BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR - Volume 3(3) November-December 2000

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The Sino-Vietnam War-1979: Case Studies in Limited Wars

Colonel G.D. Bakshi, VSM

The First and the Second World Wars were classical "Total Conflicts". They entailed the most massive and sustained mobilisation of the human and material resources of the nation states involved. These sustained mobilisations were kept up for periods of four to six years in which the war aims were pitched at the maximal level of unconditional surrender, the annihilation of the enemy’s armed forces and the complete occupation of his territory. As a test of wills between two state actors it epitomised the maximalist position in war fighting. The end of the Second World War saw the advent of nuclear weapons. These transformed the very paradigm of war per se. In fact weapons of mass destruction radically transformed the nature of war itself. A clear cut and decisive conventional military victory was no longer possible in a situation of nuclear symmetry. All that the nuclear exchange could ensure was "Mutual Assured Destruction". The acronym MAD aptly highlighted the insanity of this concept. This led to the onset of an era of strategic restraint. The super powers made great efforts to limit the levels of conflict. Western theories of deterrence during the Cold War restricted conflict in the key areas and confined them largely to the peripheral theatres of the globe. Korea and Vietnam were two major limited conflicts of this Cold War. Conflicts were kept restricted in three ways:

  1. In their aim and scope,
  2. In terms of space and time,
  3. In terms of violence and weapon usage levels.

This trinity of limitations survived till the end of the Cold War. The Sino-Vietnam War of 1979 (that preceded the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) was a classic limited war - limited in aim and scope and also restricted in space and time. This was a conflict fought against a quasi-nuclear backdrop. (China had nuclear weapons and Vietnam was allied to a super power - the erstwhile USSR).

Revival of Interest in Limited War Theories

The Kargil conflict of May-Jul 1999 was fought against a nuclear backdrop. Both India and Pakistan had become overt nuclear powers (with a series of nuclear tests in May-June 1998). In the wake of the Kargil conflict, the Indian Institute of Strategic Studies held a very significant seminar in Feb 2000. This Seminar was devoted to the issue of Limited War against a possible nuclear backdrop. Both the Indian Defence Minister and the Army Chief clearly articulated the possibility of a Limited War in response to any future Pakistani intrusion/intensification of the proxy war in Kashmir. As a declaratory doctrinal statement - the Seminar was a landmark in intellectual exercise. It did create a stir in media circles and it highlighted certain critical issues. Namely:

  1. Is a Limited Conventional War possible against a nuclear backdrop?
  2. Can it be kept limited in terms of aim and scope and the restrictions of space and time?
  3. What would be the in-built escalation control mechanisms at the national and international levels that could keep such conflicts limited?

Doctrinally, therefore, the issue is of vital import and deserves very detailed analysis and scrutiny. There is a need to build and test real world models and computer simulations that could help us to come to workable extrapolations that fit our conditions on the sub-continent. What must be kept in mind is the fact that in the post-Cold War world, the bipolar balance of power (or correlation of forces) has been seriously disturbed. This has led to a series of conventional conflicts where the West has employed its technological edge (engendered by the Revolution in Military Affairs) to launch punitive campaigns against designated "Rogue States"/ regional adversaries. Pertinent cases in point are:

  1. The Gulf War against Iraq - 1990 (and subsequent air strikes)
  2. The Air War against Yugoslavia – 1999

Most of these campaigns, however, are not relevant to an Indo-Pak or an India-China context because such asymmetries of technology do not exist between the regional actors. The bipolar stand offs of the Cold War era seem more pertinent and hence the revival of interest in Limited War doctrines in India and elsewhere.

The Case Study Method: Limited Wars in a Quasi Nuclear Context

It is precisely for this reason that we need to go back to the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. Not only is it a useful operational and terrain analogue for the existing Indo-Pak situation but it was a Limited Conventional Conflict fought against a quasi-nuclear backdrop. The best way to analyse such an open-ended issue is the case study method. To come to any definitive conclusions we must rely upon real world models from the recent past. It is towards this end that the Sino-Vietnam War of Feb-Mar 1979 and the Vietnamese campaign in Cambodia that preceded it in Jan 79 form very useful historical case studies/conflict models from which we could extrapolate some very pertinent lessons in the Indo-Pak context. Put together, both these conflicts provide the best case study material to substantiate the thesis of Limited Conventional Conflicts in a quasi-nuclear backdrop. It must be reiterated here that China was a nuclear power of well over a decade’s standing in 1979. (Her first nuclear test was at Lop Nor in 1964). Vietnam then had treaty relationship with the erstwhile USSR - a full-fledged nuclear super power. To that extent this limited conventional conflict was waged against a "quasi-nuclear backdrop" and therefore forms the best conflict model for extrapolation of lessons/ game rules for a Limited Conventional War Doctrine between two nuclear-armed adversaries.

