Sino-Vietnamese conflicts 1979–90

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Sino-Vietnamese border conflicts
Part of Sino-Vietnam Wars
Date 1979–90
Location Sino-Vietnamese border
Result The conflict subsided without the outbreak of war. Normalization of relations between China and Vietnam.
China captures six reefs in the South China Sea
 China  Vietnam
Commanders and leaders

China Ye Jianying (1979–83)
China Li Xiannian (1983–88)
China Yang Shangkun (1988–90)
China Yang Dezhi

China Xu Shiyou

Vietnam Tôn Đức Thắng (1979–80)
Vietnam Nguyễn Hữu Thọ (1980–81)
Vietnam Trường Chinh (1981–87)
Vietnam Võ Chí Công (1987–90)

Vietnam Văn Tiến Dũng
Several interchanged corps Several interchanged divisions
Casualties and losses
Not clear Not clear

The Sino-Vietnamese conflicts of 1979–90 were a series of border clashes between the People's Republic of China and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam following the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979. These border clashes lasted from the end of the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979 until 1990.

When the Chinese People's Liberation Army withdrew from Vietnam in March 1979 after the war, China announced that they were not ambitious for "any square inch of the territory of Vietnam".[1] In fact, Chinese troops occupied an area of 60 square kilometres (23 sq mi),[2] which was disputed land controlled by Vietnam before hostilities broke out. In some places such as the area around Friendship Gate in Lạng Sơn Province, Chinese troops occupied territories which have no military value but important symbolic value. Elsewhere, Chinese troops occupied the strategic positions of military importance as a springboard to attack Vietnam. These areas, arguably, have always been considered as part of China despite their actual control by Vietnam.[3]

The Chinese occupation of border territory angered Vietnam, and this ushered in a series of fights between the two sides to gain control of the area. Border conflicts between Vietnam and China continued until 1988, peaking in the years 1984–1985.[4] By the early 1990s, along with the withdrawal of Vietnam from Cambodia and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the relationship between the two countries gradually returned to normality.


Since 1979, there were at least six clashes on the Sino-Vietnamese border, in June 1980, May 1981, April 1983, April 1984, June 1985 and December 1986-January 1987. According to Western observers, all were initiated or provoked by the Chinese to serve their political objectives.[5]

1980: Shelling of Cao Bằng[edit]

Since early 1980, Vietnam conducted military operations during the dry season to sweep Khmer Rouge forces over the Cambodian-Thai border. To put pressure on Vietnam to withdraw military forces from Cambodia, China deployed troops on the Sino-Vietnamese border. China conducted military training for some 5,000 anti-Laotian Hmong troops in Yunnan Province and used these force to attack Muong Sing in northwest Laos near the Sino-Laotian border.[6] Vietnam responded by increasing forces stationed at the Sino-Vietnamese border, and China no longer had the advantage of forces as it did in its campaign in February 1979.

In June 1980, the Vietnam People's Army crossed the Thai–Cambodian border during the pursuit of the defeated Khmer Rouge.[5] Despite rapid Vietnamese withdrawal from Thai territory, the Vietnamese incursion made China feel that it had to act to support its allies, Thailand and the Khmer Rouge. From June 28 to July 6, in addition to outspoken criticism of Vietnam in diplomatic announcements, the Chinese troops continuously shelled Cao Bằng Province northern Vietnam. The Chinese shellings did not aim at any strategic military target at all or create any substantial damage in Vietnam but were symbolic. Vietnam felt that the conduct of military operations on a larger scale was beyond Chinese capabilities, so Vietnam had a free hand to conduct military operations in Cambodia. However, Chinese shellings would shape the type of conflict on the Sino-Vietnamese border in the next 10 years.

1981: Battle of Mau Son[edit]

On January 2, 1981, Vietnam Foreign Ministry proposed a ceasefire to welcome the New Year. This proposal was rejected by the Chinese side on January 20. However, two sides still conduct prisoner exchange. The situation is relatively calm in the next few months.

