Monday, 2 April 2018

Book Review - Deng Xiaoping's Long War: The Military Conflict between China and Vietnam by Xiaoming Zhang

The history of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict that broke out in February 1979 is one of the most neglected parts of modern Chinese history. As such Prof. Xiaoming Zhang's book on the conflict is a very necessary contribution to the field, it being one of the few books - possibly the only book in English at least - to analyse the conflict using sources other than contemporary news reports, and to cover the ten-year period of extended conflict after the 1979 invasion in any detail.

There are at least three major-takeaways from this book for observers of modern Chinese affairs:

- Whilst Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia was a major cause of the war, the idea that China was being surrounded by the Soviet Union, and that war with the USSR was imminent (as Zhang explains, Deng Xiaoping believed that war would likely break out in 1985), was another cause of the war. This has implications for future US-Vietnamese relations, especially if the PRC leadership believes that it makes an attack on Vietnam necessary to demonstrate the inability of Vietnam's allies to protect it.

 - In any future conflict, at least any launched by choice by the PRC leadership, a period of so-called "political mobilisation" is likely to precede any action. Zhang's book explains in detail the efforts that were put into convincing PLA soldiers and the population at large of the necessity of the "Self-defence counter-attack", an attack where the element of surprise was obviously important. This "political mobilisation" seems to have had an effect, given the suicidal nature in which attacks were carried out at times during the conflcit. Whether this might hold true for an attack on Taiwan, when the populace is already indoctrinated to a great degree about the necessity of "Liberating Taiwan" is an open question.

- Whilst the war is almost never mentioned in Chinese media (Zhang even mention allegations of a secret deal between the PRC and Vietnamese leadership not to mention the war) Sino-Vietnamese war veterans have been favoured in promotions to the senior leadership of the PLA. Whilst the war is not mentioned, the people who took part in it are far from shunned.

My main criticism of this book is that it sorely lacks a chapter on the Cambodian aspect of the conflict. It is possible that I have missed it, but Vietnam's motives for invading Cambodia are not described in the book as far as I am aware, nor are the reasons for the PRC's support of the Khmer Rouge regime before the Vietnamese invasion. A description of the course of Vietnam's invasion, and of the campaigns fought against guerrillas by the Vietnamese army would have greatly helped the reader's understanding of why Vietnam was eventually willing to withdraw from Cambodia and make a rapprochement with the PRC. This is particular when, as Zhang points out, Vietnam's "real problem lay in Cambodia", not so much in the ongoing conflict on the Chinese border.

Of course, as Zhang often points out, the Vietnamese archives are not open to academic study, so the material on which a description of the Cambodian conflict might be based is thin. This also applies to the criticism in some reviews of this book of it being overly Sino-centric - ultimately the Vietnamese side of the story is untold as the Vietnamese archives are not available.


Ji Xiang said...

I don't think a modern conflict could be preceded by a period of "political mobilization". The public is already indoctrinated enough, and will basically support China in any conflict that comes up.

Gilman Grundy said...

I think you're right about a conflict with Taiwan, and perhaps also the South China Sea. Another conflict against Vietnam (outside of the Spratlys/Paracels), or perhaps Burma or another smaller border country, might require a great some work to explain - or at least would have in the China I knew (which admittedly is now ten years out of date, have things changed so much?).

At least it is Prof. Zhang's view that "political work" is still likely to be a big part of any future conflict, so long as that conflict is of China's choosing. Of course the PLA is unlikely to make use of the kind of 人海战术 that they did in Vietnam and Korea so perhaps that level of indoctrination is no longer necessary.

Ji Xiang said...

If there was such a conflict with a neighbouring country, the Chinese media would obviously do their best to explain to the public why the conflict was necessary and just. But they could do this once the fighting had already started. Especially if the war was presented as being in defence of China's borders, or to save Chinese citizens abroad (the main theme of the recent blockbuster Wolf Warrior), most of the Chinese public would not find it difficult to support it.

Obviously the fighting would be done by professional soldiers alone, and not by huge armies of volunteers like in Korea, or by conscripts. China's size means that conscripting ordinary people is not necessary, and this will make any war much easier to swallow for the people. The one thing that most Chinese families wouldn't stand for is have their own sons go and risk their lives.