The Vietnam Model

Vietnam was in a very precarious security situation in 1978. The Chinese were bent upon exploiting the large Hoa (ethnic Chinese population) in South Vietnam for the purposes of destabilisation. They had lent full support to the genocidal regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia and were encouraging it to adopt an aggressive approach on the Vietnam-Cambodia border and open another front for Vietnam. The aim was to keep Vietnam militarily preoccupied and boxed in with the help of its neighbours. The Vietnamese correctly assessed the looming peril of a two front war situation. They decided upon a very high-tempo, pre-emptive offensive to deal with the Pol Pot threat in Cambodia, which would enable them to secure this flank before they turned North to face China squarely. The Vietnamese Military Invasion of Cambodia was therefore a major Coup de Main operation. Its essential features were as follows:

  1. Just War. It was in essence a just war to free the Cambodian peoples from one of the worst tyrannies in recent history. The genocidal regime of Pol Pot has few parallels in recent times for senseless brutality and sheer savagery.
  2. It was a Conventional Offensive that was limited only in the time dimension. It was not limited in aim or the spatial dimension. It aimed at:

- Military occupation of the whole of Cambodia.

- A decisive overthrow of the genocidal Pol Pot regime.

- It aimed to achieve the above results in a short, swift and high tempo campaign that had the imprimatur of the classic blitzkrieg (Air-Land campaign).

In terms of military mobility it was a superb example of Limited War that was limited only in the time dimension. It achieved decisive military and political results. To that extent it may well be termed a quasi-total campaign rather than a "Limited War".

The Chinese Limited War Model

The Chinese limited war against Vietnam in 1979 was a study in contrast. Where the Vietnamese campaign of Jan 1979 was swift and decisive, the Chinese campaign was characterised by severe limitations in:

  1. Aim and scope. It confined itself to teaching a lesson as a Declaratory Aim.
  2. Space. It confined itself to an average depth of 30-40 kms and went no further than the provincial capitals of Lang-Son, Cao Bang and Lao Cai.
  3. Time. The campaign was called off once the limited objectives of the provincial capitals were reached/captured. The Chinese thereafter staged a unilateral withdrawal.

The Teach a Lesson Model

The British military analyst – Maj Gen Shelford Bidwell, has credited the Chinese with enunciating a new form of war. He called this "the teach a lesson model" and stated that the brief Sino-Indian War of 1962 was the world’s first campaign of this genre. This operation was ostensibly designed to teach India a lesson for her perceived support to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan resistance. The border dispute was a pretext conveniently exploited by the Chinese to launch a swift and sudden invasion (that caught the Indians totally by surprise), inflict a humiliating local defeat and then stage a magnanimous unilateral withdrawal that was designed to underline the impotence of the victim nation. It was the same ‘teach a lesson model’ that the Chinese decided to replicate against Vietnam. Unfortunately or otherwise, they ended up learning quite a few military lessons themselves - the first of them being the need to modernise their Army and transit from Peoples’ War doctrine to Peoples’ War under high tech conditions.

The basic doctrinal tenet of this Chinese formulation however remains sound and relevant to this day. The teach a lesson model implies a declaration of intent for limiting the conflict and to that extent, it serves as an inbuilt escalation control mechanism that could permit limited conventional conflict even against a nuclear backdrop. The historical fact is that it worked in the quasi-nuclear backdrop of the Soviet era and prevented a wider escalation of the Sino-Vietnam conflict to a wider war between China and the erstwhile USSR. To that extent the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979 forms a very useful conflict model and constitutes a case study that could yield a harvest of useful and pertinent lessons for our present day context.

Hai Ba Trung: The Historical Backdrop

The Sino-Vietnamese conflict is 21 centuries old. The Chinese colonised the Kingdom of Nam-Viet in the Red River delta before the birth of Christ. In AD 39 two Vietnamese sister queens named Trung-Trac and Trung-Nhi led a four year long revolt against the Chinese. The Hans sent strong reinforcements and crushed this rebellion. Rather than surrender, the two queens committed suicide by jumping into the Red River. To this day in March each year all Vietnamese girls celebrate the Hai- Ba Trung day. That the 1979 Chinese invasion came in Feb-March could only have stirred these historical memories of hate in Vietnam.

Other major revolts followed in the 3rd, 6th and 10th centuries. These helped to buildup the martial spirit of the Vietnamese. A dozen more wars were fought in the 15th century. Then Chinese power declined and Vietnam was able to assert its independence. From the 18th century onwards both China and Vietnam were involved in trying to stave off the yoke of foreign domination. Vietnam became a colony of France in the later half of the 18th century and for a while two historical enemies became allies against a common imperialist enemy. When the Second World War broke out, both Giap and Ho Chi Minh took shelter in the Yunan province of southern China. This served as the base for guerilla warfare against the French. The Regular Vietnamese Army was built up and trained in the Kwang Si Field firing ranges of China. However both Giap and Ho Chi Minh never forgot for an instant the historical realities. They refused all Chinese offers to intervene militarily on their behalf. Ho Chi Minh said, "It is better to sniff French dung for a while than to eat Chinese all our lives". During World War II the Japanese occupation forces overthrew the French in Vietnam. They could not consolidate their hold over the countryside and thus gave the Viet Minh guerillas their chance to move in. Thus when the French returned they were sucked in to a relentless guerilla war. In 1956 came Dien Bien Phu and the rout of the French forces in Indo-China. The Geneva conference partitioned Vietnam along the 17th parallel. It is noteworthy that Chou en Lai (Zhou en Lai) – the late Chinese Prime Minister played a significant role in this partition. The Chinese were not keen to see a strong united Vietnam on their southern borders. The Americans moved in and Vietnam’s agony dragged on for another 20 years - as a fierce guerilla war now started in the South against the pro American regime.

