82. Special National Intelligence Estimate1

SNIE 13–9–70


  • SNIE 13–9–70: Chinese Reactions to Possible Developments in Indochina

[Omitted here are the cover page and a 1-page map of Indochina.]


Cambodia’s involvement has given a new shape to the struggle in Indochina. This paper considers how China2 might view future hypothetical developments, particularly in the military field, which might compel it3 to consider a significant change in its4 strategy, and estimates what its5 reactions might be if such developments do take place. Insofar as these involve military or other moves by the US and its allies, they are to be regarded as actions which the Communists might possibly anticipate, not as courses of action being entertained by the Allied side.


I. Peking’s View of The Struggle in Indochina

Peking has viewed events in Southeast Asia during the course of the war in Vietnam mainly in the light of its aspirations for political dominance in the area. Its perspective is long term, involves no fixed time schedule, and is an aspect of its pretensions to lead a world [Page 215] wide revolutionary movement. More immediately, Peking sees the war in Indochina as a continuation of a lengthy liberation struggle; first against the French, and now against the US. Peking’s advice to the Communists in Indochina has been repetitious and consistent. They are to persist in self-reliant and protracted struggle until they can destroy the enemy or his will to fight. That this may involve occasional defeats and considerable losses is a foregone conclusion. Only by a prolonged and costly struggle can they hope to achieve eventual victory, and they must carry on this struggle themselves, without reliance on outside forces.
On one hand, the Chinese view the fighting as a test of Mao’s theory of “people’s war.” They believe a victory would enhance China’s political prestige in Asia and would support their claims for ideological pre-eminence over the Soviet Union. On the other hand, Peking has had to consider the possibility that an adverse turn in the war might lead to a security threat on China’s southern border and therefore a possible direct confrontation with the US. In practice, this has meant militant advocacy of “people’s war” for others, but careful maneuvering to ensure that China stays safely out of the line of fire.
In defining its role in this struggle, Peking has been both cautious and prudent. Thus far the policy has been to rule out any direct use of Chinese troops in the ground fighting and to reduce the risks of even an accidental confrontation with the US. There is evidence that the Peking leadership reaffirmed these basic ground rules after a long and bitter debate during 1965. This conflict, which pitted Minister of Defense Lin Piao against his Chief of Staff, was concerned with the assessment of, and possible responses to, the large-scale US intervention in Vietnam then under way. Lin Piao ended the debate with an authoritative endorsement of Mao’s theories on “people’s war,” emphasizing defense in depth rather than moving across China’s borders to meet the threat.
This decision not to intervene overtly in the Vietnam War was consistent with Peking’s policy, at least since the Korean War, of not risking major hostilities with either the US or the USSR. There is as yet no indication that the acquisition of nuclear weapons has changed this basic stance. Indeed, it may have had a sobering effect. When hostilities along the Sino-Soviet border in 1969 threatened to escalate into a nuclear conflict, the Chinese moved to calm the situation. We judge that China’s troubled internal situation and its unresolved problems with the USSR incline its leaders to continue making the same cautious calculations of risk that have marked their conduct of recent years. This means that China’s aims in Southeast Asia should be pursued by subversion, revolutionary activity, and diplomacy rather than by the open use of its own military forces.
Recent Developments. Recent events in Indochina are not likely to change this basic approach. As long as the US/GVN move into Cambodia does not critically affect Hanoi’s ability to continue the war, Peking is likely to minimize the threat posed by the current Allied actions. Moreover, Peking probably sees immediate benefits from the political reaction aroused in the US against the Cambodian involvement. And if the US should not withdraw from Cambodia, Peking would assess the situation as one in which the US was getting more and more bogged down in an expanding war that would guarantee growing opposition both at home and abroad. In this sense, at least, it would make little difference to Peking whether the US kept to its schedule and withdrew or whether it continued its involvement in Cambodia.6
In Peking’s view, the US is fighting a losing war in which Hanoi has only to be patient and persevere in order to outlast the US. In order to preserve that patience, China will continue to supply North Vietnam with economic and military aid. More important, Peking is probably now better prepared to furnish steady and dependable political support than it was during the Cultural Revolution. Relations with Hanoi have improved considerably since last fall, and recent events in Cambodia have brought Peking and Hanoi closer together. The remarkable turnout in Peking for Le Duan’s recent visit, in which both Mao and Lin made one of their increasingly rare appearances, is evidence of Chinese concern to strengthen ties with Hanoi at Moscow’s expense. Peking’s careful campaign to exploit Sihanouk, recently emphasized in a major pronouncement by Mao himself, is also intended to diminish Soviet influence in Indochina.
In short, Peking has moved promptly to exploit the Cambodian developments for its own ends. The Chinese leadership has seized the opportunities presented to reduce Soviet influence on Hanoi and to increase its own capability to influence Hanoi without, for the present at least, exposing itself to greater risks or markedly higher costs.
At the same time, Peking may have some concern that an intensified and enlarged scale of hostilities could weaken Hanoi’s will and capacity to continue. Against this possibility Peking is probably prepared to render increased aid to Hanoi, increase the level of threat in its propaganda, perhaps stimulate insurgency and tensions elsewhere in Asia, or attempt to unsettle the US by moving troops about in southern China. Judging by its past actions, however, Peking is likely to calculate carefully the risks of these moves and to prefer gestures and actions that will worry but not provoke the US.
The Soviet Factor. Peking’s reactions in Indochina are conditioned by the terms of its bitter rivalry with the USSR. At critical points during the course of the war, the Chinese have sought to project an image of militant devotion to “people’s war,” partly at least to outflank politically the Soviets; the latter are constrained in Southeast Asia by geography and by some concern to avoid complicating relations with the US or offending potentially friendly non-Communist Asian regimes. Peking calculates in these situations that Moscow’s position is certain to be relatively “soft,” providing ample room for Chinese posturing without a requirement for risky commitments. Nonetheless, this stance carries the risk that the Soviets might be able to expose the gap between Chinese rhetoric and performance.
Moreover, so long as large and hostile Soviet forces threaten China’s northern and western borders, there is added reason for avoiding direct military involvements in Southeast Asia. In sum, the Soviet factor reinforces other considerations which make Peking want to avoid precipitate and risky action even though it continues to discourage compromise settlement of the war.7

