Written by James A. Anderson.

The recent news of Hanoi purchasing a fleet of Russian-made Kilo-class submarines to assist in a potential future stand-off between the Vietnamese Navy and the greater forces of the PLA points to the long and complicated relationship between powerful northern (i.e. Chinese) and resilient southern (i.e.) Vietnamese regimes. Sino-Vietnamese relations in the span of ten years after the death of Hồ Chí Minh, as one modern researcher wrote “deteriorated from one of ‘comradeship plus brotherhood’ to one between ‘the most direct and most dangerous enemies.’”[1] In this environment of heightened tensions the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975 both marked the end of the Second Indochinese War and one step closer to the Third Indochinese War, the short February 1979 border conflict between China and Vietnam.The premodern era was no less complex. In the historical example below fear of expanding regional influence for Vietnam led to aggressive behavior from China.

After a millennium of cyclical period of domination by the Chinese empire under various regimes in the 11th century the Vietnamese desire for expansion and regional control became stronger than ever. The early Lý ruler Lý Thái Tông李太宗(r. 1028-1054) sent troops to conquer northern Champa (modern-day central Vietnam) in 1044. The invasion was hugely successful, and it strengthened the Lý court both politically and economically. The Northern Song court, having depended on a long-standing tributary relationship with the Chams, suspected that the Vietnamese had a hidden plan for the domination of regional trade in their campaign, and took direct steps to counter Vietnamese movements. Emperor Renzong 仁宗(r. 1022-1063) ordered the Fiscal Commissioner (zhuanyunshi) Du Qi 杜杞 (1005-1050) to lead troops into the strategic passes in the region to erect defenses.[2] The Vietnamese did not try to attack the border. However, disturbances among the Tai-speaking inhabitants of the frontier, in particular the Nùng clan, became quite severe at this time. These inland disturbances would soon occupy the attention of both the Chinese and Vietnamese leadership, and this intense attention paid on the borderlands would be a catalyst for the border war of 1076-77, which ended with the negotiation of a political line of demarcation between the two polities that has very nearly remained the same down to the present day.[3]

China’s 20th-century relationship with Vietnam often contained elements of old and new motivations. In the fall of 1950, Việt Minh forces crushed the French garrisons stationed along the Sino-Vietnamese border, marking the first major defeat of the French in the First Indochinese War. This victory opened up communications between the PRC and the DRV, bringing increased military support.  However, with the fall of the French forces at Điện Biên Phủ four years later, the PRC leadership was anxious about the next stage of inevitable US involvement in collaboration with southern Vietnamese authorities. At Geneva Zhou Enlai had emphasized that US military bases in the region would not be tolerated, and that he could foresee an indefinite French presence in Mainland Southeast Asia to keep the Americans out.[4] When the region couldn’t be neutralized in this manner, and the US military presence linger to support the newly established Republic of Vietnam, Beijing renewed support for Hanoi’s effort to bring national reunification. In 1962, for example, Beijing supplied Hanoi with enough weapons for 230 infantry battalions to engage with the RVN forces.[5]

However, Sino-Vietnamese relations had deteriorated by the end of the US Conflict, by which point Hanoi had shifted to a firm alliance of the Soviet Union.  Nayan Chanda has noted that Beijing after 1949 “consistently followed the policy of maintaining by all means at its disposal a fragmented Indochina free of the major powers”.[6] Changes in regional conflicts exacerbated China’s worry about intervening powers. The fall of Saigon had been preceded by the April 17th fall of Lon Nol’s government in Phnom Penh and the rise of the PRC-supported Khmer Rouge. On January 7, 1979 Vietnamese forces drove Pol Pot and his leadership from power and established their own puppet regime for Cambodia. This move proved to be the last straw for Beijing. On February 17, 1979 the PRC’s new leader Deng Xiaoping launched a border war in response to Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and the alleged mistreatment of ethnic Chinese (Hoa Kiều) communities in Vietnam after the reunification of the country in 1975.[7]

Concluding Comments

Sino-Vietnamese relations have been asymmetrical yet dynamic since earliest times. China remained the stronger power historically, but Chinese concern for Vietnamese regional domination has periodically emerged since the 10th century. Now collective relations with the entire region must also be considered. Regarding China’s direct involvement in Southeast Asia, I have predicted elsewhere that “China’s future goals do not include the territorial domination of its immediate neighbors, but, rather, the Chinese leadership will instead strive for global consensus when China again claims to act as the regional arbitrator of peace and harmony among the East and Southeast Asian nation-states.”[8] However, two factors complicate this prediction, the PRC’s military and economic presence in Southeast Asia and Overseas Chinese involvement in the local economies of the region. China’s economic involvement in Vietnam is becoming deeper, and the large northern neighbor’s impact on the region has already begun to outshine US sway. According to recent French governmental agency report, 60% of machine tools, raw materials, and consumer products imported into Vietnam come from China.[9] As for Overseas Chinese, there are 19.4 million ethnic Chinese living in the ASEAN countries, including 1.1 million Hoa Kiều living in Vietnam.[10] Many claim that the substantial growth in any of these countries comes from investment out of the Chinese communities. China claimed to assist the Hoa Kiều community with the February 1979 border invasion. No one can currently predict the results of a Chinese official intervention in Southeast Asian regional ethnic conflicts in the future, if continued economic growth depends on the protection of these communities.

James A. Anderson is an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Image Credit: CC by James Kieran Nguyen/Flickr


[1] Joseph Y. S. Cheng, “Sino-Vietnamese Relations in the Early Twenty-first Century: Economics in Command?” Asian Survey, Vol. 51, Number 2, p. 379.

[2] Toghto 脫脫 (1313-1355) et al. Songshi 宋史 (Official History of the Song Dynasty) Beijing: Zhonghua, 1983) 300: 9962.

[3]Anderson, James. The Rebel Den of Nùng Trí Cao Loyalty and Identity Along the Sino-Vietnamese Frontier. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007), 144.

[4] Shao Kuo-kang, “Zhou Enlai’s Diplomacy and the Neutralization of Indo-China, 1954-55” in China Quarterly, Number 107, (September 1986): 495-496.

[5] Zhang Xiaoming, “The Vietnam War, 1964-1969: A Chinese Perspective” in The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Oct., 1996): 736-737.

[6] Nayan Chanda. Brother enemy: The War After The War. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986: 127.

[7] James A. Anderson, “Creating a Border Between China and Vietnam” in Walcott, Susan M. and Corey Johnson (eds.) Eurasian Corridors of Interconnection: From the South China to the Caspian Sea. (New York: Routledge, 2014), 28.

[8] Anderson, The Rebel Den of Nùng Trí Cao, 185.

[9] David Albrecht et al. “Urban Development in Vietnam: the Rise of Local Authorities: Resources, Limits, and Evolution of Local Governance.” Agence Française de Développement, 2010 October, 16.

[10] Menkhoff, Thomas, and Gerke Solvay. Chinese Entrepreneurship and Asian Business Networks. (London: Routledge, 2006), 5.

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