Vietnam’s missed opportunity to normalize relations with the US paved the way for China’s 1979 invasion.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Vietnam, which took place from February 17 to March 16, 1979. Many people think that this war was inevitable; not only was China feeling the Soviet Union’s grip tightening after Vietnam signed a military alliance with Moscow in November 1978, but Beijing also had to rescue its Khmer Rouge allies in Cambodia after Vietnamese troops entered Phnom Penh on January 7, 1979. At the same time, China wanted to prove its resolute resistance to Soviet expansion in the region in exchange for the United States’ and other Western countries’ support in implementing the “Four Modernizations” through capital and technological investments.
However, I argue that the Chinese invasion would not have happened if the leaders of reunified Vietnam had a better understanding of themselves, and especially of the United States, and normalized relations with this superpower right after the Vietnam War ended.
The United States carried out the Vietnam War under the aegis of the Domino Theory, an idea originally proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in a press conference on April 7, 1954. Three weeks before, the Dien Bien Phu battle had broken out and was going poorly for the French troops. According to this theory, the loss of French Indochina to the communists would create a “domino effect” across Southeast Asia, meaning Burma, Thailand, and Indonesia would also fall into communist hands. After that, the next dominos would be Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and then Australia and New Zealand. To prevent this chain of collapse to communism, the United States needed to intervene militarily.
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In 1964, the Republic of Vietnam faced collapse in the face of attacks by the National Front for the Liberation of the South (Viet Cong), which was established and supported by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the North (DRV). President Lyndon Johnson decided to come to the rescue by sending combat troops to South Vietnam. On March 8, 1965, with four U.S. Marine battalions landing in Danang, the Vietnam War officially began. However, after only three years, especially after the Tet Offensive (officially called the General Offensive and Uprising of Tet Mau Than 1968) by communist forces, the Johnson administration, and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was named “Chief Architect of the Vietnam War,” realized that Vietnamese communists fought for national independence and reunification rather than ideology. They were waging a nationalist war, not a communist war led by the Soviet Union and China.
Realizing that the United States could not win the war against Vietnamese nationalism, McNamara resigned as secretary of defense at the end of February 1968. A month later, Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election and offered to open negotiations with Hanoi to end the war. Nixon, after winning the U.S. presidency at the end of 1968, tried to withdraw all U.S. troops with “honor,” meaning that the United States would not abruptly abandon the Republic of Vietnam. This effort was reflected in the “Vietnamization” policy consisting of transferring responsibility for the war to the Republic of Vietnam. This withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam, and the inevitable takeover by DRV troops, signaled the end of any concerns about the Domino Theory; U.S. decisionmakers no longer believed that a Democratic Republic of Vietnam takeover would lead to communism spreading over the whole of Southeast Asia. In short, the hostility of the U.S. government to the Vietnamese communists as ideological enemies came to an end.
The U.S. government’s perception that the war in Vietnam was not a proxy war with communism was reinforced by the Soviet-Chinese conflict, which culminated in bloody border battles in 1969. Moreover, the Nixon administration saw this conflict between the two communist powers as a good opportunity to implement its “Vietnamization” policy. The U.S.-led negotiations with China and then with the Soviet Union in the first half of 1972 were successful. Both China and the Soviet Union pressured the DRV to accept the Republic of Vietnam’s authority instead of forming a coalition government. At the time, the DRV press commented that the era of large countries imposing their will to small countries was over.
Because it no longer viewed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam as hostile, the U.S. government accepted a proposal to normalize relations only one year after the collapse of the Republic of Vietnam. On May 7, 1976, President Gerald Ford asked the U.S. Congress to suspend Vietnam’s embargo for six months to facilitate dialogue between the two countries. The next day, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger sent a diplomatic note to Vietnamese State Secretary for Foreign Affairs Nguyen Co Thach, proposing to discuss normalizing bilateral relations. The next U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, expected this normalization to be part of the healing process for America. Unlike his predecessor, when sending a delegation to Hanoi in March 1977 to fulfill this goal, Carter instructed officials not to set the task of searching for prisoners of war and those missing in action as a precondition.