The Chinese appeared to be intent on fighting the Americans to "the last Vietnamese". However when the signs of American defeat became apparent the hardheaded Chinese realised that before them lay the prospect of a militarily strong and reunited Vietnam. Besides the Sino-Soviet rivalry had now turned into open with undisguised hostility. The Chinese stopped all Russian supplies from reaching Vietnam by land. They tacitly encouraged the Americans to stay. Before the American rout finally came in 1975 and the Viet Minh forces reunited Vietnam, the Chinese launched a naval attack and captured the disputed Parcel Islands in the South China Sea in 1974. The façade of friendship was over. The historical rivalries had flared into the open.

The Cambodian Preamble

During the closing stages of the war in Vietnam it had spilled over into the neighbouring Kampuchea. The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail (the infiltration route) from North to South Vietnam lay partly through Laos and Cambodia (Kampuchea). The Americans launched a major offensive in the Parrots Beak Bulge to cut off the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The CIA inspired a coup in which Gen Lon Nol overthrew the neutralist premier Norodom Shinouk. Shinouk fled to Peking and the pro Western regime of Lon Nol cooperated with the Americans in operations against the Viet Cong bases and caches. The Khmer Rogue guerillas – (an ultra leftist communist organisation in Kampuchea) began guerilla warfare to overthrow Lon Nol’s regime. The Vietnamese aided them in this. When the Americans withdrew from Vietnam and Saigon fell, the Khmer Rogue guerillas overthrew Lon Nol’s unpopular regime. Thus it was that the regime led by Pol Pot, Khieu Samphan and Iang Seary came into power in Phnom Phen.

However, just as China and Vietnam have been traditional enemies, so also Vietnam and Cambodia have been traditional foes. Whenever Vietnam has been strong she has occupied Kampuchea. The Chinese tried their best to fan this animosity. Egged on by them Pol Pot began to evict all people of Vietnamese origin from Kampuchea. The ultra-leftist Pol Pot regime let loose one of the most brutal reigns of terror in a crash attempt to communise the people. Entire towns were evacuated and the population sent to the countryside to collective farms and slave labour camps. It is estimated that as many as three million people died in these Pogroms. To divert the attention of the people the Pol Pot regime (with the backing of Beijing) began a series of border incidents with Vietnam. These flared up into a full-scale border war. By the end of 1978 Vietnam was faced with the following scenario:

  1. The brutal Pol Pot regime had pushed out all Vietnamese settlers from Kampuchea. These refugees were streaming into South Vietnam.
  2. It had launched a series of border incidents and violations with the encouragement of China.
  3. North Vietnam’s own hold over the South was not as yet firm as the people were averse to attempts to communise them.
  4. There was a sizeable ethnic Chinese minority (Hoa people) in South Vietnam. They controlled all the trade and were potential fifth columnists in any war with China.
  5. China had stationed a large number of military advisors in Kampuchea, which were assisting the Pol Pot regime.
  6. There was a sizeable concentration of Chinese troops on their northern borders and relations with China were worsening each day over the issue of the expulsion of the ethnic Chinese (Hoa) from South. Vietnam.


It was obvious to the Vietnamese High Command that a dangerous and difficult two front war situation was brewing up for them. If they did not act fast in Kampuchea a major threat would build up against their South. They might then be involved in a two front war with China and Kampuchea. The Vietnamese are hardheaded realists. Defence Minister Giap dispassionately analysed the situation and came to the conclusion that immediate and decisive measures were called for. Accordingly the following steps were taken:

  1. A 25-year treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed with the Soviet Union in Nov 1978.
  2. Preparations were undertaken for a major offensive in Cambodia in the post-monsoon dry season.
  3. All out support was given to the guerillas of Heng Samrin who were trying to overthrow the brutal Pol Pot regime. Heng Samrin had been the divisional Commander of the 4th division in East Cambodia. He now headed the United Front Army for the salvation of Kampuchea.

The Blitzkrieg. By Christmas 1978 the Vietnamese had amassed approximately 14 divisions (some 130,000 tps) on the Kampuchean border. On 2nd Jan 1979 they launched a swift blitzkrieg spear headed by their armoured units that raced across Cambodia along the main highways. Little details of this operation are available but in style and tactical execution it was more reminiscent of Russian offensive concepts than the more cautious Vietnamese patterns.

