226. Research Paper Prepared in the National Foreign Assessment Center, Central Intelligence Agency1

The Sino-Vietnamese Border Dispute

Key Judgments

The Chinese invasion of northern Vietnam has tended to obscure the fact that the Sino-Vietnamese border conflict has had its own dynamics and was a significant issue between the two countries well before the Vietnamese-Kampuchean problem exploded into open conflict. The disagreement over small sections of the border (as well as over ownership of the Paracel and Spratly Islands) was kept in private channels following the end of the Indochina war. But private talks broke down in late 1977 and it became a part of the bigger political dispute.

Emotional reactions to developments on both sides displaced cool calculations of the damage to national interests of a lack of restraint. Physical confrontations at the border decisively escalated these imprudent reactions.

Small, no-shooting clashes (mainly fistfights) along the Sino-Vietnamese border became a critical military confrontation as a result of two important developments in 1978:

• Recriminations over mistreated Chinese trying to escape from Vietnam to China. Thus the earliest border firefight in 1978 occurred as a result of refugees trying to cross illegally into China.

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• Recriminations over Vietnam’s newly built border defense line. The second and third border firefights in 1978 occurred when the Chinese destroyed the fences, stakes, and minefields of this line.

The Chinese were angered by Hanoi’s impudence in changing the status quo on the border, and believed that acquiescence in the change would serve to reward Hanoi and lead to even more border transgressions.

In particular, Vietnam’s action in building the defense line (stated by Hanoi to be protection from infiltrating Chinese agents and border guards) changed the rules of political dispute. Hanoi by this act had gone beyond verbal exchanges to unilateral demarcations in almost every section of a border that previously had been relatively open and loosely demarcated. The Chinese felt that the demarcation gave Hanoi a territorial advantage, and, in any case, was carried out without Chinese concurrence. For their part, the Vietnamese were angered by China’s destruction of their newly built fences, which, they contended, were “in Vietnamese territory.” The stage in this way was set for armed Chinese to confront armed Vietnamese.

Beijing, the bigger and stronger side, escalated the confrontation by instructing its border guards in late December to begin forward patrolling and to “open fire” on Vietnamese border posts and personnel. A second escalation followed when in mid-January Beijing began sending small teams of regular People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops instead of border guards to probe and reconnoiter; the number of men and the extent of the intrusions into Vietnamese-claimed territory were also increased. At the same time, the Chinese made known to the Vietnamese the nature and extent of their buildup north of the border.

Although confronted with attacks by regular PLA troops at the border and aware of the Chinese buildup nearby, the Vietnamese refused to desist. They held their positions and even fought back. By mid-January, the Chinese apparently believed that their policy of warning and intimidation had failed.

The total area “occupied” by the Vietnamese at that time was not large—about 60 square kilometers. But the presumption by Hanoi that it could with impunity mark off a claim to any amount of Chinese territory was intolerable to the Chinese. And, although only something over 300 Chinese were killed or wounded, it was the Vietnamese attitude of open defiance that made any casualties intolerable.

Beijing’s conclusion was that the unchecked militaristic hubris of the Vietnamese leaders would continue to be a dangerous “arrogance.” In a fundamental sense, China’s invasion was an effort to shatter Hanoi’s self-image of invincibility.

Kampuchea was a key catalytic factor in Chinese thinking. The Sino-Vietnamese border dispute escalated against the backdrop of [Page 830] Vietnam’s occupation of Kampuchea and Beijing’s inability to protect its client regime there. In short, two factors—Vietnamese action against Kampuchea and Hanoi’s refusal to assume a less provocative posture along the Sino-Vietnamese border—seem to have been mutually reinforcing, impelling Beijing to try to “punish” Vietnam militarily by invading the north.

Beijing has indicated that Chinese forces eventually will be withdrawn only to a border that China (rather than Vietnam) recognizes. If this indeed proves to be the final Chinese decision, and if Hanoi refuses to negotiate a border agreement, the prospect is for a long period of border tension and conflict.

[Omitted here is the body of the report.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Far East, Oksenberg Subject File, Box 49, Mondale 8/79 China trip: Briefing Material: 3/78–8/79. Top Secret. A note on the title page reads: “Information as of 5 March 1979 was used in preparing this report.”