In contrast to realpolitik of the U.S. government, the leadership of reunified Vietnam was drunk with victory. They demanded that the United States pay $3.25 billion to rebuild post-war North Vietnam, arguing that Nixon had committed in a February 1, 1973 note to DRV Prime Minister Pham Van Dong to the rebuilding. However, this commitment was made under Article 21 of the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam. The Agreement was implicitly no longer valid when the People’s Army of Vietnam occupied the Independence Palace on April 30, 1975, putting an end to the Republic of Vietnam and reunifying the country. The United States rejected the request from Vietnamese leadership on this ground and relations never normalized.
However, I theorize that if the U.S.-Vietnamese relations had been normalized in 1977, China would not have invaded Vietnam in 1979.
After the Vietnam War, Vietnam’s main goal was economic recovery. Normalizing relations with the United States would have ended the U.S. embargo and certainly helped to recover the northern economy as well as to develop the southern economy; this notion was proven correct after the U.S. embargo was actually abolished in 1994 and the economy flourished. Under such a scenario, Vietnam would not have been dependent on Soviet aid to rebuild the country.
But because that did not happen, Vietnam was forced to join the Soviet-led Economic Assistance Council (COMECOM) in June 1978 and signed a treaty of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union, in which two parties pledged to “do their best to strengthen the World Socialist System,” in November 1978. It was these “Sovietization” moves by Vietnam that led the United States to accelerate the normalization of relations with China, which happened on January 1, 1979, to create an unofficial alliance against the Soviet Union and the “World Socialist System.” Before his passing in 1976, Chinese leader Mao Zedong not only opposed the Soviet Union but also negated the “World Socialist System” by proposing “Three Worlds Theory” (the First World consisting of superpowers, namely the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the Second World of developing powers, and the Third World of exploited nations in Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia).
It was on the basis of opposing the Soviet Union and the “World Socialist System” that Deng Xiaoping went to the United States in late January 1979 to discuss an attack against Vietnam by China. At this discussion, Deng made it clear that China would attack to counter the Soviet expansion in the region. Officially, Carter wrote a letter to Deng that advised China not to attack Vietnam. But in practice, the United States supported the Chinese aggression against Vietnam by providing satellite information on Soviet troops along the Sino-Soviet border. After the fighting broke out, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security advisor, met Chinese Ambassador Chai Zemin each afternoon to give him this intelligence. At a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Plenum held in March 1979, Deng Xiaoping said that the United States had informed him that none of the 54 Soviet divisions at the Sino-Soviet border was fully equipped. This intelligence clearly made China determined to implement its plan to invade Vietnam without fear of of a military retaliation by the Soviet Union.
Likewise, China would not dare to conduct a largescale war against Vietnam if the U.S.-Vietnam relationship was normalized. The United States always opposed China’s expansionism, even during the Vietnam War, meaning that the Domino Theory would sooner or later be restored with the new intent of containing China from taking over Southeast Asia. With that in mind, the United States would certainly have opposed such a Chinese war against a diplomatic partner, which in turn would slow down the process of normalizing relations between the two countries that China considered to be crucial to its modernization agenda. In other words, China would not foolishly exchange its own future for the survival of Khmer Rouge, especially in the context of the latter being strongly condemned worldwide for their genocide policy that led to the deaths of 1.5 to 3 million people, around 25 percent of Cambodia’s population.
The lesson to be drawn is that a diplomatic relationship and military alliance with the United States could have helped Vietnam avoid the 1979 invasion – and could still prevent future aggression from an ever-expansionist China.
Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu holds a Ph.D. in Law from Pantheon-Sorbonne University, France. Before becoming a Vietnamese dissident and a former political prisoner, he was a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry official.