The Vietnamese launched three main thrusts:

  1. In the North West towards Stung-Treng and Kratie. This crossed the Mekong and raced across the middle of Cambodia along Highway 6. It captured Kampong Thom Sam Reap–Poviet and pushed on till it reached the Thailand border. This force also captured Angkor Vat - the liet motif of Cambodian nationalism.
  2. Along Highway 7 and the Parrots Beak. This thrust was aimed at Phnom Phen the capital. This pushed on further along highway 5 towards Battam Bang-Poipet and to the Thai border.
  3. A Naval landing at Kampong Som. Naval landing and a subsequent thrust along Highway 4 was also launched towards Phnom Phen the Cambodian capital.

The Vietnamese Air force (comprising of MIG-19s captured American F-5s and A-37s) launched fierce attacks from the airfields of Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon), Bien Hoa, and Binh Thy in support of their attacking columns. These columns raced along the roads and highways by passing or encircling major centres of resistance till they reached the Thailand border. Pol Pot himself was evacuated to Thai territory by helicopter to evade capture. It was a classic example of what Giap has termed "mobile operations". It was a perfect high tempo Air-land campaign that could serve as a text book model.

Psy Warfare. The United front troops began distributing cooking pots to the people to signify the end of the hated communal kitchens. The Pol Pot regime had totally alienated the population by its senseless brutality and its attempts to break up the family unit. People who had been evicted from the towns to work in the countryside began to stream back to their homes.

Effects of Vietnamese Victory in Kampuchea

China lost face due to its inability to protect its client regime of Pol Pot. The Chinese also lost some 10,000 "advisors" as prisoners. About a 1000 escaped towards Thailand in face of the Vietnamese blitzkrieg. The Chinese were alarmed at the specter of being encircled by pro-Soviet states like Vietnam and Afghanistan. They read a sinister pattern into the signing of the Vietnam-Soviet treaty of friendship and the subsequent capture of Cambodia. Even though the brutal Pol Pot regime was thoroughly unpopular and discredited due to its atrocities - most countries especially ASEAN states were alarmed by this swift invasion. The basic issue then involved was that could one country attack and capture another on the pretext of the unpopularity of its regime? (The issue resurfaced in Kosovo). China felt that it could not afford to leave Vietnam unpunished for this brazen affront. It had somehow to restore its credibility as the dominant military power in the region whose wishes could not be ignored or slighted. It also needed some Vietnamese prisoners to secure a release of its own "advisors" captured in Kampuchea. The stage was therefore set for the Sino-Vietnam war.

Chinese Preparations

Soviet Intelligence sources indicated that the Chinese politburo was split on the issue of attacking Vietnam. The factions headed by the then Vice Premier Deng Xiao Peng favoured a limited offensive to "teach a lesson" on the 1962 pattern. This split was confirmed by the fact that despite Party circular "forbidding any anti war statements", a poster appeared on the "Democracy wall" in Peking questioning the wisdom of China’s attack on "small Vietnam". The PLA had for years been involved in suppressing the excesses of the cultural revolution and restoring law and order. Its training and operational efficiency had clearly suffered as a result of this diversion. Within the PLA itself there were two schools of thought:

  1. The pro Deng Xiao Peng faction which wanted China’s armed forces to be modernised and updated with the help of the West to enable it to fight a conventional war.
  2. The Maoist faction felt that China should continue to rely upon a Peoples defensive war to defeat any aggression. The most important result of this Sino Vietnam War was to be the victory of the Deng faction and the onset of the four modernisations.

Diplomatic Offensive

China launched a virulent campaign denigrating Vietnam as the "Cuba of Asia" and a tool of Soviet hegemonism. It accused Vietnam of trying to form an Indo-Chinese confederation aimed against China and the other South East Asian countries. The then Vice Premier Deng Xiao Peng visited the United States of America where he openly talked of teaching a lesson to the Vietnamese. Media sources speculated that he had assured the Americans that it would only be a limited offensive to drive home to the Vietnamese that they would not be allowed to get away scot free. The Americans were delighted by this tough stance and may even have privately encouraged Deng to go ahead with this limited punitive mission. Deng subsequently also visited Japan with whom China had recently concluded the Sino-Japanese treaty of friendship. Diplomatically now China had laid the ground for its massive offensive to teach a lesson to the Vietnamese.


Western Intelligence sources have indicated that it took the Chinese 90 days to complete total mobilisation and deployment for this offensive. This indicated a high state of peacetime readiness in the main China’s Third Field Army (its largest Field Army) and was incharge of this operation. The troops actually employed belonged to the 42nd Army (Kumming Military Region). Initially 17 divisions had been deployed. Subsequently this was build up to a total of 25 divisions (250,000 men).


