Even though now it is a over 35 years ago, did a recent anti-Chinese riot in Vietnam brings into discussion that this old conflict is still largely unresolved?
By: Ringo Bones
When Mainland China’s state-owned oil company dispatched an oil rig to a contested area in the South China Sea, it inevitably fuelled a fire on the long smoldering dispute with its communist neighbor Vietnam. Unfortunately, the Beijing government didn’t foresee the need to evacuate thousands of its nationals desperate to escape from the onslaught of Vietnamese protestors back in May 17, 2014 that were protesting on the Mainland Chinese drilling for oil in an area on the South China Sea that the Hanoi government claims as Vietnamese territory that had gone violent. Unfortunately, Taiwanese, Japanese and Korean nationals working in Vietnam also fall victim to the clashes that seem to remind everyone old enough to remember why The People’s Republic of China and the newly unified Vietnam went to war back in 1979.
Back in January 1979, The People’s Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the United States – a move seen by the international community at the time as a willingness on the part of the Beijing government to engage peacefully with the capitalist West. But a lot of unresolved conflicts between the then Soviet Union and the newly unified Vietnam will trigger a border conflict between Mainland China and Vietnam by the middle of February 1979.
Around that time, antagonism between The People’s Republic of China and the then Soviet Union grew even more heated with Beijing calling for resistance to “Soviet Expansionism” on all fronts. By February 17, 1979, Mainland China’s full scale border conflict with Vietnam amounted to a “proxy war” with the then Soviet Union.
During that period, relations between The People’s Republic of China and Vietnam had been deteriorating since 1978 when the Hanoi government’s harsh treatment of its ethnic Han Chinese minority was followed by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia – which at that time – was a very close ally of Beijing. Increasingly frequent border incidents heightened the tension and finally convinced Beijing that Hanoi “must be taught a lesson.” On February 17, 1979, Mainland China launched a major attack along its 500-mile (805-Km) border with Vietnam. Supported by artillery and tanks, Mainland Chinese forces invaded four Vietnamese provinces.
After a pause for supplies, the Mainland Chinese on February 21, 1979 renewed their advance in the direction of Lang Son in North-West Vietnam. By March 2, 1979 the Mainland Chinese had taken Lang Son, Cao Band and Lao Cai, penetrating some 25-miles (40-Km) into Vietnamese territory. Having reached their goal, Beijing announced that its forces were withdrawing back to Mainland Chinese territory.
The withdrawal was completed by March 16, 1979 when Vietnam offered to hold talks to ensure peace along the border and ultimately to normalize relations. The first two sessions, held in Hanoi back in April 18 and April 26, 1979 – were immediately deadlocked Subsequent meetings during the year also served merely as an opportunity to exchange accusations. Back then, the chief difficulty in the negotiations was Hanoi’s refusal to consider Chinese demand that Vietnamese forces be withdrawn completely from Cambodia. Even though everyone back then was expecting Vietnam to be routed since it has just recently came out of a traumatic victory against America back in April 30, 1975, Vietnam managed to valiantly resist the Mainland Chinese invasion unlike what happened to India during the 1962 Sino-Indian War. More like this time, Vietnam’s victory is akin to more like Gene Roddenberry’s Sino-Indian War
Sino-Vietnamese hostility – which has a history that goes back many centuries, has been stimulated in the late 1970s by Vietnamese nationalism – a newly found nationalism emboldened by its recent booting out American troops and completely taking over the then South Vietnam back in April 30, 1975 – and the Hanoi government’s increasingly close ties with the then USSR which at that time was Beijing’s chief rival in the South East Asian regional geopolitical power play.
Back then, the Beijing government supported Pol Pot in neighboring Cambodia more to contain “Soviet Expansionism” than Vietnamese influence and when Beijing learned in 1978 of Hanoi’s plot to invade Cambodia in order to end the tyrannical and genocidal rule of Pol Pot, Beijing abruptly terminated its aid program in Vietnam which totaled to 10-billion US dollars since the April 30, 1975 reunification of Vietnam.
On Vietnam’s issue on its ethnic Han Chinese population, Hanoi’s requirement that all ethnic Han Chinese living in the now unified Vietnam must become citizens of the country boosted tensions and resulted in a large number of ethnic Han Chinese – most of which are from the former South Vietnam and often ostracized for being “too cozy” with the occupying American troops during the Vietnam War – are now resorting to leave the country of Vietnam A move which the Hanoi government blocked that triggered a further worsening of diplomatic relations with Beijing By the end of 1979 – more than 250,000 displaced ethnic Han Chinese who used to live in Vietnam had fled to The People’s Republic of China. Given that Mainland China’s President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been recently negotiating a natural gas deal that could lessen the burden of EU sanctions aimed at Russia after the Kremlin annexed back Crimea only shows how the turbulent relationship of The People’s Republic of China and Russia has now come full circle since the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979.