not been settled between China and Vietnam resurfaced.

This means that the inversion of the Chinese military in the “disputed Sino-Vietnamese territory” (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 335) was an indirect strategy of weakening Vietnamese military in order to stop their encroachment in Cambodia. These trends indicate that the border war between China and Vietnam was not just because of Vietnam’s attack on Cambodia.

The power struggle between China and the USSR also played an important role. This is because the USSR’s support to Vietnam was aimed at defeating Cambodia which was a close ally of China (Feng 91). On the other hand, China focused on weakening Vietnamese military power in order to protect Cambodia. Consequently, the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia was widely viewed as a proxy war between China and the USSR. Each country wanted to demonstrate to the other its ability to protect its ally.

The Continued USSR’s Support to Vietnam

As was discussed earlier, the Soviet-Vietnamese treaty meant that the Soviet and Vietnam would support each other in the event of a war. China on its part did not perceive any threat from Vietnam on its own. This is because Vietnam was relatively small both in terms of population size and its military strength (Womuck 113).

However, China became weary of Vietnam’s threat following continued support from the Soviet Union. The Soviet government had supplied Vietnam with a lot of military equipment which included munitions, aircrafts, tanks and missiles. Besides, the Soviet government had sent “between 5000 to 8000 advisers to Vietnam” (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 337) to assist with planning for military action against its enemies.

The USSR initially thought that supporting Vietnam with military equipment will deter China from attacking it. However, the USSR’s hopes were dashed since China eventually attacked Vietnam in 1979. Some scholars argue that the attack could not have taken place if the USSR did not send so many advisors to Vietnam (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 337). This attack was particularly significant since it put the relationship between Vietnam and the Soviet Union in test.

According to the Soviet-Vietnam treaty, the USSR was expected to send its troops to Vietnam and help them defeat China. However, this was not possible due to logistics reasons. Due to the large distance between USSR and Vietnam, the former could not have easily intervened during the war. The only practical option was to intervene through China or other allies of United States which was not possible due to the strained relationships between USSR and China as well as US (DeRouen 94).

When the USSR failed to support Vietnam during the war, China claimed victory for having managed to destroy the treaty between Vietnam and the Soviet Union. China demonstrated to Vietnam that it could not be protected by its ally, the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Vietnam treaty had thus failed due to USSR’s inability to support Vietnam.

The end of the war between China and Vietnam in 1979 did not help in settling their differences. The two countries continued to have a strained relationship in 1979. For instance, the conflict over the Sino-Vietnam common border remained unresolved (DeRouen 115). The mistrust between the two countries worsened and this reduced the chances of improving the relationship between China and Vietnam.


The above discussion indicates that China and Vietnam had strained relationship in 1979. China and Vietnam enjoyed cordial relationships in the 1960s and early 1970s. The deterioration of the relationship between China and Vietnam degenerated into a war in 1979.

Both countries lost thousands of troops and civilians. The main causes of the war and weak relationship between China and Vietnam included the following. First, China wanted to punish Vietnam for failing to reciprocate in their relationship (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 324).

Vietnam repatriated Chinese ethnic minority within its territory and this angered China. Second, the border conflicts between the two countries led to the 1979 war. Finally, the alliance between Vietnam and the Soviet Union was a security threat to China (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 324). Thus China went to war with Vietnam in order to destroy the Soviet-Vietnam treaty. These factors did not just cause the war but were also the main contributors to the strained relationship between China and Vietnam in 1979.

Works Cited

DeRouen, Karl. Defense and security. New York: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

Elleman, Bruce. “Sino-Soviet Relations and the February 1979 Sino-Vietnam conflict. 20 April 1996. Web. 7 June 2011.

Feng, Huiyan. Chinese startegic cultural and foreign policy decision-making. New York: Routledge , 2007. Print.

Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. “Assessing Sino-Vietnamese relations through the management of contentious issues.” Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 6 (2004): 320-745.

Womuck, Drantly. China and Vietnam . London: Cambridge University Press , 2006. Print.

Zhang, Xiaoming. “China’s 1979 war with Vietnam.” China Quarterly 7 (2005): 852-896.