Sino-Soviet Relations and

the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese Conflict

by Bruce Elleman

20 April 1996

Gerald Segal, in his 1985 book Defending China, concluded that China's 1979 war against Vietnam was a complete failure: "China failed to force a Vietnamese withdrawal from [Cambodia], failed to end border clashes, failed to cast doubt on the strength of the Soviet power, failed to dispel the image of China as a paper tiger, and failed to draw the United States into an anti-Soviet coalition."

In an attempt to challenge this view that Beijing's policy was a failure, this paper will strive to reevaluate the central role that Sino-Soviet relations played on China's decision to attack Vietnam. Most importantly, it will try to show that the timing of China's February 17th attack on Vietnam was linked to the 29th anniversary of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

One should recall that on February 14, 1950 Beijing and Moscow signed a 30-year treaty that included secret protocols supporting the USSR's role as leader of the world communist movement. When Moscow later refused to renegotiate Sino-Soviet territorial disputes, this led to Sino-Soviet border clashes, most importantly during the late 1960s.

Western scholars have all too often overlooked that even during this period of Sino-Soviet tensions, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance remained fully in force throughout this entire period of unrest. From Beijing's viewpoint at least, the 1950 Sino-Soviet treaty was a major instrument through which Moscow had tried to exert its "hegemony" over China.

Moscow was clearly concerned what might happen when the Sino-Soviet treaty reached its 30-year term. Beginning in 1969, the USSR frequently urged China to replace the 1950 treaty with a new agreement. During 1978, Soviet forces were increased along the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian borders. Moscow also sought to force Beijing to come to terms by intensifying diplomatic relations with Hanoi, signing a twenty-five year defense treaty with Vietnam on November 3, 1978.

Instead of backing down, however, China announced its intention to invade Vietnam on February 15, 1979, the very first day that it could legally terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty and it attacked three days later. When Moscow did not intervene, Beijing publicly proclaimed that the USSR had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam. The USSR's failure to support Vietnam emboldened China to announce on April 3, 1979 that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.

Instead of working under the assumption that China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam was a complete failure, this paper will try to show that one of the primary diplomatic goals behind China's attack was to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud. Seen in this light, Beijing's policy was actually a diplomatic success, since Moscow did not actively intervene, thus showing the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese military pact. As a result, this paper will suggest that China achieved a strategic victory by minimizing the future possibility of a two-front war against the USSR and Vietnam and a diplomatic victory by terminating of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty.

This paper will also reevaluate Beijing's claim that the USSR's failure to intervene against China proved that it was merely a "paper polar bear." Recently declassified archival documents from the USSR have tended to support China's claim, raising the important question of whether by 1979 Beijing had already correctly identified Far Eastern symptoms of Moscow's internal decay -- the same decay that eventually brought the Soviet government down in 1991 -- several years before similar evidence of this decay became widely available in the European theater. If so, then the possibility exists that the `beginning of the end' of the Cold War actually occurred in Asia.

A Brief History of Sino-Soviet Relations Through the Late 1960s

Sino-Soviet relations through the late 1960s were marred not only by sharp disagreement over the status of Outer Mongolia, but also by numerous territorial disputes along the Sino-Soviet border. In fact, these conflicts had festered beneath the surface of Russo-Chinese relations for over a century, ever since Imperial Russia forced China to sign a series of treaties ceding it vast territories. According to S. C. M. Paine's forthcoming book Imperial Rivals : "For China, the physical territorial losses were enormous: an area exceeding that of the United States east of the Mississippi River officially became Russian territory or, in the case of Outer Mongolia, a Soviet protectorate."

Following China's 1949 revolution, Mao Zedong journeyed to Moscow to negotiate a formal treaty with Stalin. After two months, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was completed and was signed on February 14, 1950. The duration of this treaty was thirty years, and clause number six specifically stated that if neither signatory announced their intention to terminate the treaty during its final year, then the alliance would automatically be extended for a further five years.

