The thin red line
They came like other, long-forgotten armies, to haunt the dreams of peace. No one could be sure what their true purpose was, and no one knew when they would leave. But from the moment Chinese troops invaded Vietnam everyone from President Jimmy Carter downwards knew that one small miscalculation could bring the Soviet Union to the aid of its ally in Hanoi— matching two of the world’s three superpowers against each other and starting a chain of events which could lead anywhere.
Ten days later, as Chinese and Vietnamese forces remained locked in battle, one of the queasiest international cliffhangers since U.S. president John F. Kennedy faced down Nikita Khrush-
chev in the Cuban missile crisis was still in progress at week’s end. The Chinese, after a painstaking advance averaging about 20 miles through the misty border hills and coastal plains, were still locked in battle with the Vietnamese. A key battle was developing around the town of Lang Son, on the invasion route the Mongols once used.
The U.N. Security Council was still searching for a formula to end the fighting, under the urging of the majority of its members. Canada’s ambassador William Barton called for a ceasefire throughout the Indochinese peninsula and the withdrawal of all foreign forces—a reference to the 100,000 Viet-
namese troops still in Cambodia following their overthrow of the Pol Pot regime there.
The Chinese, who had started out by asserting that they merely intended to punish Vietnam for recent border violations and had no territorial ambitions, were saying that they had a few “more lessons” to teach the Vietnamese and in any case would ultimately withdraw to “what China claims is the borderline, not the line Vietnam insists on.” And the Soviet Union, on a rising note of anger, was denouncing China for trying to “plunge the world into war,” as the United States (whose treasury secretary Michael Blumenthal went to Pe-
king to deliver a note of concern from Carter) for having “connived and plotted” with China.
Throughout the week, the tension had built up as the world eavesdropped on this threatening neighbors’ brawl. Few Western correspondents managed to get near the actual fighting so what news there was came from a mixture of more or less accurate sources—U.S. spy satellites, the statements of the countries concerned and correspondents’ reports from their capitals.
In theory the struggle pitted China’s vast manpower, backed by a numerically impressive but largely outdated reservoir of planes, tanks and guns, against a 600,000-strong Vietnamese army which, while much smaller, was
armed with up-to-date Soviet and captured American equipment. In practice, the Chinese, under the command of Korean War veteran Yang Te-chih, had committed about 150,000 out of 350,000 troops massed with several thousand tanks and 1,000 planes in the border area. The Vietnamese had rather fewer, mainly militiamen in the fighting, with crack divisions in reserve protecting the capital, Hanoi.
But both sides had to look over their shoulders: the Vietnamese to the embers of Pol Pot resistance in Cambodia and to South Vietnam, still not pacified following the U.S. departure in 1975; the Chinese to their northern border where
huge Soviet forces backed by tactical nuclear weapons and 2,000 aircraft were poised to strike if the Kremlin judged the moment ripe. A newly signed agreement with India over troubles on that shared border enabled the Chinese to move another 140,000 men north to help meet this threat. But Western strategists did not give them much chance of stopping the Soviets if they chose to move.
For the moment, anyway, the Chinese had their hands full in Vietnam. In contrast with their 1962 border war with India, when they swept aside the opposition and withdrew at leisure four weeks later, their initial thrusts were meeting determined resistance. The question, increasingly, was how the Chinese would manage to extricate themselves without either involving the Soviets, or having to fight a protracted war. Indochina’s historical record, as the United States could testify, is not on the side of the aggressor.
The internecine wars between China and Vietnam far predate the MiGs, missiles, tanks and Kalashnikov rifles of the current fray. More than 2,000 years ago, warriors of the Han Dynasty swarmed across the low mountains and jungle of the border country to capture “Nam-viet,” the northern half of today’s Vietnam. Rather hastily, it seems, they renamed it Annam, “Pacify the South.”
The 1,000-year occupation that followed brought on a prolonged guerrilla war, for even then the Vietnamese had the feisty fighting spirit that has made more recent colonizers regret their temerity. Mongol horsemen swooped down upon Hanoi three times in the 13th century, but they were beaten off with the same determination that repelled a fresh Chinese sally in 1428. For centuries after, the northern behemoth was happy to keep Vietnam at arm’s length as one of its tributary states— officially inferior allies.
The gut animosity and suspicion never quite healed, although Vietnam readily adopted a Confucian Chinesestyle government, bore China’s cultural imprint and carried on cultural, diplomatic and economic contacts.
Nevertheless, China relinquished its traditional claim to suzerainty over Vietnam only in 1885, after the SinoFrench War led to the beginning of the undistinguished French colonial administration. The period of shortlived, modern co-operation between China and Vietnam began in 1941, when Nationalist China gave Ho Chi Minh’s Communist Viet Minh support, as well as a staging area across the border.
