Not long ago, Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua told a Western contact that his country needed 20 years of peace to modernize its economy and bring its society up to date. Last week that hope began to seem a shade optimistic. Peking reported that on its southern border the Vietnamese were systematically "preparing for war” — clearing houses to create fields of fire, plowing dugouts and setting up new barbed-wire fortifications—and for the second time in a month broke off talks with Hanoi about mutual problems.
“Problems” is a mild term, considering the animosity kindled between the two countries from as long ago as 111 BC, when China’s Han dynasty took over northern Vietnam and ruled for a millenium. Mongol invaders captured Hanoi three times in the 13th century, only to be beaten off each time, and Vietnamese guerrilla resistance pried loose a fresh Chinese conquest in 1428. For centuries after, Vietnam was a “tributary” statepart of China’s cultural, diplomatic and economic hegemony, although officially inferior in all respects to the northern behemoth. The old Chinese name for Vietnam was Annam, or "Pacify the South.”
The current problems are twofold: 1) the bad-neighbor relations between Vietnam and Cambodia, which have their roots in history but also accurately reflect current hostility between China, which supports Cambodia, and the Soviet Union, which supports Vietnam; 2) Vietnamese mistreatment of their one-million strong Chinese minority, which has led up to the conflicts at the Chinese-Vietnam border.
Although Moscow and Peking are propping up the principals, the three-year-old Vietnam-Cambodia conflict is not strictly a “proxy war.” Age-old hatreds also come into play. In the past both Thailand and Vietnam swallowed up chunks of the country, and Cambodia still lays claim to parts of southern Vietnam near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) that belonged to the old Khmer empire until the early 19th century. During the Indochina war, the Khmer Rouge guerrillas killed hundreds of Vietnamese living in Cambodia and sent their bodies floating down the Mekong River.
The Soviets, who were the main arms suppliers to North Vietnam in the war, are said to be supplying $500 million per year to the Hanoi regime, much of that in military supplies. China, too, sent arms and food to North Vietnam during the war, to the tune of $18 billion over the last 20 years, according to Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Teng Hsiao-ping. But the flow was cut sharply at the war’s end, and reduced even more this spring because of the mistreatment of ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. As Vietnam was being cut off, Cambodia was cut in. The Chinese have doled out some $1 billion plus 1,000 technicians to help out the Phnom Penh regime since 1975.
Peking sees the Vietnam-Cambodia war as part of a threatening grand design for the region, an Indochina federation in which Hanoi would give the orders to Laos and Cambodia. This, in turn, is seen as part of a wider Soviet threat—to impose an Asian collective security arrangement on Indochina— a plan that Peking has opposed since Moscow first floated it a decade ago. Like the
Americans and French before, China sees its own security bound to that of the regional governments.
A well-planned attack into Cambodia in January showed that Vietnam is unquestionably the stronger military power. Sweeping across the border at the infamous Parrot’s Beak—a long fought-over salient of Cambodian territory jutting into southern Vietnam—Vietnam’s tough 9th Division pushed almost to within cannon range of Phnom Penh in 10 days fighting. Since then, border incidents have occurred on a smaller scale, and Cambodian guerrillas supported by Hanoi have managed to capture border areas inside Cambodia.
Displeased by what it considers China’s meddling in its dispute with Cambodia, Hanoi has taken out some of its anger against the ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam. At first its targets were private businessmen in the south, treated with benign neglect for several years despite their “capitalist” operations, and many urban residents were forced to move to the boondocks. But northern Chinese too were caught up in what the Chinese claim is an outbreak of racist terror, and the trickle of refugees northward swelled into something bigger.
In May, China accused Hanoi of persecuting and expelling Chinese residents, and quickly applied to open a consulate in Ho Chi Minh City to oversee the affairs of 800,000 Chinese there. Hanoi let the request gather dust and on June 20, the Chinese, furious at the delay, retaliated by closing three Vietnamese consulates in South China.
By midsummer, China said more than 100,000 Chinese had been expelled or had fled from Vietnam. Untrue, retorted Vietnam—they were fleeing because of rumors of persecution to come. And, just to show they couldn’t be pushed around, Vietnamese boats captured 13 Chinese vessels in Vietnamese waters Aug. 13.
The unpleasantries have come to a head at the Friendship Pass border area. Thousands of Chinese refugees were stranded there from July 12 when the Chinese closed the border to all entrants who did not have the proper papers. Then, in the most violent of a series of clashes, the refugees were stampeded across the border, en masse, on Aug. 25. Later that day in the "battle of the ridge” Vietnamese troops crossed the border and occupied a Chinese hillock.
"Talk, talk, fight, fight”—keeping up the fighting while negotiating with an enemybeing a favorite policy of both Hanoi and Peking, diplomats from both countries sat down Aug. 8 in what quickly degenerated into a series of name-calling exercises. Vietnam refused the Chinese request to take back some refugees, saying spies and saboteurs would return with them. Finding similar impasses over border attacks, the capture of fishermen and the mining of inshore waters, the talks spread to strategic matters. Each side accused the other of wanting to dominate all of Indochina.
The talks broke off at the end of August, but soon resumed in the same vein. Then on Sept. 25 Hanoi accused China of massing troops, hundreds of tanks and planes on their mutual border, and on the next day the Chinese left the table. When, or if, they will return is anybody’s guess.
By the end of the week, fresh violence seemed as predictable as the rainy season. When the Americans left in 1975, Vietnam’s new leaders promised their people 10,000 years of peace. The question they might well ask now is, when will that period begin?
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