In May 1981, fierce fighting suddenly erupted when a Chinese regiment attacked and occupied a strategic height (called Fakashan (法卡山) by the Chinese and Peak 400 by the Vietnamese) on the Mau Son range in Cao Lộc District, Lang Son Province. China also attacked several strategic heights in Ha Giang province. Fighting were fierce with hundreds of soldiers killed from both sides. To justify this military operation, China announced that the attacks were in retaliation for acts of aggression by Vietnam during the 1st quarter of that year.[5]

In retaliation, Vietnam infantry carried out raids in Guangxi Province on 5 and 6 May. A Vietnamese infantry company also attacked on co-operative communes in Mengdong, Malipo District, Yunnan Province. China claims to have hit back on attacks originating from Vietnam and wiped out hundreds of enemy soldiers in the Guangxi attack. On May 22, they declared 85 Vietnam troops killed in Koulin, Yunnan. In total, China claims to have eliminated about 300 Vietnamese soldiers during their border raids.[5]

Despite fierce fighting broke out, China did not want to escalate [5] and only use mobilized the border forces, not their elite forces, for battle. Despite the tense situation at the border, China was unlikely to teach Vietnam a 'lesson', especially when Vietnam has intensified formal military forces at the border area and won clear advantage in terms of equipment ".[7] Other analysts points out that the upcoming rainy season, and the new Chinese defense budget cuts do not allow them to carry out a large-scale invasion.[8]

1984: Battle of Vi Xuyen[edit]

On April 1984, Chinese military again launch major attacks in Lang Son in support of the Khmer Rouge forces in Cambodia, whose bases were being overrun by the Vietnamese Army during the K5 dry season offensive. The largest attack took place in Tràng Định District, Lang Son province, with several Chinese battalions attacking near Friendship Pass using the route taken during the 1979 war. Despite their strong force, the attacks were beaten back by the next day.[9]

In Ha Giang from April to July 1984, Chinese military hit the hills in Vị Xuyên District, which China called Lao Son (老山 or Laoshan). Lao Son is actually a streak of mountain running from western elevation of 1800 to elevation of 1200 in the east. The 1200 height is called Zheyinshan (者阴山) and this is also the place where fighting occurred in the eastern side of the Lô River.

The PLA opened the attack at 5 am on April 28, 1984 after a wave of fierce shelling. China's 40th Division of 14th Corps crossed the border on the west bank of the Lô River, while the 49th Division attack and invade Peak 1200.[10] The Vietnamese defense force, includes 313rd Infantry Division and 168th Artillery Brigade, were forced to withdraw from the hill. PLA troops were able to occupied Na La hamlet and several heights, creating a convex area extending about 2.5 km towards Vietnam. This position is protected by steep cliffs covered with dense forests along the Thanh Thuy stream, and is only accessible by crossing the exposed east side of the Lo river valley, making it hard for the VPA to advance.

Battle of Peak 1509[edit]

From April 28 to May 15, fightings were indecisive in other locations such as the 1509 peak (ie Nui Dat, or Lao Son by the Chinese). The heights of 772, 233, 1200 (Zheyinshan), 1030 (Dong Shan) constantly change hands. From May 15, fighting halted after Chinese forces began to secure these hills. However by July 12, fighting flared again when the VPA staged a counter-attack to recapture the lost positions. At Lao Son, 876th VPA Regiment (365th Division) lead the assault but were met by shelling so fierce that VPA veterans describe as their own Hamburger Hill. The VPA were repelled on July 14 with heavy casualties. During the July 12 battle alone, over 600 Vietnamese were killed and 820 were injured.[11]

To defend the captured area, the PLA maintains two corps in Vi Xuyen area, including four infantry divisions, two artillery divisions and several tank regiments. Chinese artillery positioned in the area included 130 mm field gun and 155 mm howitzer, as well as 40-barrels rocket while infantry regiments were equipped with 85 mm artillery and 100 mm mortar. Fighting gradually halted and there were only sporadic artillery duels, with Vietnamese penetration teams seek to recapture the heights with two most prominent offensives in October 1984 and January 1985. In some clashes, the PLA also put their tanks into battle.

As the result, the PLA captured 29 peaks inside the territory of Vietnam, including 1509, 772 . Among the positions that the Chinese military has captured the peak in 1509 (Lao Son), 772 in the west of Lo River and 1250 peak (Nui Bac) and 1030 (Si La Ca) in the east. The deepest intrusion located approximately 2 km from the border.

According to US intelligence reports, Vietnam failed in efforts to recapture the 8 peaks.[12] Vietnam claimed to destroy a regiment and 8 Chinese battalions, rendering 5,500 Chinese troops hors de combat.[13] China announced approximately 2,000-4,000 Vietnamese troops were out of action and on its part, China lost 939 soldiers and 64 civil workers. True losses from both sides are still unknown to this day.

