It was China’s neighborhood
When Americans think about the Vietnam War, China is usually not the first topic that comes to mind. China had great interest in the war though, and exerted quite a bit of influence in the region. This is an important interaction to remember when you read about present-day Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and so forth.
(Map from The Economist)
There is a centuries-long history of Chinese influence in Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma). Just before Western colonialism replaced China as the dominant force in Asia, Vietnam had been the leading power in the region, but China still saw itself as the superior culture in Asia. The paternalistic trend of pulling nearby nations into the orbit of mutual security continued in Mao Tse-tung’s foreign policy in the 1950s and beyond.
China is Asia’s “older brother”
During the Vietnam War, the Chinese took measures to weaken the Vietnamese communists at the same time they were sending aid and personnel to assist in the effort. There were two types of correspondence that China sent to Vietnam: Those directed at the Vietnamese populace in North Vietnam, and those sent to the Viet Cong, operating in the south.
The letters to the Viet Cong made a point of never referring to the North Vietnamese government and were written with the intent of cementing a direct connection with China. This may be because Hanoi was getting cozy with the Soviet Union, and the Viet Cong were more on the cutting edge of Mao’s earthier ideals of “people’s war.”
China was wary of Vietnam becoming too strong in Indochina. This uneasiness was linked to the inter-communist conflict China had with the USSR, and Vietnam’s relationship with the Soviets. China wanted the imperialists out of Indochina, but did not want the Soviet Union to have too much power there either.
Though there was a great deal of sparring during the Vietnam War about whether the North Vietnamese or U.S. forces had carried the fight across the border to Laos or Cambodia, the war did in fact have more to do with the overall end result for Indochina than merely whether South Vietnam became communist.
China even appeared to be satisfied with Vietnam being indefinitely divided during the period of 1955-1960, although they were not opposed to a communist revolution in South Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, China made several moves that looked like bids to take over parts of Indochina.
China invades Vietnam
In one such instance, they built a large road in Laos, which later turned out to have been planned to project force into Indochina in the case of a runaway North Vietnam. (This precaution was well-planned, as the Vietnamese actions against Cambodia in 1979 demonstrated, but the resulting Chinese punitive expedition was sent directly into Vietnam, rather than Laos.)
Along with the friendly relations between China and Vietnam via their joint struggle in the first Indochina war, there was also some tension. Vietnam, always ready to receive help, remained fiercely independent. Nguyen Thai, a South Vietnamese official, explained why the situation in Vietnam was not stabilized by the injection of aid from the U.S. to the South Vietnamese government. (Perhaps this explanation can be applied to the Chinese and Russian aid to the North as well):
“’Massive injections of military equipment and foreign technical help can only produce a temporary morale-boosting effect on the Vietnamese population; it cannot be a long-range substitute for adequate political and administrative leadership.’”
This sentiment is quite disparaging toward the ability of the Vietnamese to self-govern, but it is important to note that the decision-makers in Hanoi were sometimes resistant to Chinese directions on how to run the war.
Another validation of Thai’s sentiment is that the Vietnamese provoked Chinese intervention in 1979, when they attacked the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. What ensued was the four-month Sino-Vietnamese conflict, a punitive expedition across Vietnam’s northern border, which made it plain to the rest of the world that Vietnam was not taking orders from China, and that China was ready to back up their diplomatic messages in East Asia.
The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict of 1979 serves as an important bookend to the Vietnam War. In the context of the Vietnam War and the First Indochina War (the first bookend), this conflict provides insight into the Chinese perspective of its neighbors to the south. The Chinese invasion was the culmination of several Vietnamese provocations.
These provocations included the mistreatment and expulsion of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam between 1976 and 1978, the formalization of a military alliance with the USSR in 1978, and the final straw, the invasion of Cambodia and overthrow of its China-backed dictator, Pol Pot, in 1979.
The picture of the Vietnam War which comes through the fog of Cold War politics, when studied in the context of Indochina’s regional history, is that it was part of a series of conflicts over who would have the most influence in Indochina. The war was impossible for China to ignore, for several reasons: Because it was an additional proving ground for Maoist theories, it brought U.S. forces close to her border, and had long-term implications for the dominance of Indochina – an area over which China had asserted hegemony for centuries.
When you see a news story about China (or any other Asia/Pacific country) projecting force to build a perimeter of influence in the region, be aware that it is nothing new. Even so, it can still be a dangerous habit of China’s, and if any habits die hard, centuries-old habits will be the most stubborn.
(This article is adapted from a paper I wrote several years ago. Let me know if you’d like to see more of it. The full bibliography is below.)
Central Intelligence Agency. Various declassified documents. http://www.foia.ucia.gov/
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