Note: PLA militia stretcher bearer 1979 // Flag of the United States // Chinese tank destroyed in Cao Bang 1979
The Vietnamese government claimed they only had a force of about 70,000 including several army regular divisions in its northern area. However, the Chinese estimates indicate more than twice this number. Some Vietnamese forces used American military equipment captured during the Vietnam War.
1st Military Region: commanded by Major General Dam Quang Trung, responsible for the defense at Northeast region.
- Main forces:
- 3rd Infantry Division (Golden Star Division), consisted of 2nd Infantry Regiment, 12th Infantry Regiment, 141st Infantry Regiment and 68th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Dong Dang, Van Dang, Cao Loc and Lạng Sơn town of Lạng Sơn Province
- 338th Infantry Division, consisted of 460th Infantry Regiment, 461st Infantry Regiment, 462nd Infantry Regiment and 208th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Loc Binh and Dinh Lap of Lạng Sơn Province
- 346th Infantry Division (Lam Son Division), consisted of 246th Infantry Regiment, 677th Infantry Regiment, 851st Infantry Regiment and 188th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Tra Linh, Ha Quang and Hoa An of Cao Bằng Province
- 325th-B Infantry Division, consisted of 8th Infantry Regiment, 41st Infantry Regiment, 288th Infantry Regiment and 189th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Tien Yen and Binh Lieu of Quảng Ninh Province
- 242nd Infantry Brigade, located at coastlines and islands of Quảng Ninh Province
- Local forces:
- At Cao Bằng Province: 567th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion, 1 battalion of air defense artillery and 7 infantry battalions
- At Lạng Sơn Province: 123rd Infantry Regiment, 199th Infantry Regiment and 7 infantry battalions
- At Quảng Ninh Province: 43rd Infantry Regiment, 244th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion, 4 battalions of air defense artillery and 5 infantry battalions
- Armed police forces (Border guard): 12th Mobile Regiment at Lang Son, 4 battalions at Cao Bang and Quang Ninh, some companies and 24 border posts
2nd Military Region: commanded by Major General Vu Lap, responsible for the defense at Northwest region.
- Main forces:
- 316th Infantry Division (Bong Lau Division), consisted of 98th Infantry Regiment, 148th Infantry Regiment, 147th Infantry Regiment and 187th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Binh Lu and Phong Tho of Lai Châu Province
- 345th Infantry Division, consisted of 118th Infantry Regiment, 121st Infantry Regiment, 124th Infantry Regiment and 190th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Bao Thang of Hoang Lien Son province
- 326th Infantry Division, consisted of 19th Infantry Regiment, 46th Infantry Regiment, 541st Infantry Regiment and 200th Artillery Regiment. All were located at Tuan Giao and Dien Bien of Lai Châu Province
- Local forces:
- At Ha Tuyen: 122nd Infantry Regiment, 191st Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 8 infantry battalions
- At Hoang Lien Son: 191st Infantry Regiment, 254th Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 8 infantry battalions
- At Lai Châu: 193rd Infantry Regiment, 741st Infantry Regiment, 1 artillery battalion and 5 infantry battalions
- Armed police forces (Border guard): 16th Mobile Regiment at Hoang Lien Son, some companies and 39 border posts
In addition, Vietnamese forces were supported by about 50,000 militia at each Military Region
- 372nd Air Division
- 1 air flight of ten F-5s (captured after Vietnam War)
- 1 air flight of ten A-37s (captured after Vietnam War)
- 1 air flight of seven UH-1s and three UH-7s (captured after Vietnam War)
- 919th Air Transport Regiment responsible for transporting troops
- Several C-130, C-119 and C-47 (captured after Vietnam War
- 371st Air Division
- 916th Helicopter Regiment
- Several Mi-6 and Mi-8
- 918th Air Transport Regiment
- 923rd Fighter Regiment
- Several MiG-17s and MiG-21
- 916th Helicopter Regiment
The Vietnam People's Air Force did not participate in the combat directly, instead they provided support to the ground troops, transported troops from Cambodia to northern Vietnam as well as performed reconnaissance purposes.
- Northern and Northwestern regions:
- 267th Air Defence Regiment
- 276th Air Defence Regiment
- 285th Air Defence Regiment
- 255th Air Defence Regiment
- 257th Air Defence Regiment
- Northeastern region:
- 274th Air Defence Regiment
Course of the war
Preparation of war
According to Vietnam, since January 1979 Chinese forces performed numerous reconnaissance activities across the border and made 230 violations into Vietnamese land. To prepare for a possible Chinese invasion, the Central Military Committee of the Communist Party ordered all armed forces across the border to be on stand-by mode.