[Omitted here are paragraphs 11–26, under the heading: II. Peking’s Reactions to Possible Future Developments, which were divided into the following sub-headings: Continued Allied Military Activity in Cambodia, Allied Support of the Lon Nol Government, Thai Military Commitment to Cambodia, Renewed Bombing of North Vietnam, Ground Troops in Southern Laos, and Ground Troops in Northern Laos.]

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Job 79–R1012, NIC Files. Top Secret; Sensitive; Controlled Dissem; Limdis. According to a note on the cover page, the Central Intelligence Agency and intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense, and the NSA participated in the preparation of this estimate. All members of the USIB concurred with the estimate except for representatives from the FBI and AEC, who abstained on the grounds that the subject was outside their jurisdictions. For the full text of this SNIE, see Tracking the Dragon, p. 678. In a March 25 memorandum to Helms, Kissinger wrote: “In order to obtain a sound basis for U.S. policies in Southeast Asia and China over the next five years, we need to obtain an analysis of Chinese attitudes and behavior toward Southeast Asian insurgencies.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Agency Files, Box 207, CIA—Vol. II 1 Jan 70–30 June 70) This report covered much of the same ground as the June 11 SNIE 13–10–70, Chinese Reactions to Certain Courses of Action in Indochina, which noted that “In particular, this paper assesses the likelihood of the Chinese using ‘volunteers’ in response to successful guerilla operations to interdict communist lines of communication in this area.” (Central Intelligence Agency, Job 79–R1012, NIC Files)
  2. A handwritten correction removed the words “and North Vietnam.”
  3. A handwritten correction changed “them” to “it.”
  4. A handwritten correction changed “their” to “its.”
  5. A handwritten correction changed “their” to “its.”
  6. In a June 18 memorandum to Helms, Kissinger asked several questions about the SNIE. He wrote: “In paragraph 5, it is argued that Peking is unlikely to change its basic approach, since it would find advantage in both a U.S. withdrawal and in the U.S.’s becoming bogged down in an expanding war. This seems to leave out the possibility that our policies could succeed and that Vietnamization would result in a GVN increasingly able to take care of itself. Is this so totally out of the question as to be left out of Peking’s calculation entirely?” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Agency Files, Box 207, CIA—Vol. II 1 Jan 70–30 June 70) Abbot Smith, Director, National Estimates, CIA, responded to Kissinger’s questions on June 24, noting: “The discussion in paragraph 5 was not intended to exclude possible concern on Peking’s part that allied actions in Cambodia, South Vietnam and Laos might, in time, result in a GVN increasingly able to take care of itself (or a Hanoi less willing and able to sustain a protracted struggle). We did not feel, however, that this concern would be overriding in the near term; indeed, Peking’s sponsorship of the ‘Indochina Peoples Conference’ seemed to attest to Chinese Communist confidence that Hanoi was prepared to carry on with the struggle on a somewhat broader front.” (Ibid.)
  7. An unsigned and undated memorandum to the President contained Kissinger’s summary of this SNIE. (Ibid., Box 520, Country Files, Far East, China, Vol. IV)