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 armies Several interchanged divisions
Casualties and losses
Unknown Unknown

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 (PLA) 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.[3] 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.[4]

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 Muang Sing in northwestern Laos near the Sino-Laotian border.[5] 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 (VPA) crossed the Thai–Cambodian border during the pursuit of the defeated Khmer Rouge.[4] Despite swift 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 28 June to 6 July, in addition to outspoken criticism of Vietnam in diplomatic announcements, Chinese troops continuously shelled the Vietnamese Cao Bằng Province.[6] Small-scale skirmishes also took place along the border later in the year, with six incidents occurring just in September. China accused Vietnam of conducting cross-border raids against Chinese positions in the Luojiaping area, Maguan County, Yunnan Province on 30 September and 1 October, killing at least 5 Chinese.[7]

The Chinese shellings did not aim at any strategic military target or create any substantial damage in Vietnam at all 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 Mẫu Sơn[edit]

On 2 January 1981, Vietnam Foreign Ministry proposed a ceasefire during the New Year festival. This proposal was rejected by China on 20 January. However, two sides continued to exchange prisoners of war. The situation was relatively calm in the next few months.

In May 1981, ferocious fighting suddenly erupted in Cao Lộc District, Lạng Sơn Province when the PLA launched a regiment-sized attack on a height on the Mau Son Range named Fakashan (法卡山) by the Chinese, or Hill 400 by the Vietnamese. In Hà Tuyên Province (now Hà Giang and Tuyên Quang Provinces), Chinese forces also stormed another strategic peak called Hill 1688 and several other positions in its vicinity. The bloody engagements took lives of hundreds of soldiers from each side.[8] To justify this military operation, China announced that the attacks were in response to acts of aggression by Vietnam during the first quarter of that year.[4]

In retaliation, Vietnamese forces carried out raids in Guangxi Province on 5 and 6 May. A Vietnamese infantry company also struck the Mengdong Co-operative Commune in Malipo County, Yunnan Province. China claimed to have fought off these attacks, wiping out hundreds of enemy soldiers in Guangxi. On 22 May, they claimed to have killed 85 Vietnamese in Koulin, Yunnan. In total, China asserted to have eliminated about 300 Vietnamese soldiers during these border clashes.[4]

Although the conflict went on fiercely, China did not want to escalate [4] and only deployed border guard units instead of regular troops into the battle. Western observers assessed that China was unlikely to teach Vietnam a "lesson" like one in 1979, especially when Vietnam has built up their regular forces at the border area and had a clear advantage in terms of equipment.[9] Other analysts pointed out that the upcoming rainy season, and the new Chinese defense budget cuts do not allow them to carry out a large-scale invasion.[10]

1984: Battle of Vị Xuyên[edit]

In April 1984, Chinese military launched some battalion-sized attacks in Lang Son to support the Khmer Rouge rebels in Cambodia, whose bases were being overrun by the Vietnamese Army during the K5 dry season offensive. The largest of them took place in Tràng Định District, with several Chinese battalions assaulting Hills 820 and 636 located near the routes taken during the 1979 invasion at the Friendship Gate. Despite using a massive force, Chinese troops were either beaten back or forced to abandon the captured positions by the next day.[11]

In Ha Tuyen from April to July 1984, Chinese forces struck a strip of hills in Vị Xuyên District, which China called Laoshan (老山). Laoshan is actually a streak of mountains running from the western Hill 1800 to another hill at the elevation of 1,200 m in the east. This hill was referred to by the Chinese as either Dongshan (东山) or Zheyinshan (者阴山), and was also the only position on the eastern bank of the Lô River where fighting occurred.[12]

The PLA launched their assault at 05:00 on 28 April after heavy artillery bombardment. The PLA 40th Division, 14th Army crossed the border on the western bank of the Lô River, while the 49th Division took Hill 1200 on the eastern bank.[12][13] The Vietnamese defenders, including the 313rd Infantry Division and 168th Artillery Brigade, were forced to retreat from the hills. PLA troops were able to occupied the hamlet of Na La, as well as Hills 226, 685 and 468, creating a salient of 2.5 km thrusting into Vietnam. These positions were protected by steep cliffs covered by dense forests along the Thanh Thuy River, and could only be accessed by crossing the exposed eastern side of the Lo River valley.[12]

After 28 April, fighting was still intense in other locations such as Hills 1509 (also called Nui Dat by the Vietnamese, or Laoshan by the Chinese), 772, 233, 1200 (Zheyinshan) and 1030, where control constantly changed hands. It was not until 15 May that most fighting ceased, as Chinese forces began to secure these hills. However, the battle resumed on 12 July when the VPA staged a counter-attack to recapture the lost positions.[12] The assault on Hill 1509, spearheaded by the VPA 876th Regiment/356th Division, was met by a fierce storm of artillery, which was later described by Vietnamese veterans as their own "Hamburger Hill". The VPA were repelled on 14 July with heavy casualties, including 600 killed suffered by the 356th Division alone.[14]

To defend the captured area, the PLA stationed two armies in Vi Xuyen region, including four infantry divisions, two artillery divisions and several tank regiments. Chinese artillery positioned on the hills included 130 mm field guns and 155 mm howitzers, as well as multiple rocket launchers, while infantry regiments were equipped with 85 mm guns and 100 mm mortars. The PLA even used tanks in some of the clashes.[15] Engagements were gradually reduced to only sporadic artillery duels and infantry raids conducted by Vietnamese companies seeking to recapture the hills, including two most prominent offensives in October 1984 and January 1985.