In fact, published versions of this Sino-Soviet treaty did not include many secret protocols. The Winter 1995 edition of Cold War International History Project Bulletin includes an account of Mao's description of the secret Sino-Soviet negotiations:

     During  the  negotiations, at Stalin's  initiative
     there  was  undertaken an attempt  by  the  Soviet
     Union  to  assume sole ownership  of  the  Chinese
     Changchun  (i.e.  Harbin) Railway.   Subsequently,
     however,  a  decision  was made  about  the  joint
     exploitation  of the . . . Railway, besides  which
     the  PRC  gave  the USSR the naval  base  in  Port
     Arthur, and four joint stock companies were opened
     in China.  At Stalin's initiative, . . . Manchuria
     and  Xinjiang were practically turned into spheres
     of influence of the USSR.

Thus, although the public sections of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty have long been known, an undetermined number of secret protocols were also signed; to date, copies of these protocols have never been published. (Bruce Elleman, "The End of Extraterritoriality in China: The Case of the Soviet Union, 1917-1960," Republican China (forthcoming, Spring 1996)

On February 15, 1950, Mao also grudgingly agreed to recognize the "independent status" of the MPR. This admission was a far cry from recognizing Mongolia's complete independence from China, however, since Mao firmly believed that the Soviet government had earlier promised to return Mongolia to China. Based on Mao's later complaints, Mao must have received assurances from Stalin that Mongolia's status, as well as the exact location of the Sino-Mongolian and Sino-Soviet borders, would be discussed at future meetings. Thus, it was Moscow's refusal to open negotiations with Beijing eventually led to border clashes during the 1950s and 1960s. Although the Sino-Mongolian border was resolved in 1962, Mao publicly denounced Soviet encroachments on Chinese territory and he protested Soviet control of Mongolia: "[T]he Soviet Union, under the pretext of assuring the independence of Mongolia, actually placed the country under its domination."

During the late 1960s, in a series of border incidents along the Ussuri and Amur rivers the People's Liberation Army (PLA) showed surprising tenacity against the Red Army. These conflicts were small in scope and the outcome proved to be inconclusive, but they led to later territorial conflicts in Xinjiang along China's border with the USSR.

Although tension in Sino-Soviet relations was so great that many Western scholars referred to it as a "split," the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty continued to exist. In fact, this treaty, including both the publicly released terms and the secret protocols, was still the foundation on which Sino-Soviet relations rested. This foundation was unstable from the very beginning, however, since the USSR refused to return Tsarist Russia's ill-gotten gains to China's communist leadership. Arguably it was this issue, more than any other, that led China's leaders to condemn Soviet "hegemonism" in the Far East. It was also this issue that was destined to sour China's relations with Vietnam during the 1970s.

Sino-Soviet Relations During the 1970s

Sino-Soviet border disputes during the late 1960s were particularly disturbing to Moscow and Beijing, since both the USSR and China were now nuclear powers; apparently an informal consensus was reached that neither side would resort to air power. (Christian F. Ostermann, "New Evidence on The Sino-Soviet Border Dispute," Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5 (Spring 1995), 186-193.)

These Sino-Soviet border conflicts had enormous social repercussions, however, forcing both countries to divert scarce resources to prepare for a possible nuclear war or for future military escalation along their mutual borders. The PLA's new-found confidence that it could counter the Red Army also gave Beijing the opportunity during 1971 to adopt a new foreign policy initiative by promoting friendly relations with the United States.

In addition, China tried hard to improve its relations with Japan, signing a treaty in August 1978 which appeared to be critical of the Soviet Union's foreign policy in Asia by specifically condemning "hegemonism." Finally, Sino-Soviet tensions also spawned a number of Southeast Asian proxy wars, such as the late 1970s' conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as forcing China to accept its role as a regional power, best shown by its 1979 invasion of Vietnam to undermine the USSR's growing influence.

Throughout the 1970s, Sino-Soviet tensions remained high. During this period, Moscow tried to convince Beijing to negotiate a new agreement that would either support, or even replace, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. Beginning in 1969 and 1970, Moscow proposed that the two sides promise not to attack each other, and especially not to ever resort to the use of nuclear weapons. When Beijing did not show any interest in this accord, however, Moscow suggested in 1971 that the two countries sign a new treaty that would disavow force altogether. Thereafter, in 1973 Moscow showed its concern by specifically proposing that the two countries sign a non-aggression pact; Beijing continued to ignore Moscow's advances.