On 17 February 1979, a People's Liberation Army (PLA) force of about 200,000 troops supported by 200 Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks entered northern Vietnam in the PLA's first major combat operation since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The PLA invasion was conducted in 2 directions: western and eastern
- Western direction, commanded by Xu Shiyou, aimed to attack Cao Bang, Lang Son and Quang Ninh Provinces:
- Eastern direction, commanded by Yang Dezhi, aimed to attack Ha Tuyen, Hoang Lien Son and Lai Chau Provinces
Vietnam quickly mobilized all its main forces in Cambodia, southern Vietnam and central Vietnam to the northern border. From 18 February to 25 February, the 327th Infantry Division of Military District 3 and the 337th Infantry Division of Military District 4 were deployed to join Military District 1 for the defense of northwestern region. From 6 March to 11 March the Second Corp (Huong Giang Corp) stationed in Cambodia was deployed back to Hanoi.
The 372nd Air Division in central Vietnam as well as the 917th, 935th and 937th Air Regiments in southern Vietnam were quickly deployed to the north.
Soviet support to Vietnam
The Soviet Union, although it did not take direct military action, provided intelligence and equipment support for Vietnam. A large airlift was established by the Soviet Union to move Vietnamese troops from Cambodia to Northern Vietnam. Moscow also provided a total of 400 tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), 500 mortar artillery and air defense artillery, 50 BM-21 rocket launchers, 400 portable surface-to-air missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles and 20 jet fighters. About 5,000 to 8,000 Soviet military advisers were present in Vietnam from August 1979 to mid-1979 to train Vietnamese soldiers.
During the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Soviet Union deployed troops at the Sino-Soviet border and Mongolian-Chinese border as an act of showing support to Vietnam, as well as tying up Chinese troops. However, the Soviets refused to take any direct action to defend their ally.
The Soviet Pacific Fleet also deployed 15 ships to the Vietnamese coast to relay Chinese battlefield communications to Vietnamese forces.
The PLA advanced quickly about 15–20 kilometres into Vietnam, with fighting mainly occurring in the provinces of Cao Bằng, Lào Cai and Lạng Sơn. The Vietnamese avoided mobilizing their regular divisions, and held back some 300,000 troops for the defence of Hanoi. The People's Army of Vietnam (VPA) tried to avoid direct combat and often used guerrilla tactics.
The initial PLA attack soon lost its momentum and a new attack wave was sent in with eight PLA divisions joining the battle. After capturing the northern heights above Lang Son, the PLA surrounded and paused in front of the city in order to lure the VPA into reinforcing it with units from Cambodia. This was the main strategic ploy in the Chinese war plan as Deng did not want to risk escalating tensions with the Soviet Union. Once this became clear to the PLA, the war was practically over. After three days of bloody house-to-house fighting, Lang Son fell on 6 March. The PLA then took the southern heights above Lang Son and occupied Sa Pa. The PLA claimed to have crushed several of the VPA regular units.
On 6 March, China declared that the gate to Hanoi was open and that their punitive mission had been achieved. On the way back to the Chinese border, the PLA destroyed all local infrastructure and housing and looted all useful equipment and resources (including livestock), severely weakening the economy of Vietnam's northernmost provinces. The PLA crossed the border back into China on 16 March. Both sides declared victory with China claiming to have crushed the Vietnamese resistance and Vietnam claiming to have repelled the invasion using mostly border militias. Henry J. Kenny, a research scientist for US Center for Naval Analyses, notes that most Western writers agree that Vietnam outperformed the PLA on the battlefield.
In response to China's attack, the Soviet Union sent several naval vessels and initiated an arms airlift to Vietnam. However, the Soviet Union felt that there was simply no way that they could directly support Vietnam against China; the distances were too great to be an effective ally, and any sort of reinforcements would have to cross territory controlled by China or U.S. allies. The only realistic option would be to restart the unresolved border conflict with China. Vietnam was important to Soviet policy but not enough for the Soviets to go to war over. When Moscow did not intervene, Beijing publicly proclaimed that the Soviet Union had broken its numerous promises to assist Vietnam.