Gen Hsu Shih Yun (who had sheltered Vice Premier Deng Xiao Peng when he had been purged for the second time in 1976) was the overall commander of this operation. He was a "long marcher" and a member of the polit buro and had been a vocal supporter of Deng. Gen Yang Teh Chih. Hsu’s deputy Yang was in tactical control of the operations. He was also a "Long marcher" and was the Deputy Commander of the Chinese forces during the Korean War. He had then developed the tactics of infiltration and envelopment followed by mass attacks. He was chosen to lead the attack due to the similarity of the terrain to Korea and moved in to position only in Jan 1979. Due to his exploits in the Long March he had earned the title of the "ever victorious General".

Chinese Pattern of Operations

Western Intelligence sources had expected Yang to follow the Korean pattern of offensive involving infiltration and envelopment followed by mass attacks. But in this case, perhaps keeping in view the Vietnamese skill at similar tactics, the Chinese followed a curiously direct and frontal approach. Even in the Battle of Sela in 1962, Chinese infiltration parties had worked their way behind our lines between Sela and Bomdila before they launched the main offensive at the pass. However in Vietnam, the Chinese Infantry supported by tanks and intense Artillery barrages launched mass attacks against the passes in the first phase itself. The Chinese used the technique of the ‘Divergent Attack.’ (That is attack on a wide front with subsequent echelons converging on to aimed objectives in a series of multiple pincer hooks). The offensive thus could be divided into three phases:

  1. Battle of the Passes,
  2. Break out to divisional objectives (approx. 10 miles in depth),
  3. Final breakout to capture provincial capitals.

Concept of Operations

On the face of it the Chinese offensive seemed to be based on a sheer frontal and direct approach relying upon the weight of numbers and fire power to hammer its way through. But keeping in view the limited Chinese objectives in terms of depth of penetration, the overall Chinese aim was perhaps to draw Vietnamese regular divisions in a "meat grinder" war. The main Chinese points of effort or thrust lines could be:

  1. The Langson approach via the Friendship Pass is the traditional invasion route along Highway One. It is also the shortest route and the Chinese railhead of Pingsiang is very close to the border. As expected the main Chinese thrust took place along this route.
  2. The Coastal approach ran via Mongcai along the coast and culminated at the Haiphong harbour.
  3. The Red River approach followed the course of the Red River Valley. National Highway Two ran through this valley and the provincial capital of Laocai lay at its mouth.
  4. The Black River approach ran along the course of the Black River Valley and led to Hanoi. The provincial capital of Laichu lay at its mouth. This was a very long and unlikely approach (unless the Chinese decided to attack via Laos and head straight for the Delta and the famous battlefield of Dien Bien Phu.
  5. Subsidiary approaches led to the provincial capitals of Caobang and Hagiang and could serve to cut the lateral Highway Four which runs parallel to the border and links Highways One and Two.

These were the thrust lines available to the Chinese in case their aim was an all out offensive aimed at the capture of Hanoi. However in actual fact, the Chinese aimed at a broad and shallow penetration all along the front which would take them till the line of the lateral Highway Four which ran parallel to the border. In so doing they hoped to draw into battle and destroy/decimate the regular Vietnamese divisions, who they felt would be compelled to react forward for the defence of the provincial capitals and important communications centres. This would result in major battles of attrition and could form the meat grinder in which they hoped to chew up the regular Vietnamese Army and inflict heavy punishment. They also calculated that this massive attack from the North would force Vietnam to withdraw troops from Cambodia and thereby remove the pressure on the guerillas of Pol Pot.

Vietnamese Pattern of Operations

The Vietnamese saw through this trap. Since the Chinese were going to withdraw any way, they reasoned that it was pointless to commit their regular divisions very far forward. Accordingly they decided to hold the frontier with their Border Militia (some 150,000 strong), while five to seven of their regular divisions took up crescent shaped defences along Hanoi in two lines/tires. The first of these lines connected Tehbai on the Red River with Kuangteh on the East Coast. This deployment was viable even if the Chinese decided on a desperate gamble to capture Hanoi. Since the shape of North Vietnam is like a triangle (with the base along the border and the apex at Hanoi), such a defensive deployment in depth would enable the defender to correctly identify the centre of gravity or the main point of effort of the enemy and thereby permit the defender to suitably employ his reserves to block that thrust and launch counter attacks.

The Vietnamese Militia

The border militia that fought the entire battle was not an ill trained or second-rate force. It was roughly equivalent of our Border Security Force but its quality was far higher. It must also be noted that at that point in time Vietnamese forces (regular or militia) were the most combat hardened in the world. The Vietnamese soldier is an excellent marksman, an expert at camouflage and concealment and can literally dig for miles. He is fleet footed and very mobile and a tenacious fighter. The militia was organised into squads. The organisation of the squad was flexible and task oriented. Roughly a squad was the equivalent of our Infantry Company. It comprised of three sub squads (platoons). Each sub squad had its own Artillery Observation Post (OP) officer, reliable HF radio communications and squad support weapons. The squads holding the passes had Anti-Tank Sub Squads armed with the Soviet Snapper and Sagger missiles as also detachments trained in demolitions. Squad strengths were totally flexible and dependent on the task allotted. In many cases, parts of a squad would be holding ground while the other went forward for raids/ambushes.