As the end of the Sino-Soviet Treaty's 30-year term neared, the USSR's efforts to replace this treaty increased dramatically. For example, on 24 February 1978, Moscow publicly proposed that the two governments issue a statement of principles which would regulate Sino-Soviet relations. This statement of principles would include: 1) equality, 2) mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, 3) noninterference in each other's internal affairs, and 4) the nonuse of force. Moscow clearly hoped that such a statement could be used in place of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty to regulate Sino-Soviet relations. The ultimate goal of the USSR's proposals, however, was clearly to limit, or perhaps even to reduce, China's growing influence throughout Asia. (According to Chang Pao-min, this aspect of the Soviet policies towards China was most attractive to the the Vietnamese, even quoting one Vietnamese official as stating: "There is a tangibly strong Soviet interest coinciding with Vietnamese interests - to reduce Chinese influence in this part of the world." Chang Pao-min, Kampuchea Between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1985), 46-47.)

Beijing refused all of Moscow's proposals, however, and throughout the 1970s China's condemnation of the USSR became more vocal. For example, during February 1974, Mao Zedong publicly called for a "third world" coalition against the so-called "first world," in this case including both the USSR and the USA. After Mao's death, however, a 1 November 1977 issue of Renmin Ribao, identified the USSR as China's most dangerous enemy while the United States was now considered an ally. All of the socialist countries -- including especially Vietnam ( "The breakdown of Vietnam's relations with China after 1975 and Vietnam's current pro-Soviet alignment may be traced to Vietnamese resistance to Chinese pressures to take sides." Ramesh Thaku and Carlyle Thayer, Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992), 287.) -- were also considered potential allies in a proposed "united front" against the USSR. Finally, on 26 March 1978, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded that Moscow, in addition to recognizing the existence of "disputed areas" along the Sino-Soviet border, must completely withdraw Soviet troops from the MPR, as well as pulling them back from along the entire Sino-Soviet border.

In response to China's demands, Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, visited Siberia during early April 1978, and announced that new, more advanced equipment had been provided to missile units stationed along the Sino-Soviet border. These new weapons, Brezhnev announced, would be instrumental in "securing ourselves and our socialist friends against possible aggression, whatever the source." Soon afterwards, on 12 April 1978, Ulan Bator also publicly protested Beijing's demands, stating that additional Soviet troops had been stationed along the Sino-Mongolia border at Mongolia's request in order to offset increased Chinese troop concentrations to the south of the border.

As these events quite clearly show, by 1978 Sino-Soviet border tensions had dramatically intensified, mainly due to increased Soviet troop concentrations along the Sino-Soviet border and in the MPR. To a large degree, this situation can be explained by Moscow's continuing attempts to pressure Beijing not to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty, which could be terminated for the very first time in 1979, or -- better yet -- to negotiate a new treaty which would outline principles on which future Sino-Soviet relations would be based. Brezhnev's announcement that he intended to use Soviet forces against China on behalf of Moscow's "socialist friends" was also a warning to Beijing to keep its hands off the MPR as well as Moscow's allies in Southeast Asia.

China not only did not buckle under the USSR's diplomatic and military pressure, but Beijing tried to exert diplomatic pressure on Moscow in turn by working hard to solidify its relations with both the United States and Japan. Arguably, Beijing's policy was the more successful of the two, resulting in Beijing concluding landmark agreements with both Washington and Tokyo. To Moscow, it must have seemed clear that China's new agreements were directed against the USSR, since -- in the case of the Sino-Japanese treaty at least -- the two sides specifically condemned "hegemonism," the oft-used Chinese code word for Soviet expansionism. The USSR response was to strengthen its diplomatic relations with all of the Southeast Asian countries bordering on China, and most importantly among them, with Vietnam.

Sino-Soviet Relations and Vietnam Through February 1979

Although China may not have been a participant in the Vietnam conflict during the 1960s and 1970s, China's economic and material support for Vietnam played a crucial role. Not only did China send troops to Vietnam to help maintain supply lines, but Beijing's estimate of its support for Hanoi between 1950 to 1978 exceeded $20 billion. (King C. Chen, China's War with Vietnam, 1979 (Stanford, CA, Hoover Institution Press, 1987), 27) It is not hard to understand, therefore, why Beijing might be miffed at improving relations between Moscow and Hanoi during the late 1970s.