Ho Chi Minh raised the flag on Viet
independence in 1945, and the success of Mao Tse-tung’s “New Democracy” in the late 1940s naturally strengthened Ho’s movement. Between the ignominious French defeat in 1954 and the American “peace with honor” 21 years later, China poured between $10 and $18 billion worth of aid into Hanoi’s war machine. But China’s rivals in Moscow gave Hanoi half as much support again, according to U.S. state department estimates, and were North Vietnam’s main source of arms and other fighting equipment.
Some observers date the current conflict back to 1975, when China cut off all arms supplies to Hanoi, whose enraged leaders then turned to Moscow to make up the difference. Since that time the
pace of complaint, accusation and insult has steadily quickened, and China aligned itself with Vietnam’s foe, the Pol Pot regime of Cambodia. That brought fresh energy to the old quarrel between Moscow and Peking, each accusing the other of acquisitiveness in Southeast Asia, so that even the smallest provocations were seen as parts of menacing grand designs.
Not that the provocations were all minor. The fighting along the VietnamCambodia border, the harassment and expulsion of 160,000 of the 1.5 million ethnic Chinese living within Vietnam, and repeated skirmishing at the ChinaVietnam border in the last several months gave an urgency to the confrontation that seemed to be building inexorably toward the battle royal that began in mid-February.
Hostilities came to an ominous turn in August when, after a particularly violent club-and-dagger fight in which at least seven refugees were killed at the Friendship Pass, about 400 Vietnamese troops rushed over the border and captured Bonien Hill, overlooking the pass. A major battle was averted when Chinese troops did not counterattack, but both sides moved additional forces into the area. Diplomatic talks designed to sort out the refugee affair broke off for the seventh and final time Sept. 25, when Hanoi accused China of massing troops, hundreds of tanks and planes along the border.
It was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia on Christmas Day, launched with all the formidable might of one of the world’s largest armies, that broke what constraint remained in relations across the Friendship Pass. China’s
Vice-Premier, Teng Hsiao-ping, told senators in Washington soon after that Vietnam would “have to be taught a bloody lesson,” and tens of thousands of Chinese troops were transferred from their symbolic post opposite Taiwan for more urgent duty in Kwangsi Province.
In counterpoint to the direct rivalry between these old foes lies the equally bitter rivalry between China and the Soviet Union. In 1978, the fierce diplomatic competition between the two giants was played out in wary capital cities around the world. China felt Moscow’s breath when Vietnam was admitted to Comecon, the economic association of the Soviet bloc, in June (that came just weeks after Soviet and Chinese troops clashed briefly on the Manchurian border) and China returned the trick in August, when Chairman Hua Kuo-feng’s visit to Romania and Yugoslavia brought furious condemnations from Moscow, as did Teng’s triumphant visit to Japan to sign a peace and friendship agreement. Moscow was stung by the so-called “anti-hegemony clause” in the treaty, and retaliated by sending □; soldiers and guns to the Kurile IsD lands—as much as telling Tokyo to forget its long-standing claim to the land.
In early November, Vietnam signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union and—three days later, on a diplomatic visit to Bangkok—Teng told his Thai hosts that the treaty was not “directed against China alone,” but represented a threat to Asia and the entire world.
It was a major verbal broadside—one of the last in the war of words which preceded the real fighting. Teng was near the decision that the time had
come, if not to “pacify the south” again, at least to give it a corrective cuff. The military buildup accelerated on the Chinese side, battle maps were unfolded and thousands of Chinese units headed south. The signal was given. The war was on.
Although Western analysts were quick to recall the warning of “punitive action,” the attack which came early on
the morning of Feb. 17 still shocked and surprised world leaders. They simply hadn’t believed the Chinese would undertake such a risky venture, and no one apparently was more surprised than the Vietnamese themselves: as the Chinese troops moved forward, Hanoi’s top leaders were in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, for a meeting with the leaders of the Cambodian government they had recently put into power.
The initial Chinese offensive quickly divided into 14 separate thrusts involving about 90,000 men. They were opposed by about 80,000 Vietnamese militiamen in the tortuous, mountainous border terrain. But if they were parttimers, the Vietnamese were nothing if not wholehearted. Well-trained and heavily armed with the latest Soviet equipment, including anti-tank rockets and remote-guidance missiles, they proved to be of far greater quality than the Chinese expected.
In 14 hours of fighting, the Chinese pushed forward about six miles and then dug in. Meanwhile the propaganda had begun to fly. In Peking, the government said its aim was merely to “punish” Hanoi for invading Cambodia and proposed negotiations “to discuss the restoration of peace.” In Hanoi, the Politbüro turned down the Chinese offer and asked, “What is there to talk about? It is like the robber whetting his knife in front of the housewife as he bargains for what he is going to steal.”
