The People's Republic of China, and an Historic Enmity

China was the source of Vietnam's culture and the recipient of Vietnam's tribute. It was also the historic enemy and occupier of Vietnam. The old heroes of all Vietnamese were the generals who beat the Chinese armies, including Tran Hung Dao who led a surprise attack on the Tet holiday when the Chinese occupiers were celebrating.

But for the Viet Minh, beginning with Ho Chi Minh's refuge there from the French Surete, China was to be the "Great Rear Area." When the Chinese People's Liberation Army reached the border in December 1949, the Viet Minh began to receive the heavy quantities of weaponry, supplied, and training that they needed to defeat the French. In 1950 the Chinese 2nd Field Army in Yunnan trained five Viet Minh divisions, and in 1951 helped constitute the 351st Heavy Division. It was Radio Peking that announced on August 20, 1950, the commencement of the Viet iVlinh's general offensive that between September 16 and November 2 was to sweep the French Expeditionary Corps from Lao Cay, Lang Son and the length of the border.

During the Second Indochina War, the People's Republic of China supplied huge amounts of assistance, impressively so in veiw of China's own needs. During the course of the war Chinese railroad troops and construction units, and anti­aircraft units to defend them, were in the northern part of the country, but Chinese troops otherwise took no role in the fighting. During the Cultural Revolution in China, however, essential aid from the USSR, travelling through China, as well as from China itself was interrupted, and sourness became evident underneath the professions of friendship. China, however, whatever its private qualms, publicly rejoiced at the victory of the North over the South in 1975. During the last year of the war Chinese aid for Vietnam had been even more than the lavish Soviet aid.

Soon thereafter friendship crumbled away. Part of the problem was Cambodia. China had strongly supported the Pol Pot regime, and soon after its victory gave much aid and sent many advisors. But Vietnam had already during the war lost control of the Khmer Rouge, and the traditional antagonisms between Vietnamese and Khmer became even more virulent under Communist rule. As the Democratic aampuchean forces began to harass Vietnam along the border, Hanoi became more suspicious of the Chinese role there.

The Chinese on their part were clearly interested in keeping Cambodia independent of the Vietnamese as a check on Hanoi's regional ambitions. But the more fundamental problem in Chinese eyes was Vietnam's closeness to the Soviet Union. Beijing felt Vietnam was becoming a second Cuba, threatening from the south as the USSR threatened from the north. The Chinese also were angered by what they felt was the ingratitude of the Vietnamese for the sacrifices China had made to assist them.

The surface of friendship finally fell away completely in 1979. In January Vietnam invaded Cambodia, sweeping to the Thai border. Vietnam began to impose harsh measures on its own ethnic Chinese. This included the many Chinese of the north, who long had been loyal participants in that communist society, but who now were led by panic and bullying to flee by the hundreds of thousands across into China. The Chinese of the south, who, as convinced capitalists, were out of place in the new society, were encouraged to pay their bribes and flee in small boats across the South China Sea.

The Chinese at first attempted strong words and negotiations, but Deng Xiaoping in his trip to the US spoke of the need to "teach Vietnam a lesson." In February 1978, in what was termed a "defensive counterattack," Chinese troops crossed the border. They seized a few border towns, including notably Lang Son which had figured so prominently in earlier Indochina battles, destroyed much more, and then withdrew. The fighting itself seems to have been roughly a draw. The Chinese secured their objectives at fair cost against Vietnamese border units that were not the pick of their army.

Since then the Chinese have kept a heavy force on the border which has been just as pugnacious as the Vietnamese in the continuing small border scraps. The intent may be to force the Vietnamese to maintain military readiness at a state they cannot indefinitely maintain. Thus the Chinese may hope - perhaps unrealistically -- that the tough and tenacious Vietnamese might finally have to settle with China and abandon their Soviet alliance.

-John Sylvester Jr.