This was especially true after the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty on 3 November 1978 that was specifically aimed at China. According to one scholar, this Soviet-Vietnamese alliance made Vietnam the "linchpin" in the USSR's "drive to contain China." (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), 71.) From Beijing's perspective, therefore, Moscow's attempt to surround China diplomatically appeared to be on the verge of succeeding. This realization sparked China's invasion of Vietnam in February 1979.

Although diplomatic relations between Beijing and Hanoi during the 1960s and early 1970s were generally good, policy differences between China and Vietnam widened after the April 1975 fall of Saigon. In September of that year, Le Duan, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), traveled to Beijing and during the series of meetings that followed Le Duan's arrival it became clear that China was very concerned about Vietnam's close relations with the USSR. Although relations continued to worsen during the following years, the rift between China and Vietnam first became apparent only when thousands of ethnic Chinese began to flee Vietnam during the spring and summer of 1978. In addition, territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands, as well as over Vietnam's recent invasion of Cambodia, also increased Sino-Vietnamese tensions.

Meanwhile, increasing signs of Soviet-Vietnamese cooperation also appeared during the summer of 1978, as Vietnam asked to become a member of Comecon. In addition, government sources in the United States reported that by August 1978 as many as 4,000 Soviet advisors were in Vietnam. During September 1978, the USSR began carrying out increased arms shipments to Vietnam, both by air and by sea, which included "aircraft, missiles, tanks, and munitions." Finally, all of these signs of improving Soviet-Vietnamese relations came to fruition on 3 November 1978, when Vietnam and the USSR signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. There was no doubt that this treaty was aimed at China, since the sixth clause stated that Vietnam and the USSR would "immediately consult each other" if either is "attacked or threatened with attack . . . with a view to eliminating that threat." Reportedly, this treaty also included a secret protocol granting Soviet military forces access to Vietnam's "airfields and ports." (Ramesh Thaku and Carlyle Thayer, Soviet Relations with India and Vietnam (New York, St. Martin's Press, 1992), 61.)

Although Vietnam claimed that it signed this treaty with the USSR to stop Chinese "adventurist" acts, Chinese leaders in Beijing undoubtedly saw this as part of Moscow's efforts to pressure China into backing down and renewing the unequal terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. If the USSR were able to establish a foothold in southeast Asia, it could flank China on both its northern and southern borders. If successful, this policy might give Moscow sufficient leverage to force Beijing into renewing, or at least renegotiating, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty on Moscow's terms. An early indicator of Beijing's concern over the Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty was voiced by Renmin Ribao which warned that Moscow was using Vietnam against China as it had earlier tried -- and failed -- to use Cuba to exert diplomatic pressure against the United States. Beijing also warned that Moscow's ultimate goal was to "bring the whole of Indochina under its control."

By signing the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty on 3 November 1978, the USSR hoped to use its relations with Vietnam to outmaneuver and outflank China. China's main concern was that if the USSR's policies in Vietnam were successful, then the Soviet government might achieve a strategic and military stranglehold over China. Ever since the Sino-Soviet rift, and especially since the Sino-Soviet border conflicts of the late 1960s, Beijing's primary goal had been to build up its own military potential in order to face off the Soviet Red Army, a goal which it had largely achieved during the middle to late 1960s, early 1970s, when the PLA's strength reportedly reached 3.6 million men. Diplomatically, Beijing continued to try to flank Moscow by officially normalizing its relations with Washington on 1 January 1979. Ramses Amer has concluded that the USSR's and China's new alliances were closely linked: "Thus two strategic alliances had been created in the closing months of 1978, a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance and a Sino-American alliance, and they would prevail for about a decade."