1986 to 1987: Continuation of border shelling[edit]

Artillery shelling from both sides continue in 1985 with over 800,000 shells fired by China in Vi Xuyen alone. In 1986, USSR General Secretary Gorbachev called for the normalisation of relations between Vietnam and China in a speech in Vladivostok. In October 1986, China also succeeded in persuading the Soviet Union to conduct negotiations on the issue of Cambodia in the 9th round of negotiations between the USSR and China.[14]

However, amid positive diplomatic signals, the border situation suddenly turns back into tension. October 14, 1986, Vietnam accused China of firing 35,000 shells in Vi Xuyen and making territorial encroachment. Vietnam said it had repelled three PLA attacks around Thanh Thuy bridge. This may be China's reaction at Soviet refusal in pressing for Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia,.[15] From the 5th to 7 January 1987, China strengthened shelling with 10,000 to 20,000 shells fired everyday (65,000 shells fired on January 7 alone) [11] and opened 15 attacks at division sized to Vietnamese military positions.[5] China also makes use of aerial reconnaissance, and ground commandos to slip deep into Vietnam's territory.

During 5 years (1984-1989) in Ha Giang province, Chinese artillery fired over 2 million shells, concentrated on two communes of Thanh Duc and Thanh Thuy in an area of 20 km2 approximately. The provincial-seat town of Hà Giang, only 10 miles from Thanh Thuy border, however witnessed no bombardment, life still carried on as normal and the situation was relatively peaceful. China claimed to have caused 500 casualties to enemy troops during the period and said its total number of casualties is lower than 500.

1988:Johnson South Reef Skirmish[edit]

On March 14, 1988, a naval battle was fought between Vietnam People's Navy and People's Liberation Army Navy at the Spratly Islands. The battle resulted in the death of 64 Vietnamese soldiers and since then China has controlled the Johnson South Reef of the Spratly Islands.


Since April 1987, China began to scale down military operations. From April 1987 to October 1989 they conducted 11 artillery raids. By 1992, Chinese troops formally withdraw from Lao Son and Zheyinshan. China gradually withdraws from the occupied positions. In 1989, China withdrew from 29 positions north of Thanh Thuy stream. At the Lao Son peak, the Chinese built concrete bunkers and a memorial after hostilities ended. Only earthen trenches remained on the Vietnamese parts of the land, which were returned under the 2009 Border Agreement between two countries. Both nations planned the normalisation of their relations in a secretive summit in Chengdu in September 1990, and officially normalised ties in November 1991.

Thousands of people from both sides were killed in the war. The Vi Xuyen Martyrs Cemetery in Ha Giang has more than 1,600 graves of Vietnamese soldiers.[16]


  1. ^ Nayan Chanda, "End of the Battle but Not of the War", Far Eastern Economic Review, 16 March 1979, p10. Chanda quoted Chinese officials on announcement of retreat on 5 March 1979
  2. ^ Edward C. O’Dowd, p 91
  3. ^ François Joyaux, p 242
  4. ^ François Joyaux, p242
  5. ^ a b c d e f Carlyle A. Thayer, Security Issues in Southeast Asia: The Third Indochina War
  6. ^ John McBeth, "Squeezing the Vietnamese", Far Eastern Economic Review, 19 Dec 1980, p9
  7. ^ Michael Weisskopf and Howard Simmons, "A Slow Burn on the Sino-Vietnam Border", Asiaweek (22 May 1981), p. 24.
  8. ^ Michael Weisskopf from Beijing, International Herald Tribune, 25 May 1981.
  9. ^ Edward C. O’Dowd, p. 98
  10. ^ B. P. Mahony, Sino-Vietnamese Security Issues: Second Lesson Versus Stalemate
  11. ^ a b [1]
  12. ^ "Intelligence", Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 August 1984
  13. ^ Paul Quinn-Judge, "Borderline Cases", Far Eastern Economic Review, 21 June 1984, p. 26
  14. ^ AFP from Beijing, The Canberra Times, 6 October 1986.
  15. ^ "A Crescendo for Withdrawal", Asiaweek, 2 November 1986, p.11.
  16. ^ Edward C. O'Dowd, p. 101