Hanoi’s strategy therefore was to defend the border with a screen of 100,000 local militia troops employing guerilla tactics in a difficult hilly and densely wooded terrain that was admirably suited for such operations. In fact, French General Marcel Bigeamy called this region "Dante’s Inferno". The Main Force (regular) Vietnamese Divisions were held well back for a crescent shaped defence of the Hanoi plains. The densest missile defence in history defended Hanoi and Hai Phong itself. (It was the density of this missile defence that probably prompted the Chinese to keep out their Air Force). The Soviets moved in a Naval Flotilla to the South China Sea. Admiral Vladimir Maslov, the Commander of the Soviet Pacific fleet was himself located on the Flagship of this fleet, (which was crammed with sophisticated electronic gear for interception of signal communications and Electronic Warfare). Soviet reconnaissance aircraft were on constant patrol. However their effectiveness was curtailed due to dense cloud cover. The Soviets were closely monitoring the Chinese build up and military activity and keeping a close watch to see if the Chinese over stepped their stated brief of a limited war to just teach a lesson. The legendary Vo Nguen Giap was the nominal commander of the Vietnamese forces at that time. However it was rumoured that he was then suffering from Hodgekin’s disease and was too sick to be in charge of day to day operations. These were controlled by his protégé General Van Tien Dung, the man who had captured Saigon in 1975.

The Chinese Offensive

Divergent Attacks

On 17th Feb 1979, the Chinese attacked on 26 points along the 480 mile border. Initial penetrations were effected at 20 points. Subsequently four major thrust lines were developed towards the provincial capitals of Laocai, Caobang, Dong Dang and Long Son. After 17 days of very fierce fighting the Chinese managed to penetrate upto a depth of 30 to 40 kilometers and captured the provincial capitals of the northern provinces. The aim of capturing these border towns was to draw out and destroy the Vietnamese regular army formations in a classical war of attrition. The Vietnamese however refused to rise to this bait. The well-armed and superbly trained Vietnamese Border Militia that slowed down the Chinese offensive to a crawl contested the Chinese advance almost entirely. The average rate of advance varied from 1.7 to 2.3 kilometers per day. The battle can be studied in the following three phases:

  1. Battle of the Passes (break in).
  2. Break out to divisional objectives (15 to 20 kms in depth).
  3. Break out and capture of the provincial capitals (30 to 40 kms in depth).

Battle of the Passes

As stated the Chinese had initially adopted the technique of the divergent attack. This colourful phraseology however only describes the standard technique of trying to mask the main thrust lines by launching a large number of initial attacks. From 26 initial points of attack the Chinese narrowed down to the four major thrust lines aimed at the provincial capitals. These main thrusts crystallized as under:

  1. Along the Red River Valley towards the town of Lao Cai.
  2. Towards National Highway Four aimed at the town of Hagiang.
  3. From Chung Si in Yunan province towards the border town of Cao Bang.

Along the traditional invasion route via the "Friendship Pass" towards Lang Son and Dong Dang. This was the shortest thrust line towards Hanoi along National Highway One. Hanoi lay 135 kms to the south of Lang Son and had the Chinese decided to prosecute a full-scale war, this would probably have been their main thrust line.

Instead of adopting the Korean War pattern of Infiltration and Envelopment, the Chinese commander Yang Teh Chi launched massive frontal attacks spear-headed in most cases by tanks and supported by massive barrages of Artillery. The Chinese use of tanks in the hilly terrain came as a surprise. These were used primarily for bunker bursting. The Chinese aim was to initially capture border passes before undertaking any outflanking movement. The Chinese Infantry attacked in overwhelming strength supported by intense barrages of Artillery fire. In many cases the Vietnamese launched skillful spoiling attacks and ambushes across the border to disrupt and disorganise the Chinese assaults. Radio intercepts had probably given them a clear indication of the Chinese D-Day. The Chinese employed T-59 medium tanks in the assault role for bunker bursting and for carriage of ammunition and re org stores as also for spraying chemical weapons. The Vietnamese Militia Squads armed with anti tank missiles were able to destroy a large number of Chinese tanks. Thus 18 Chinese tanks led initial Chinese attacks at Muong Khoung. Of these 8 were blown off along with the bridge. To compound Chinese difficulties, the Vietnamese launched a number of cross border raids on the Chinese gun positions and were able to disrupt the fire support. The Chinese lacked APCs and casualty evacuation procedures failed to keep pace with the very heavy volume of initial casualties. Surprisingly the Chinese tanks and APCs used seemed to lack reliable radio communication and in many cases were seen using flag and hand signals. (This may also have been due to Electronic jamming by the Russians). The Chinese initial attacks were badly disrupted and disorganised by Vietnamese spoiling attacks and counter attacks, mine fields, sharpened bamboo stakes and very heavy artillery concentrations.