As a result of the Sino-American rapprochement in early 1979, Moscow's concern about a two-front war with American-led NATO forces in the west and Chinese forces in the east was increased. This may have convinced Moscow to increase its support for Vietnam's ongoing invasion of Cambodia, an event that Robert Ross has closely linked with China's subsequent attack on Vietnam when he argued that the unraveling of China's close ally in Cambodia greatly concerned Beijing. While Beijing was unwilling to intervene directly in Cambodia to stop Vietnamese encroachment, China's military invasion into disputed Sino-Vietnamese territory was in fact closely "synchronized" with Vietnam's invasion in Cambodia. Ross has further concluded that the ongoing disputes over Cambodia and the Sino-Vietnamese border had an "organic connection," as Chinese leaders warned Vietnam not to mistakenly think that China was "weak and easily bullied."

In the final analysis, however, Vietnam was a relatively small country both in terms of population and military strength, and it was probably the sudden arrival of large numbers of Soviet advisors -- an estimated 5,000-8,000 by mid-1979 -- and enormous quantities of military supplies that boded ill for China's immediate strategic security; thus, according to King C. Chen: "Had there been no Soviet-Vietnamese alliance, the sixteen-day war between China and Vietnam might not have been fought." In a clear admission that the USSR's military cooperation with Vietnam deeply concerned China, Deng Xiaoping publicly acknowledged that this new Soviet-Vietnamese "military alliance" was really just part of the USSR's long-time goal of wanting to "encircle China."

Following the signing of the 3 November 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty, Beijing had to find a way to break this Soviet attempt to encircle China. Thus, it was fear of being outflanked by Moscow that was instrumental in pushing Beijing into action. Clearly, China's first step was to test the USSR's resolve to see whether it would stand by its treaty with Vietnam or whether it would back down and accept defeat. Deng Xiaoping even reportedly told President Carter in January 1979 that a war between China and Vietnam would "disrupt Soviet strategic calculations . . . " As a result, even Ross has concluded that in the wake of Vietnam's successful occupation of Cambodia, it was "the resultant Soviet encirclement of China [that] necessitated a limited invasion of Vietnam."

The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

Chinese forces invaded Vietnam on 17 February 1979. Although the exact motives underlying China's attack are still open to interpretation, Beijing's concern that Moscow's twenty-five year defense treaty with Hanoi might lead to the Soviet militarization of the Sino-Vietnamese border was certainly a major factor; Moscow probably also hoped that its treaty with Hanoi would divert Chinese troops away from the north, thus weakening China's military defense along the Sino-Soviet border.

Moscow's hopes were dashed, however, when Beijing decided to attack Vietnam. After only three weeks of fighting, China withdrew and disputes over the Sino-Vietnamese border remained unresolved. To most outsiders, China's military action thus appeared to be a failure. But, if the real goal behind China's attack was to expose Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam as a fraud, then the USSR's refusal to intervene effectively terminated the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty. Thus, Beijing did achieve a clear strategic victory by breaking the Soviet encirclement and by eliminating Moscow's threat of a two-front war.

On 15 February 1979, not only the 29th anniversary of the Mao-Stalin agreement on Mongolia but also the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam's behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the USSR; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of her troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border.(Chang Pao-min, Kampuchea Between China and Vietnam (Singapore, Singapore University Press, 1985), 88-89.)

In addition, the bulk of China's active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China's borders with the USSR. (Robert A. Scalapino "Asia in a Global Context: Strategic Issue for the Soviet Union," in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA. , Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 28.)

As promised, China's military offensive against Vietnam began on 17 February 1979, within three days of the 29th anniversary of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. As Deng had announced, from the very beginning China conducted a limited action against Vietnam. Not only were many of China's best troops stationed along the Sino-Soviet border, but Beijing decided not to deploy the estimated 500 fighters and bombers it had stationed in the area. In response to China's attack, the USSR sent several naval vessels and initiated a Soviet arms airlift to Vietnam. On 22 February 1979, Colonel N. A. Trarkov, the Soviet military attach??? in Hanoi, even threatened that the USSR would "carry out is obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty;" elsewhere, however, Soviet diplomats made it clear that the USSR would not intervene as long as the conflict remained limited. (John Blodgett, "Vietnam: Soviet Pawn or Regional Power?" in Rodney W. Jones and Steven A. Hildreth, eds., Emerging Powers Defense and Security in the Third World (New York, Praeger Publishers, 1986), 98). The USSR clearly had no intention of risking a full-scale war with China for the sake of Vietnam.

