On February 17, 1979, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops crossed Vietnam’s northern border to invade the country, waging a bloody strike along the 370-mile border that the two nations share. From the standpoint of historians, China’s month-long invasion of Vietnam is understood to have been a response to what Beijing considered to be a collection of provocative actions and policies undertaken by Hanoi. Chinese forces captured several Vietnamese cities, provoked by their need to prevent Vietnamese influence in Cambodia, where Vietnam had invaded and occupied in 1978. Historically, China had previously given Hanoi steadfast support against US forces in the Vietnam War.
Their allegiance swiftly began to deteriorate in the mid-Seventies, especially when Vietnam joined the Soviet-dominated Council for Mutual Economic Cooperation (Comecon) and signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union – then China’s greatest rival – in 1978.
China called the treaty a military alliance and branded Vietnam the “Cuba of the East,” pursuing “imperial dreams” in Southeast Asia.
In the months leading to the initiation of war, there was calculated and organised preparation for military intervention against Hanoi.
The People’s Liberation Army of China moved into Vietnam on February 17, 1979, mounting substantial military intent with a huge number of personnel backed up by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery.
The result was as comprehensive as it was deadly. A far inferior Vietnamese army were picked apart by waves of Chinese invasion.
The Chinese overran important cities and mountainous areas where sporadic conflict would persist for the next decade.
The death toll has been disputed with neither side officially publishing official figures.
Sources in Hanoi claimed the Chinese army suffered 62,500 casualties, while sources from Beijing claimed death toll was between 6,000 and 9,000.
Equally chilling was China’s psychological warfare operations to sabotage Vietnam’s attempts to restore its war-torn border economic centres by igniting anti-Vietnamese sentiments among the border.
The two countries have subsequently engaged in further skirmishes and standoffs in the decades since the bloody 1979 war.
In 1988, 64 Vietnamese soldiers were killed in a conflict over the Johnson South Reef in the South China Sea.
In 2014, there was a standoff between Chinese and Vietnamese military, as a Chinese oil rig entered disputed waters where Vietnam had also contested for ownership.