As the result, the PLA captured 29 positions inside the territory of Vietnam, including Hills 1509 and 772 west of Lo River, as well as Hills 1250 and 1030 and Mount Si-La-Ca in the east. The deepest Chinese intrusion was made at Hills 685 and 468 located approximately 2 km south of the border.[4] However, the Chinese failed to advance any further than 5 km southward, despite their outnumbering forces.[12]

According to US intelligence reports, Vietnam failed to retake the 8 hills.[16] Vietnam claimed to have decimated one regiment and eight battalions of the PLA, inflicting 5,500 Chinese casualties.[17] China announced to have inflicted approximately 2,000 casualties on Vietnamese forces, while its side lost 939 soldiers and 64 laborers killed in action during the five-week offensive campaign in Laoshan.[15]

1986 to 1987: Continuation of border shelling[edit]

In 1985, the Chinese fired more than 800,000 shells into Vi Xuyen among about 1 million shells targeting the border regions; these numbers, however, significantly dropped in the period from 1986 to early 1987, with only some tens of thousands rounds per month. In 1986, USSR General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev called for the normalization 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 Cambodia affairs in the ninth round of negotiations between the USSR and China.[18]

However, amid positive diplomatic signals, the situation in the border region suddenly intensified. On 14 October 1986, Vietnam accused China of firing 35,000 shells into Vi Xuyen and making territorial encroachment. Vietnam claimed to have repelled three Chinese charges at Hill 1100 and the Thanh Thuy Bridge. This was probably China's reaction to Soviet Union's refusal to raise pressure on Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia.[19] From 5 to 7 January 1987, China fired 10,000 to 20,000 shells a day (65,000 shells fired on January 7 alone) [14] and launched 15 division-sized attacks on Vietnamese positions.[4] Vietnam put the number of Chinese losses in these attacks at 1,500. China, on the other hand, claimed to have inflicted 500 casualties on the Vietnamese, and said its own number of casualties was lower.

During 5 years (1984-1989) in Ha Giang Province, the Chinese fired over 2 million artillery rounds, mainly into the area of 20 km2 of Thanh Thuy and Thanh Duc Communes. The town of Hà Giang, only 10 miles from the battle sites, however, witnessed no bombardment; life still carried on as normal and the situation was quiet.[14]

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 virtual Chinese control over the Johnson South Reef.


By April 1987, China began to scale down their military operations. From April 1987 to October 1989, they conducted only 11 artillery strikes. In 1989, China gradually pulled out their units from 29 positions north of Thanh Thuy River. By 1992, Chinese troops formally withdrew from Laoshan and Zheyinshan.[20] Atop Laoshan, the Chinese built concrete bunkers and a memorial after the conflict. Only earthen trenches remained on the Vietnamese sector, which has been delimited and returned to Vietnam under the 2009 Border Agreement between the two countries. China and Vietnam negotiated over the normalization of their relations in a secretive summit in Chengdu in September 1990, and have officially normalized ties in November 1991.

Thousands of people from both sides were killed in the war. In the Vị Xuyên Martyrs Cemetery, there are more than 1,600 graves of Vietnamese soldiers killed throughout the conflict until 1990.[21]


  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. ^ a b François Joyaux, p. 242
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Carlyle A. Thayer, "Security Issues in Southeast Asia: The Third Indochina War"
  5. ^ John McBeth, "Squeezing the Vietnamese", Far Eastern Economic Review, 19 Dec 1980, p. 9
  6. ^ Edward C. O'Dowd, p. 93.
  7. ^ "Armed skirmishes on the border between China and Vietnam...", UPI, 16 Oct 1980.
  8. ^ Edward C. O'Dowd, p. 94.
  9. ^ Michael Weisskopf and Howard Simmons, "A Slow Burn on the Sino-Vietnam Border", Asiaweek (22 May 1981), p. 24.
  10. ^ Michael Weisskopf from Beijing, International Herald Tribune, 25 May 1981.
  11. ^ Edward C. O’Dowd, p. 98
  12. ^ a b c d e Edward C. O’Dowd, p. 100
  13. ^ B. P. Mahony, "Sino-Vietnamese Security Issues: Second Lesson Versus Stalemate"
  14. ^ a b c [1]
  15. ^ a b Xiaobing Li, p. 260.
  16. ^ "Intelligence", Far Eastern Economic Review, 2 August 1984
  17. ^ Paul Quinn-Judge, "Borderline Cases", Far Eastern Economic Review, 21 June 1984, p. 26
  18. ^ AFP from Beijing, The Canberra Times, 6 October 1986.
  19. ^ "A Crescendo for Withdrawal", Asiaweek, 2 November 1986, p.11.
  20. ^ Xiaobing Li, p. 264.
  21. ^ Edward C. O'Dowd, p. 101