After three weeks of intense fighting, China could claim that it captured three of Vietnam's six provincial capitals -- Cao Bang, Lang Son, and Lao Cai -- that bordered on China. Although the Chinese forces totaled over a quarter million men, the Vietnamese turned to guerrilla tactics to rob China of a quick victory. When Beijing announced its intention to withdraw its troops on 5 March 1979, therefore, it appeared that the primary goals of this offensive had yet to be achieved; namely, Vietnam's military potential had not been seriously damaged by China. Thereafter, the Sino-Vietnamese border remained tense when, after less than three weeks of fighting, China withdrew from Vietnam.

To many outside observers, it appeared that China's attack against Vietnam was a complete and total failure. But, as Banning Garrett has correctly observed, the "Chinese demonstrated that they could attack a Soviet ally without retaliation from the `paper polar bear'." (Banning Garrett, "The Strategic Triangle and the Indochina Crisis," in David W. P. Elliott, ed., The Third Indochina Conflict, (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1981), 212.)

In fact, by proving that the USSR would not actively intervene on Vietnam's behalf, China was convinced that its termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty would also not lead to war. As a result, on 3 April 1979, Beijing announced its intentions to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. Thereafter, although Sino-Soviet negotiations were officially opened during October 1979, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan gave China a pretense for calling off future meetings, thereby precluding any immediate need to negotiate a new Sino-Soviet diplomatic treaty.

Because the exact motives underlying China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam have remained unclear, scholars studying this conflict have proposed many plausible sounding theories. Perhaps the most common has been that China wanted to "punish" Vietnam for invading Cambodia, an area which had formerly been considered a tributary state to the Chinese empire. Other Sino-Vietnamese problems, such as territorial disputes over the Spratly Islands or the mass exodus of Chinese nationals from Vietnam, have also been portrayed as playing a major role. Most convincing, however, have been the relatively small number of scholars who have argued that Vietnam's decision to promote closer relations with the USSR was the primary reason behind China's attack.

Among those scholars who have hypothesized that China's actions were a response to the 3 November 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty, there have been a wide range of interpretations as to whether China's policy was a success or a failure. For example, according to Gerald Segal, China's policy failed because it did not put the Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty to the "ultimate test." Robert Ross also concluded that China's policy was a failure, although he was more positive than Segal by granting that the Sino-Vietnamese war was the first time since 1949 that China had used force when its territory was not directly threatened, thus proving that China was now capable of "acting like a regional power with regional interests." Finally, Banning Garrett and Nayan Chanda have been more positive, at least acknowledging Chinese claims that the abortive Sino-Vietnamese war was a success because it proved that the USSR was a "paper polar bear" since Moscow refused to carry out its treaty obligation to intervene on Hanoi's behalf.

Perhaps the most positive view of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict comes from Chang Pao-min. According to Chang, when one considers this conflict from Beijing's point of view, then the 1978 Soviet-Vietnamese defense treaty was a clear threat to China's security. Not only did the USSR hope to use this treaty to set up an "Asian Collective Security System" aimed at China, but its military relations with Vietnam were described as an attempt to "threaten and attempt to pin down China from the south;" in this regard, Vietnam was described in later Chinese statements as "the knife the Soviet Union has at China's back." As Chang observed, therefore, the Sino-Vietnamese conflict must be seen as a reaction to the Soviet Union's attempt to use Vietnam "to contain and encircle China in Southeast Asia . . . [thus posing] a serious threat to China's southern flank."

The arguments presented in this paper tend to support the view that China's February 1979 war with Vietnam was a success. Once Beijing was convinced that Moscow would not intervene on Hanoi's behalf, this emboldened Beijing to break with Moscow completely; this break can best be seen in Beijing's 3 April 1979 announcement that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. As final proof that China's policies in Vietnam were inextricably linked with the USSR, Amers has accurately noted that China's 1988 decision to disengage its border relations with Vietnam from the issue of Cambodia corresponded almost exactly with Gorbachev's attempts to normalize relations with China and improve the USSR's relations with the ASEAN states. Thus, by breaking the Soviet encirclement and eliminating Moscow's threat of a two-front war, China achieved a significant strategic victory against the USSR.

