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Sino-Vietnamese war erupted in 1979, which only lasted for 27 days but the conflict between People’s republic of China (PRC) and Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) dragged on for more than ten years. The invasion of Cambodia by the Vietnamese was the main reason PRC went to war with SRV. The issues involved in the Sino-Vietnamese conflict are numerous and intricate. There is a wide range of differing explanations on the contributory factors that lead to the war and all of them can be found to have some relevance. In this paper, I will discuss two explanations on the outbreak of Sino-Vietnamese war.
The rationalist explanation focuses on how China feared that they would be in threat once Vietnam contributed to perceived Soviet encirclement and then started a preventive war. And the alternative explanation focuses on the issues of Chinese ethnic minority in Vietnam and the leader’s psychology which all lead China to counterattack Vietnam. In China, the war is referred to “Defensive counterattack against Vietnam”. However, I will argue that self-defensive counter attack cannot be explained as the leading cause that led China into war, because there are so many other factors that people need to take into account. (Note: I am not fully sure if it is better to make my argument as China was more like doing a preventive war rather than self-defensive counter attack by using my rationalist explanation. )
The People republic of China (PRC) saw Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) as an agent of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), who was a threat in the north flank. As PRC-USSR split became more entrenched in global politics, PRC started to feel threatened by other countries who formed alliances with the Soviets. Vietnam was seen as a significant threat due to the support they were getting from the USSR. PRC feared that Vietnam would dominate Indochina and thus they had to stop them.
According to Fearon, there are three rationalist explanations of war and one of the explanation states the commitment problems, which one cannot commit to use military forces in the days to come. The first-strike advantage increases the incentive to defect sooner and the actor fears being attacked would start a preventive war. This explanation perfectly describes what happened between People’s republic of China and Socialist Republic of Vietnam, China feared that Russia would become the hegemon in the region and they would be attacked next and thus started a preventive war. Attacking first gave them an advantage.
For my alternative explanation, I am considering both nationalism and leader’s psychology. One of the factors that contributed to the later counter attack action was the issues of Chinese ethnic minority who lived in Vietnam. The minority group was known as Hoa. The Chinese believed the Hoa people had an uncanny capability to dominate the Vietnam economy. However, Vietnamese resented this group, and in the 1970s, Hanoi started to persecute and systematically limit the Hoa people in Vietnam using both neglect and the law in a conscious approach to subverting their influence in the Vietnamese society.
From 1977 to 1978, Hanoi attacks on the Chinese minority became more draconian, and Beijing got more agitated. They repeatedly warned Hanoi the political attacks might elicit sharp responses. Hanoi did not heed the warning and continued the attacks resulting intense relationship between the two countries. On the other hand, the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was in the intraparty struggle and he may have sanctioned the counterattack against Vietnam in order to gain support from the army leaders. It was an attempt by Deng to consolidate nationalist feelings in China and establish his prestige in the military.
Although the two explanations presented in this essay seem all very persuasive and plausible, the rationalist explanation holds more weight. Indeed, the PRC could not stand and wait to be invaded by the Soviet ally, who had just annihilated one of its friends. They had to attack before the war came to their doorstep.
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