Another reason why Moscow did not intervene was because Beijing had promised both Moscow and Washington that the invasion was only a limited war, and that Chinese forces would withdraw after a short incursion. After moderation by the U.S., Moscow decided to adopt a "wait and see" approach to see if Beijing would actually limit their offense. Deng Xiaoping, because Vietnam's anti-air capabilities were among the best in the world at the time and in order to reassure Moscow it was conducting a limited war, ordered the Chinese navy and air force to remain out of the war; only limited support was provided by the air force. When Beijing kept its promise, Moscow did not retaliate.
China and Vietnam each lost thousands of troops, and China lost 3,446 million yuan in overhead, which delayed completion of their 1979–80 economic plan. Following the war, the Vietnamese leadership took various repressive measures to deal with the problem of real or potential collaboration. In the spring of 1979, the authorities expelled approx. 8,000 Hoa people from Hanoi to the southern "New Economic Zones," and partially resettled the Hmong tribes and other ethnic minorities from the northernmost provinces. In response to the defection of Hoàng Văn Hoan, a purge was launched to cleanse the Communist Party of Vietnam from pro-Chinese elements and persons who had surrendered to the advancing Chinese troops during the war. In 1979, a total of 20,468 members were expelled from the party. Although Vietnam continued to occupy Cambodia, China successfully mobilized international opposition to the occupation, rallying such leaders as Cambodia's deposed king Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodian anticommunist leader Son Sann, and high-ranking members of the Khmer Rouge to deny the pro-Vietnamese Cambodian People's Party in Cambodia diplomatic recognition beyond the Soviet bloc. China improved relations with ASEAN by promising protection to Thailand and Singapore against "Vietnamese aggression". In contrast, Vietnam's decreasing prestige in the region led it to be more dependent on the Soviet Union, to which it leased a naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. On 1 March 2005, Howard W. French wrote in The New York Times: Some historians stated that the war was started by Mr Deng (China's then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping) to keep the army preoccupied while he consolidated power...
The number of casualties during the war is disputed. Vietnamese sources claimed the PLA had suffered 62,500 total casualties, including 550 military vehicles, and 115 artillery pieces destroyed; while Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng told western media in 1980 that the Chinese troops had suffered 9,000 dead and about 10,000 wounded during the war. Leaks from Chinese military sources indicate that China suffered 6,954 dead.
Like their Chinese counterparts, the Vietnamese government has never officially announced any information on its actual military casualties. China estimated that Vietnam lost 57,000 soldiers and 70,000 militia members during the war. The official Nhân Dân newspaper claimed that Vietnam suffered more than 10,000 civilian deaths during the Chinese invasion and earlier on 17 May 1979, reported statistics on heavy losses of industry and agriculture properties.
The Chinese held 1,636 Vietnamese prisoners and the Vietnamese held 238 Chinese prisoners; they were exchanged in May–June 1979.
The 238 Chinese soldiers surrendered after getting separated from their main unit during the withdrawal from Vietnam and became surrounded by Vietnamese. After surrendering, they were transferred by the Vietnamese soldiers to a prison. The Chinese prisoners reported that they were subjected to torturous and inhumane treatment, such as being blindfolded and having their bodies bound and restrained with metal wire.
Sino-Vietnamese relations after the war
Armed conflict only ended in 1989 after the Vietnamese agreed to fully withdraw from Cambodia. Both nations planned the normalization of their relations in a secret summit in Chengdu in September 1990, and officially normalized ties in November 1991.
In 1999, after many years of negotiations, China and Vietnam signed a border pact. There was an adjustment of the land border, resulting in Vietnam giving China part of its land which was lost during the battle, including the Ai Nam Quan Gate which served as the traditional border marker and entry point between Vietnam and China, which caused widespread frustration within Vietnam. Vietnam's official news service reported the implementation of the new border around August 2001. In January 2009 the border demarcation was officially completed, signed by Deputy Foreign Minister Vu Dung on the Vietnamese side and his Chinese counterpart, Wu Dawei, on the Chinese side. Both the Paracel (called Hoàng Sa in Vietnam, Xīshā in China) and Spratly (Trường Sa in Vietnam, Nansha in China) islands remain a point of contention.
The December 2007 announcement of a plan to build a Hanoi-Kunming highway was a landmark in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The road will traverse the border that once served as a battleground. It should contribute to demilitarizing the border region, as well as facilitating trade and industrial cooperation between the nations.