Was the USSR a "Paper Polar Bear"?

Western scholars have almost universally concluded that China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam was a failure. For example, according to Gerald Segal, "the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war was China's most important foreign policy failure since 1949." To a large degree Robert Ross agreed, stating: "The failure of Chinese policy underscores the ambiguous role of the regional power in contemporary international politics." Most recently, Ellis Joffe, a specialist on the PLA at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, concluded: "China got burned by limited measures against Vietnam in 1979. China was going to teach Vietnam a lesson, but Vietnam taught China a lesson." ("Strait of Uncertainty Taiwan braves increased pressure from China," Far Eastern Economic Review, 8 February 1996, 20-21.)

These negative Western assessments are in sharp contrast to Beijing's own claims that its 1979 war against Vietnam was a success, since Moscow's decision not to intervene proved that the USSR was merely a "paper polar bear." Beijing apparently was willing to back up this claim with action, when it not only announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty but then later delivered to Moscow three preconditions for improving Sino-Soviet relations. These three preconditions included: 1) withdrawing Soviet troops from the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolia, 2) withdrawing Soviet troops from Afghanistan, and 3) stopping Soviet support for Vietnam's incursion into Cambodia. (Yao Wengin, "Soviet Military Deployments in the Asia-Pacific Region: Implications for China's Security," in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA., Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 103.)

In addition to adopting a more assertive posture in its relations with the USSR, therefore, China's southern neighbors have also been forced to treat her with more respect; according to one 1986 report, because Hanoi lost its 1979 gamble that Beijing would never actually attack, Vietnam, "chastened by the experience of 1979, now stations 700,000 combat troops in the northern portion of the country." (Karl D. Jackson, "Indochina, 1982-1985: Peace Yields to War," in Richard H. Solomon and Masataka Kosaka, eds., The Soviet Far East Military Buildup (Dover, MA., Auburn House Publishing Company, 1986), 206.)

China's more assertive role in Asia during the 1980s suggests, therefore, that Beijing actually believed that it was victorious in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war. Thus, although Nayan Chanda and others have warned that Chinese claims that the USSR was merely a "paper polar bear" may simply have been propaganda, Beijing's own actions indicate that they firmly believed this view. It is for this reason that recent discussions about when the Cold War really ended would appear to have a direct bearing on Beijing's 1979 claim that Moscow was already too weak to fight. In fact, according to China's view, the USSR's failure to intervene on Vietnam's behalf in 1979 was proof positive that Moscow no longer had the stomach to fight a major war; in other words, the most dangerous era of the Cold War was already over.

Until now, popular discussion of whether the Cold War was actually over earlier than the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall has revolved around statements made by retired four-star Soviet General Anatoly Gribkov, who was the former chief of staff of the Warsaw Pact during the early 1980s. Gribkov bases his arguments on the fact that by December 1981, the Soviet Politburo had clearly lost the political will to use force to keep their extended empire in line. This assessment was made based on the Politburo's refusal to send troops to Poland to thwart a democratic takeover, a sign of weakness that Gribkov points to as evidence that the USSR actually "lost" the Cold War as early as 1981.("The Two Trillion Dollar Mistake," Worth, (February 1996), 78-83/128-129. )

Recently declassified minutes of a Soviet Politburo meeting from 10 December 1981 tend to support Gribkov's claims, by showing that the option of sending troops against Poland's "Solidarity" party was unanimously rejected by Moscow as too great a risk. (Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5 (Spring 1995), 135-137) In addition, these minutes reveal that the Politburo seriously considered backing down in the Far East by ordering the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Mongolia; if Moscow had actually carried out this plan, then it would have been acceding to one of Beijing's three preconditions for improving Sino-Soviet relations.