Break out to Divisional Objectives

After the first 5-7 days of intense fighting, the Chinese went in for their standard tactical cum logistics pause. The initial attacks had been badly mauled and disorganised. Yet the Chinese pressed on relentlessly. The initial 26 points of attack now converged on to 11 Pincers. 17 Infantry divisions supported by armour had launched the initial attacks. Eight fresh divisions were brought in and pressed through for subsequent phases. The Chinese had in most cases penetrated up to 10 miles (15-20 kms) but paid a very heavy price in personnel and equipment casualties. The tactical skill and finesse of the Korean War had been replaced by a steam roller advance spear-headed by tanks, preceded by intense artillery barrages and pressed home by waves after waves of Chinese Infantry.

The Battle of the Provincial Capitals

The Chinese now resumed their attacks aimed at the major provincial capitals and key communication centres in the border hinter land. Major battles developed at Cao Bang, Lang Son, Hang Lien Sen, Lai Chou and Quang Ninh. The aim of these attacks was to draw in the regular Vietnamese Army formations and inflict heavy attrition on them through classical "meat-grinder" operations. There were fierce attacks and counter attacks. In Lang Son the Chinese launched 17 counter attacks to regain one objective. By late last week of February, the Vietnamese had still not committed any of their regular divisions which were being held back for the defence of Hanoi. It had also not pulled out any of its 150,000 troops in Cambodia. In the provincial capital the Vietnamese adopted their favourite tactic. They withdrew from the towns into the adjoining hills. As the Chinese formations surged in they were engaged from all sides from the surrounding hills and quite severely mauled.

The Battle of Lang Son

The Chinese were quite dazed by the ferocity of the resistance. On paper however they had captured the provincial capitals. The Vietnamese had adopted the classical Dien Bien Phu defence by emptying the towns and climbing on to the surrounding hills. The Chinese now decided to call it a day. They announced their standard unilateral withdrawal. However to cover this withdrawal they launched a massive corps sized offensive against Lang Son. The three pronged attack was launched on 2 Mar 1979 even as most Chinese units in the rear had commenced withdrawal. Very fierce fighting erupted. The Vietnamese now committed their Flying Tigers Regt at Dong Dang. The 308th Infantry Division (an elite formation) was readied to intervene in the battle of Lang Son but not moved, as the Militia troops seemed to be handling the situation quite well. Having avoided a loss of face by "capturing" the provincial capitals, the Chinese announced that they had taught a lesson to Vietnam and staged their withdrawal. The Chinese had on ground captured four pockets of territory around the provincial capitals of Lao Cai, Cao Beng, Dong Dang and Lang Son. However (apart from a Regt) no Vietnamese main forces had been lured into the battle. 25 Chinese divisions of the Third Field Army had been quite severely mauled.

Chinese Casualties

After the war, Gen Wu Xiuquan, the Chinese Deputy Chief of the General Staff told a delegation from the Institute of Higher Studies for National Defence, France (led by Gen Andre Marte) that the Chinese Army had suffered 20,000 killed and wounded in this four week war. Taking a ratio of one killed to three wounded this almost translated into 7000 killed and 13-15000 wounded. This steep casualty figure surprised the Pentagon. The toll was higher than the US toll in any four weeks of the war in Vietnam. Considering that the Chinese used some 250,000 troops against 100,000 Vietnamese Militia the percentage of casualties is almost in the region of 8-10%. These comparatively high Chinese losses could be ascribed to the PLA doctrine of "coming to grips" with the enemy at the earliest opportunity. The Chinese believe that they have no equal in hand to hand fighting.

The Chinese had set out to teach a lesson to Vietnam. They ended up learning quite a few painful lessons themselves. The Sino-Vietnam War was used by the Deng Xiao Peng faction to argue that its stance for the urgent need for modernisation had been thoroughly vindicated. The war had painfully highlighted that the Chinese lacked modern equipment. In specific they had not used Armoured Personnel Carriers or Infantry Combat Vehicles. The PLA Air force was thoroughly antiquated and Gen Wu told Gen Andre Marte that it was at least 15 years behind the Western Air Forces. It had flown no combat sorties (except Air OP sorties) in the whole war – thereby making a virtue of necessity. Deng Xiao Peng used this war to conclusively win the doctrinal debate in China. He emerged as the Chinese strongman and great moderniser who initiated the ambitious programme of the ‘four modernisations’ that would set the Chinese civilisation firmly on the road to super power status within a span of 50 years. Deng eclipsed Mao and his Peoples’ war heritage. The painful lessons of the Sino-Vietnam War were used to drive home the need for modernisation. This formed the experimental backdrop to the transition from Peoples’ War to Peoples’ War under high tech conditions.


