Days of danger at Friendship Pass

September 6 1982

Days of danger at Friendship Pass

September 6 1982

Days of danger at Friendship Pass


Citing a campaign of provocation by Hanoi, China last week dismissed a Vietnamese proposal for a temporary ceasefire along the troubled border between the two countries. The decision was taken as tension in the region reached its highest level since the brief but bloody war between the two countries in 1979. Maclean’s correspondent Daniel Burstein, who recently toured the border area, is one of the few foreign correspondents who has been allowed by Peking to visit the region in more than two years. His report:

For 175 km, the scene on the highway that runs south from Nanning is like a thousand other

rural vistas in China’s verdant tropical belt. Processions of peasants work unobtrusively. Some haul bricks and coal on carts drawn by water buffalo or horses. Others carry cabbages and baskets of piglets on the backs of their bicycles or from the ends of ancient carrying poles. Rain-soaked rice paddies, lime-colored or kelly green, depending on the harvesting cycle, straddle the roadway. Then, the landscape changes abruptly. Antiaircraft guns poke skyward from the top of hills and promontories. Radar scanners whirl rapidly on rooftops. Truckloads of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers roar along the highway. Others are bivouacked beside it. A military checkpoint completes the picture. Clearly, this is not an ordinary agricultural sector.

Concealed by the thick forests that clothe the rugged terrain, an estimated 250,000 Chinese troops patrol the 1,000km frontier that separates Vietnam from China. On the Vietnamese side, where soldiers are often reminded by their officers that Chinese emperors used to call this road the “route for subjugating the south,” nearly two-thirds of Hanoi’s 1.2-million-strong army is positioned between the capital and the border.

In the eerie mist cloaking Mi Chi village, a mountain community only 300 m from fortified Vietnamese positions, green-uniformed PLA sentries stand motionless, expressionless, their binoculars trained on the dense vegetation ahead. A few days before my arrival Vietnamese shells exploded in the rice fields, renewing peasants’ fears that the fighting will break out again. Their concerns are well-founded. In the paddy fields other PLA soldiers, AK-47s strapped to their backs, till, plant and thresh along with the peasants. Their presence reassures the villagers, and

their labor makes up for the time lost during the shelling. But they are also crack troops, famous for their marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat skills, and they constitute a credible deterrent.

Mi Chi is situated in the lower reaches of Friendship Pass, a valley that slices through the border mountains. The name dates back to the 1960s, when China was Vietnam’s ally and a major arms supplier for its war with the United States. Chinese Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping has estimated that the People’s Republic supplied Vietnam with aid worth $20 billion. The lion’s

share, along with great quantities of Soviet supplies, was funnelled by rail and road through Friendship Pass to begin the long, arduous journey down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Chinese and Vietnamese officials would toast each other at the pass in buildings erected by Ming dynasty generals. The revolutionary friendship of the two countries was said, by both China’s Mao Tse-tung and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, to be as close as “lips and teeth.” At Pingxiang, a larger town farther north, a hotel was built to accommodate travellers on the HanoiNanning railway line.

But in the past five years amity has turned to enmity. Barbed wire and armed border guards blockade all crossing points, and heavy guns face each other from the opposing sides. The railroad has been overgrown by the forest, and the meeting halls have been gutted by shellfire.

In the central building, seated below

a portrait of Karl Marx—which is surrounded by bullet holes—PLA borderguard commander Zhao Mingxin explains that the current situation is as tense as at any time since 1979. In July the Vietnamese overflew Chinese airspace four times, and in early August Vietnamese artillery fired 13 shells across the border. Tank concentrations have been built up, and an increasing number of Vietnamese armed personnel is attempting to infiltrate into China, declared Zhao. “Not a day passes without some incident,” he added. In Nanning, Guangxi provincial border affairs spokesman Liu Luzhai says that there were 3,750 border incidents between March, 1979, and June, 1982.

The rival accounts of the situation are similar; only the identities of the aggressor and the victim are reversed. The Chinese claim that, after Ho Chi Minh’s death in 1969, the Vietnamese leadership was drawn steadily into the Soviet orbit until it became a virtual vassal state. They also charge that the fall of Saigon in 1975 allowed Hanoi to further its long-held ambition of bringing Laos and Kampuchea into a Vietnam-dominated “Indochinese federation.” In return for providing the Vietnamese with munitions and moneyvalued at $6 million a day—Moscow sought to use the Vietnamese as surrogates. A Hanoi-led Indochina would then have become a staging area for a deeper march into Southeast Asia and provide a second prong for a Soviet pincer aimed at squeezing China—the other arm of the vise being formed by the massive concentrations of Soviet troops on China’s northern border.

As Vietnam prepared for its December, 1978, invasion of Kampuchea, say the Chinese, it simultaneously tried to “provoke” China with armed incursions along their frontier. As well, Hanoi launched a fanatical campaign to drive hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese out of the country. In doing so it triggered the first exodus of Boat People in the south and the departure of about 250,000 Chinese, who sought asylum in China, from the north.

Peking’s analysts say Vietnam’s strategy was intended to force China to respond by assuming the role of the aggressor—and conceal, at the same time, Vietnam’s own expansionist moves.

That is exactly what China did. In February, 1979, the Chinese invaded not just along the border, as Hanoi anticipated, but with a massive strike deep into northern Vietnam, virtually obliterating three provincial capitals and

taking the PLA to the banks of the Red River and the “Gateway to Hanoi.”

Deng declared at the time that the operation was intended to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” After a month China withdrew, saying that the punishment inflicted was sufficient. For their part, Vietnamese leaders claim that China’s invasion was an act of wanton aggression and that Vietnamese resistance forced the Chinese to back down.

Now the Chinese seem to be creating a climate for teaching a “second lesson.” They say that in Mi Chi, Pingxiang and Aiko, Vietnamese “provocations” have reached pre-1979 levels. The Chinese charge that they have suffered about 200 casualties since the war formally ended on March 17, 1979. Meng Pinyuan, leader of the Aiko militia unit, also claims that the Vietnamese are encouraging opium cultivation by ethnic minorities along the border to stimu-

late a demand from relatives on the Chinese side. It is clear that the opium problem is increasing in the area.

To the untrained eye, Aiko appears calm. In the heat of the day people keep off the village’s streets, seeking the shade of arcaded passageways which resemble a de Chirico painting. Old women dry star-pointed anise seeds in front of their homes, young girls wrap their hair in velvet in the attractive local fashion known as baeto. But not far away the road is being widened and paved to accommodate tank traffic and to avoid a major logistical problem of the 1979 war. “If the enemy comes here, he will drown in a sea of people,” says militiaman Meng. Virtually every young adult, male or female, is well-

armed and gets basic military training# through the militia, he says. £

In the solitude of the almost empty&t; Pingxiang hotel, I talked with Hseng Huabe, the deputy mayor. Sporting a^ T-shirt that identifies him as a hero of § the 1979 war, Hsen recalled that this g year’s Vietnamese Communist Party congress stressed the country’s hos-tility to China and its commitment to£ serving Soviet strategy. Dismissing! Western reports of a developing Mos-g cow-Hanoi schism as an “illusion,” he is pessimistic about the possibility of any£ improvement in relations. China has no desire to make another major strike into Vietnam, he said, nor any current plans to do so. But the PLA could be “compelled into action” if Vietnam continues to indicate that it has not “learned the lesson” of 1979. Another conflict, rather than amity, seems to be taking shape at Friendship Pass. &l;$>