On November 14, Yanis Varoufakis, founder and general secretary of Greece’s left-wing European Realistic Disobedience Front, opined that China’s past actions towards Vietnam were not imperialist.
“Yes, China bullied Vietnam and had several bloody skirmishes wth [sic] India. But to call this imperialism is as laughable as calling Pakistan imperialist (viz repeated skirmishes with India),” Varoufakis tweeted.
In response, Chen Weihua, the European bureau chief and columnist for the state-run China Daily, argued that Vietnam had bullied China.
“Most people assumed only big nations bully small ones. But in the case of Vietnam in 1979, it was Vietnam which provoked multiple times (bullied China),” he tweeted. “That was why China decided to teach it a lesson. Chinese self restraint/tolerance is well-known until the Red Line is crossed.”
It is false to claim that Vietnam bullied China, notwithstanding tensions and conflicting allegiances between the countries at the time.
Vietnam, allied with the Soviet Union, had fought with Cambodia, taking on the Chinese-friendly Khmer Rouge. China also claimed that ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were mistreated. But analysts said these factors were just a pretext for China’s 1979 invasion, which involved an estimated 200,000 Chinese soldiers.
China and Vietnam reportedly each lost thousands of troops in the fighting, and Vietnam says tens of thousands of its civilians were killed. Estimates of the exact number of dead vary.
The Vietnamese claim China lost 62,500 in the fighting, while some Chinese sources claim the number of war dead was as low as 6,594. Some Western scholars estimate 18,000 Chinese soldiers were killed. China estimates more than 50,000 Vietnamese soldiers were killed, while Western sources put that figure at anywhere from 20,000 to 35,000.
China’s invasion of Vietnam came in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 to depose Pol Pot, whose communist Khmer Rouge government presided over the deaths of some 1.7 million Cambodians over a four-year-period. The Khmer Rouge had repeatedly attacked Vietnamese territory, killing thousands.
China had provided the Khmer Rouge regime with military advisers to curb Vietnamese and Soviet influence in the region.
“Vietnam saw China as a growing threat to Vietnamese interests in the region,” historian James Willbanks wrote. “It believed that China would reinforce the military potential of its adversary in Cambodia and might even attack Vietnam directly.”
Beijing opposed Soviet support for Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Vietnam was concerned by the U.S. rapprochement with China. U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 laid the groundwork for the full restoration of diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979.
According to historian Walter LaFeber, Nixon’s outreach to China hoped to both deepen the Sino-Soviet split and bolster the U.S. position in the Vietnam War, which aimed to keep communism from spreading across South Asia.
“Instead of using Vietnam to contain China, Nixon concluded that he had better use China to contain Vietnam,” History.com quoted LaFeber as saying.
Vietnam only invaded Cambodia after Khmer Rouge forces repeatedly crossed into Vietnam to reinforce claims to historically disputed territories. The invading Khmer Rouge committed atrocities, including the April 1978 Ba Chuc massacre, in which thousands of Vietnamese villagers were killed.
A United Nations-backed Cambodia tribunal found Khmer Rouge leaders guilty of acts of genocide against ethnic Vietnamese and other minorities.
Rich Arant, a translator at that tribunal, noted that a Pol Pot speech that precipitated the Ba Chuc massacre and showed his “genocidal intent” was viewed as “the final straw … in the eyes of Vietnamese military veterans” seeking to depose the Khmer Rogue regime.
During a visit to the United States in January 1979, China’s Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping called Vietnam a “naughty child” that needed to be “spanked.”
Deng also accused Vietnam of occupying the Spratly Islands, a South China Sea archipelago, to justify invading Vietnam in 1979. Another Chinese pretext was Vietnam’s expulsion of the Hoa, people of partial or full Han Chinese ancestry.
The Hoa were disproportionately persecuted by Vietnam’s communists, particularly after North Vietnamese forces defeated those of South Vietnam in 1975 and the entire country came under communist rule.
Researchers noted that people of Chinese ancestry represented an outsized number of those who fled Vietnam in what became known as the “boat people” migration.
Citing Beijing, the Washington Post reported in 1978 that more than 133,000 ethnically Chinese people had fled into southern China from Vietnam in response to “apparent widespread economic and social harassment of Chinese who refused to accept Vietnamese citizenship.”
China’s invasion of Vietnam exacerbated that exodus. An estimated 450,000 ethnic Chinese left or were expelled from Vietnam in 1978-1979.
While it can certainly be argued that ethnic Chinese people were bullied in Vietnam, that is a separate from Vietnam’s alleged bullying of the People’s Republic of China.
Military historian Peter Tsouras wrote that Deng Xiaoping’s invasion agenda included not only making Vietnam “more reasonable” and showing “Soviet patronage to be worthless,” but also exposing inadequacies in the leadership of China’s People’s Liberation Army as Deng pushed for military modernization.
While both sides claimed victory in the conflict, Chinese forces performed far worse than their battle hardened Vietnamese counterparts. China failed to secure its objectives, with outside observers saying China was roundly defeated.
The two sides would engage in a series of border and naval clashes over the next decade.
Relations would be normalized in November 1991, with hostilities brought to an end. Still, that has been an uneasy truce, especially in recent times, as China has become increasingly aggressive in staking its claims over the South China Sea.