China Invades Vietnam Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Objecting to Vietnam’s harassment of ethnic Chinese, alliance with the Soviet Union, and preparations for war against Cambodia, leaders of the People’s Republic of China waged a short, punitive invasion of northern Vietnam that resulted in high casualties on both sides.


The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War revealed a deep split in the world’s Communist camp, proving that those who had argued that the Communist nations were not one monolithic block were right. In China, the war strengthened the position of Deng Xiaoping, which helped him to promote his “four modernizations” program. Deng became chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Chinese Communist Party in 1981. China;invasion of Vietnam

Because China reached its military objectives in Vietnam less quickly than planned and at much higher cost than expected, owing to a surprisingly tenacious Vietnamese defense, many observers outside China viewed the war as a Chinese failure. China, however, viewed the war as a strategic victory: The PRC had punished Vietnam, and Vietnam’s ally, the Soviet Union, had not dared to intervene militarily. At least one American historian asserted that the Sino-Vietnamese War signaled the end of the Soviet Union as a superpower. However, given that both the Soviet Union and the PRC had nuclear arms, it is probable that the Soviet Union restrained itself as long as the war remained limited, just as the PRC publicly declined to save the Khmer Rouge in January, 1979.

Chinese-Vietnamese relations remained severely damaged by the Sino-Vietnamese War. From July, 1980, to January, 1987, six major border clashes took place between the two nations. Vietnam bore a high economic cost as it continued to maintain military preparedness against China. It was not until after the Tiananmen Square incident of June 4, 1989, that Vietnam and the PRC began talks on normalization of their relationship, on August 11, 1989. In 1999, the PRC and Vietnam signed a border pact whereby China gained some slivers of Vietnamese territory. China;invasion of Vietnam Vietnam;Chinese invasion Sino-Vietnamese War (1979)[Sinovietnamese War]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bakshi, G. D. “The Sino-Vietnamese War, 1979: Case Studies in Limited Wars.” Indian Defense Review 14 (July-September, 2000). Focuses primarily on the military events of the war. Discusses the theory of limited war and compares Chinese and Vietnamese patterns of operations. Includes select bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chen, King C. China’s War with Vietnam, 1979. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1987. Standard resource on the war covers the events in context and comprehensively. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elleman, Bruce. Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989. New York: Routledge, 2001. History of China’s military actions from the late eighteenth century to the late twentieth century covers the Sino-Vietnamese war in detail in chapter 17. Argues that China successfully proved the Soviet Union lacked the power to protect its ally Vietnam and that the war can be seen as a first step toward the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jencks, Harlan. “China’s ’Punitive War’ on Vietnam: A Military Assessment.” Asian Survey 19 (August, 1979): 801-815. Presents an immediate academic response to the war. Covers China’s reasons for waging it and what was learned of China’s military capabilities. Includes map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zhang, Xiaoming. “China’s War with Vietnam: A Reassessment.” China Quarterly 184 (December, 2005): 851-874. Covers events of the war from a Chinese viewpoint, making use of previously unavailable documents. Presents excellent discussion of China’s decision to go to war and lessons learned on the Chinese side. Includes map.

U.S. Troops Leave Vietnam

Death of Mao Zedong Leads to Reforms in China

China Promises to Correct Human Rights Abuses

United States and China Establish Full Diplomatic Relations

China Conducts Atmospheric Nuclear Test

Vietnamese Troops Withdraw from Cambodia

Categories: History