Don’t forget China’s role in the Vietnam War

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.

Chen, King. Vietnam and China, 1938-1954. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969.

Conley, Michael. The Communist Insurgent Infrastructure in South Vietnam: A Study of Organization and Strategy. Washington, D.C.: The American University, 1966.

“Communist Thought and Viet Cong Tactics.” Asian Survey 8, no. 3 (1968): 206-222.

Gates, John. “People’s War in Vietnam.” Journal of Military History 54 (1990): 325-344.

Girling, J.L.S. People’s War: Conditions and Consequences in China and South East Asia. New York: Praeger, 1969.

Jian, Chen. “China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-1964.” The China Quarterly no. 142 (1995): 356-387.

“A Response: How to Pursue a Critical History of Mao’s Foreign Policy.” The China Journal no. 49 (2003): 137-142.

Johnson, Chalmers. “The Third Generation of Guerrilla Warfare.” Asian Survey 8 (1968): 435-447.

Lawson, Eugene. The Sino-Vietnamese Conflict. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Li, Xiaobing. A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2007.

Voices from the Vietnam War: Stories from American, Asian, and Russian Veterans. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2010.

Lilley, James. China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

McColl, Robert. “A Political Geography of Revolution: China, Vietnam, and Thailand.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 11 (1967): 153-167.

Pike, Douglas. Viet Cong. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1966.

Schnapper, M.B. China, Vietnam, and the United States: Highlights of the Hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Washington, D.C.: Public Affairs Press, 1966.

Simmons, Robert. “China’s Cautious Relations with North Korea and Indochina.” Asian Survey 11, no. 7 (1971): 629-644.

Tanham, George. Communist Revolutionary Warfare: From the Vietminh to the Viet Cong. New York: Praeger, 1967.

Tse-tung, Mao. Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung.

Womack, Brantly. China and Vietnam: the politics of asymmetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Zhai, Qiang. “Transplanting the Chinese Model: Chinese Military Advisers and the First Vietnam War, 1950-1954.” The Journal of Military History 57, no. 4 (1993): 689-715.

China and the Vietnam wars, 1950-1975. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Zhang, Xiaoming. “The Vietnam War, 1964-1969: A Chinese Perspective.” The Journal of Military History 60, no. 4 (1996): 731-762.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Fr. David says:

    A couple of questions:
    1. Did the USSR or China have a bigger role in Vietnam?
    2. How much influence do you think China has in N. Korea today?


    1. Zach Morgan says:

      1. I need to take a look back at my sources for specific details, but I seem to remember that the U.S.S.R. sent vastly more materiel than China did. In fact, the Soviets shipments that went overland through China were often skimmed by the Chinese before they got to VN. But when you factor-in advisors and ideological influence, I’d say China had more overall input on the course of the war.

      2. I am hesitant to comment, because I haven’t studied the present-day relations between China and N. Korea very closely. (I’m not sure how much real knowledge is out there on open-source, anyway.) But I seriously doubt that China would allow NK to get too rambunctious, though, since they are right next door.

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