Fighting continued throughout Sunday with the Chinese keeping their aircraft—mostly out-of-date MiGs supplied by the Soviet Union 20 years ago— behind the lines and out of the way of sophisticated ground-to-air missiles which the Vietnamese were known to possess. Vietnam’s small but highly trained and modern air arm also kept its distance. It seemed that both sides wanted to limit the action.
The following day, however, the Chinese moved forward again, this time along the railroad lines that run from China’s border provinces, Yunnan and Kwangsi to Hanoi. They gained another four miles before halting once more— and Western intelligence sources noted that the Chinese army has difficulty keeping itself supplied in the field and its tactics since the Korean War have been to move in short bursts.
But if the actual fighting was labored, the propaganda was lively enough. Hanoi was claiming to have killed 5,000 Chinese soldiers while, in Peking on 3 Tuesday, there was a diplomatic double
shuffle with one senior diplomat indicating early in the day that troops were starting to withdraw, only to be contradicted later.
In Washington the theory was that the Chinese had planned to overrun the Vietnamese militia on Saturday and penetrate another 50 miles toward Hanoi, destroying much of the Vietnamese army on the way, in the following 48 hours before retiring. But if that was the plan, the devastating hit-and-run mission clearly had misfired—and with it the hope that everything would be over before the Soviet Union could take counter-action. On Wednesday, a Soviet naval force of 11 vessels, mainly intelligence ships but including a guided-missile cruiser, was casting an ominous shadow of possible future events.
By Thursday, the Chinese had time to take stock and regroup. With 150,000 troops committed, they launched fierce attacks in the Lang Son and Lao Cai sectors. The mass of the Vietnamese army remained around Hanoi, however, and there was no sign of
any major pull-out from Cambodia.
Thus far the fighting had underlined the contrast between the two armies. While the Vietnamese were well supplied with motor transport, the Chinese infantry was moving primarily on foot. While Vietnam’s army was superbly trained and armed, the Chinese were still using 30-year-old weapons and it was clear to all by Friday that their chief tactic was to overwhelm the Vietnamese with sheer numbers.
During Thursday and Friday, China moved another 200,000 men up to the border area as the fiercest battles of the war got under way. During the weekend there were signs that they had achieved some success. Four of the six Vietnamese provincial capitals along the invasion routes—Lai Chau, Lao Cai, Cao Bang and Mong Cai—were reported in Chinese hands and the key city of Lang Son, on the coastal plains, was under heavy pressure. Meanwhile the Soviets had begun a 6,000-mile airlift of antitank missiles and radar equipment and sent a high-ranking military delegation
for talks in Hanoi.
On the propaganda front, the Vietnamese were claiming that heavy fighting had driven China’s casualty toll over 12,000. Fourteen battalions had been badly mauled and 140 tanks and armored cars destroyed. Peking replied that the invasion would continue until “Vietnam feels pain.”
More ominously the Soviet Union had dispatched three more ships to Vietnamese waters and troops of its ally, Mongolia, were reported moving toward the Chinese border. But a senior diplomat in Washington said: “I still can’t believe that the Soviets are going to get directly involved in this one yet. There’s no sign of major activity on the SinoSoviet border.”
Through the week, the din of battle was counterpointed by an increasingly noisy chorus of concern from noncombattants in the West. The worry was that the Soviet Union might decide it had to go to the support of its Vietnamese allies and, with 650,000 troops and what the U.S. described as an “immense” amount of rocketry already deployed along the 5,000-mile Soviet border, it was a real threat.
Messages urging restraint were sent to Peking and Moscow by the United States and most of its allies, while President Jimmy Carter was kept informed of the military situation on an hourly basis and, said the White House, made several telephone calls to Moscow and Peking. But if the Chinese heard those calls for withdrawal they did not heed them, and the fears were heightened by tough early statements from the Kremlin that China should withdraw before it was “too late.”
Tensions eased after the first few days when the Soviet Union did not seem to be intervening. But as fighting intensified again, the Soviet comments became more bearish and there was a major flurry of concern over reports, later played down, that Chinese aircraft had attacked Soviet ships landing supplies at the Vietnamese port of Haiphong on Friday.
At week’s end, American intelligence analysts said they saw no overt signs that Moscow was preparing to attack. But they added that little preparation was needed. “If the Soviets really are thinking of striking at the Chinese across the border they are likely to do it quickly,” said one Pentagon official. But the truth was that no one knew just what the Soviets were about to do—and that was probably exactly the way Moscow wanted it.
William Lowther/Michael Clugston, from correspondents’ files