In conclusion the following facts about this war merit highlighting:

  1. It lasted for less than three weeks (17 days). 250,000 Chinese troops of some 25 divisions were pitted against 100,000 Vietnamese troops of the Border Militia.
  2. Either side did not employ air power.
  3. The Vietnamese did not commit their regular (Main Force divisions) or withdraw any of their forces from Cambodia.
  4. The Chinese suffered about 6-7000 killed and 13-15000 wounded. Details of Vietnamese casualties are not available.
  5. The Chinese formations penetrated up to a maximum depth of 30-40 kms in four pockets. They captured three out of six provincial capitals and staged a unilateral withdrawal.
  6. The withdrawal was covered by a Corps sized offensive in Lang Son.
  7. Despite a quasi-nuclear backdrop, the war was kept limited to the conventional level. Nor did it lead to a wider clash between China and the USSR.
  8. It was a classical limited conflict - limited in aim and scope, limited in space by the depth of penetration, limited in time. Resource limitation involved abjuring the use of Air Power. Knowing the Chinese weakness in this field, this amounted to making a virtue out of necessity. The PLAAF could have done little in this conflict and would have taken heavy and high profile losses.
  9. The Vietnamese campaign in Cambodia in January the same year provided a study in contrast. It was limited only in the time dimension (one week). It achieved decisive results in as much as it over threw Pol Pot’s genocidal regime and led to the occupation of the whole of Cambodia. It was a classic Air-Land Campaign in the blitzkrieg mould.
  10. Despite the constraints and limitations and its mixed results the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in Feb-Mar 1979 remains an apt illustration of the efficacy of the ‘Teach a Lesson’ model. The declaratory aim of just teaching a lesson serves to keep the war limited to the Border War Paradigm. It is a useful and viable escalation control mechanism in the context of the nuclear or quasi-nuclear backdrop.
  11. Despite the declaratory aim of teaching a lesson, the Chinese maintained a degree of ambiguity till the very end. The holding back of the Vietnamese Main Force divisions till the Chinese intentions crystallised, highlights this aspect.
  12. Vietnam attempted no counter offensives/strokes into Chinese territory (apart from small sized raids/ambushes) nor did it closely follow up the Chinese withdrawal and undertake any pursuit operations. It was content to let the Chinese forces withdraw undisturbed.
  13. The Chinese combat performance however showed up a number of shortcomings in organisation, equipment and operating patterns. Apparently the Chinese have taken these lessons to heart.

The Two-Front Syndrome

The examples of the Sino-Vietnam and Vietnam-Cambodia wars of 1979 exemplify the response of highly militarised states to a "two front" situation. In late 1978 and early 1979 both China and Vietnam felt themselves being pushed into a two front situation. Vietnam felt it was being hemmed in by China in the North and an irredentist Pol Pot in Cambodia in the South. At home it had to deal with a large ethnic Chinese (Hoa) minority in South Vietnam. China in turn felt that the Soviet-Vietnam Treaty of Friendship was getting it encircled in a two front situation. The response of both these militarised states was highly proactive and decisive. They lashed out militarily before the perceived encirclement became a fact. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia is a classic example of a very high-risk operation with very tight time schedules but equally high pay offs. They pulled off this blitzkrieg in Jan 79 before China could complete its mobilisation in the North. The Chinese responded with their invasion in just a month’s time. American scholars like Bruce Elleman have stated that China’s invasion of Vietnam in Feb-Mar 1979 was primarily a response to the Soviet-Vietnam Treaty of Friendship. China wanted to demonstrate that it could not be deterred from the pursuit of its regional interests by any extra regional power and the Soviet treaty would be of no avail to Vietnam. In other words they wanted to call the Soviet bluff. Both these direct and forthright responses to the two front situations are highly instructive and merit detailed study and analysis. As a case study model the Sino-Vietnam War is a very significant military campaign that was fought against a quasi-nuclear backdrop. The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia may be equally relevant to our context. Both limited wars are highly illustrative models and need to be studied in detail for lessons in the Indian context.


Select Bibliography

[1] Bruce Elleman, Sino-Soviet Relations and the Feb 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Conflict. (20 Apr 96).

[2] Christian. F. Ostermann, "New Evidence on the Sino-Soviet Border Dispute" Cold War International History Project Bulletin Issue 5 (Spring 1995).

[3] Ramesh Thakur and Carlyyle Thayer, Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam. New York. St Martin Press, 1992.

[4]King. C. Chen, "China’s War with Vietnam 1979. Stanford. C.A Hoover Institution Press 1987.

[5] Robert A Scalapino, The Political Influence of the USSR in Asia in Donald.S.Zagoria ed. Soviet Policy in East Asia. New Haven, Yale University Press 1982.

[6]] hang Pao-Min, Kampuchea between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press 1985).

[7] Richard H Solomon and Masatake Kosaka, (eds), The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover,MA Auburn Home Publishing Co.1986).

[8] John Blodgett, "Vietnam : Soviet Pawn or Regional Power "? In Rodney.W. James "Emerging Powers: Defence and Security of the Third World" (New York, Praeger Publishers 1986).

[9] Banning Garrett, "The Strategic Triangle and the Indo China Crisis".In David.W.P.Ellicit ed. The Third Indo China Conflict (Boulder,Co.Westview Press. 1981).


Reproduced with permission from Lancer Publications: Indian Defence Review Volume 14 (2) July-September 2000

Copyright © Bharat Rakshak