These Soviet documents, and others like them, appear to support Gribkov's claim that by 1981 the Soviet leadership had already lost the ability to use force in order to shore up the crumbling Soviet empire. This exact same reasoning could also be applied to the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict, since China's invasion of Vietnam clearly posed a real threat to the security and stability of the USSR's sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. The very fact that the Soviet Politburo declined to carry through on its treaty obligations to Vietnam and refused to intervene against China would suggest that Gribkov's argument that the Soviet Politburo had lost the political will to hold its empire together by force could be equally -- if not better -- applied to the outcome of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese war.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the USSR's unexpected collapse in 1991 demands a new assessment of the impact of Sino-Soviet relations on the February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict. One facet of this assessment must be to consider whether China's 1979 claim that the USSR was already a "paper polar bear" now appears more plausible in light of the USSR's subsequent dissolution. Although Gribkov's claim that the Cold War was already over in 1981 may be far earlier than most Western scholars have been willing to accept, it is several years later than China's view. In hindsight, China's 1979 date not only appears plausible, therefore, but to future scholars the year 1979 may one day prove to be even more accurate than 1981. If so, then Beijing must be given proper credit for correctly identifying Far Eastern symptoms of Moscow's internal weakness more than two years before similar indications became discernible in the West. This then raises the question of whether `the beginning of the end' of the Cold War really took place in 1979, as a result of Moscow's refusal to accept Beijing's boldfaced challenge to the USSR's military supremacy in the Far East.


Previous studies of the 17 February 1979 Sino-Vietnamese conflict have generally portrayed China's actions as an absolute failure. This paper, by contrast, has attempted to reevaluate the Sino-Vietnamese war in terms of Sino-Soviet relations by linking this conflict to the 29th anniversary of the signing of the 14 February 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. As a direct result of the USSR's decision not to intervene on Vietnam's behalf, China became convinced that the USSR lacked the political will to resort to war in order to sustain the Soviet sphere of influence in Asia. This conviction led Beijing to inform Moscow on 3 April 1979 that China intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty upon reaching its 30-year term in 1980.

From 1950 through until 1979, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance was the foundation on which Sino-Soviet relations rested. Although the published sections of this treaty have long been available, the exact content of the secret protocols that were attached to this treaty are still largely unknown. That these secret protocols related to Sino-Soviet territorial disputes is fairly clear, however, and during the 1950s and 1960s frequent border disputes between the USSR and China reflected the degree of tension that these secret protocols produced. Although none of the Sino-Soviet border conflicts were allowed to escalate into all-out war, Beijing was continually testing the USSR's resolve to see whether it would resort to force to uphold the terms of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. Thus, from Beijing's point of view, the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty was the major tool through which Moscow tried to exert its "hegemony" over China and throughout the rest of Asia.

Moscow, by contrast, was clearly concerned what might happen when the Sino-Soviet Treaty reached its 30-year term. Beginning in 1969, the USSR frequently urged China to replace this treaty with a new agreement. To force Beijing to retreat, Moscow not only fortified the Sino-Soviet and Sino-Mongolian borders, but it also exerted pressure on China from the south, by completing a treaty of alliance with Vietnam. Thus, the improvement in Soviet-Vietnamese relations, culminating in the signing of the 3 November 1978 Sino-Vietnamese defense treaty, can be directly linked to China's worsening relations with the USSR during the late 1970s. Instead of backing down, however, China invaded Vietnam on 17 February 1979, just three days after the 29th anniversary of the signing of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty. When Moscow refused to intervene on Hanoi's behalf, Beijing decided that the Soviet Politburo would not resort to war to force China to retain the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty and so was emboldened to announce on 3 April 1979 that it intended to terminate this treaty.

One of Beijing's primary goals in attacking Vietnam was to insure that China was not surrounded on both the north and south by Soviet forces. China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam, for all of its obvious failings, did achieve this strategic objective since the USSR's refusal to intervene on Vietnam's behalf undermined the threat of a two-front war with the USSR and Vietnam. Diplomatically, China also won a clear victory against Soviet attempts to pressure her into signing a new treaty to replace or augment the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance of 14 February 1950. Finally, in hindsight, China's claim that the USSR was really just a "paper polar bear" appears to have been fairly accurate, and thus represents perhaps the first outside indicator that the Soviet empire was threatened by internal collapse, a collapse that only became evident ten years later with the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and with the 1991 dissolution of the USSR.

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