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Peace and Justice as it Relates to the Sino-Vietnamese Conflict of 1974-1988

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the Sino-Vietnamese Conflict of 1974-1988 emphasizing the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1974. There are two main reasons for choosing this topic. First and foremost, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 offers some valuable historical insights into how China’s foreign politics works. Such an insight is especially critical in the time when China is more and more frequently flexing its military muscle over territorial claims in the South China Sea. Curiously, the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 also escalated because of the disputed offshore territories. Some commentators perhaps erroneously believe that another China-Vietnam war is imminent. Nevertheless, the historical context needs to be analyzed. The second reason for choosing the subject is that China has not still been brought to justice for its crimes against humanity during the war with Vietnam. Although 25 years have passed since the two countries have signed a formal peace agreement, thereby normalizing their relations, China has not yet made diplomatic overtures to settle the issue. It should be noted that China pursues double standards on this question, as it demands an official apology from Japan for its crimes against the Chinese people during World War II, but refuses to do the same in respect of Vietnam. Furthermore, the perpetrators of the atrocities against Vietnamese civilians have not been brought to tribunals, as it happened after World War II.

To achieve the purpose of the research, which is to explore how peace and justice have been sought in the Sino-Vietnamese conflict of 1974-198, several steps will be taken. It is “have been” and not “were” because, while the conflict is been solved for a long time, China has not made amends for its wartime misdeeds and the memories of these crimes still linger in Vietnam. This paper will first provide a brief background of the conflict, looking at both its roots and its consequences. Next, it will briefly analyze the relevant theoretical paradigm and define key concepts relevant to the discussion. Finally, the paper will segue into a discussion of China’s crimes against Vietnamese civilians, the establishment of peace, and the role of international organizations in bringing justice to the culprits. In conclusion, the paper projects historical insight into the current situation in the region, because to some extent it resembles the situation that ensued in the late 1970s. The bottom line is that although the parties normalized their relations and reached peace, justice has never been brought to those responsible for the wartime enormities against civilian Vietnamese populations.

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The defeat of imperial Japan in World War II had great ramifications for entire East Asia. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the end of World War II changed regional politics beyond recognition. Indeed, the newly established the People’s Republic of China sent the government of the preceding Republic of China into exile on a tiny island of Taiwan. Because of these geopolitical transformations, the relationship between Vietnam and the new Chinese authorities went through a deep transformation as well. However, another factor militates against the critical evaluation of the bilateral relations between China and Vietnam. The latter was divided into several independent parts throughout much of the 20th century. When France finally relinquished its colonies in Indochina in 1954, Vietnam was again divided into two self-governing territories, the North and the South (Fravel 2008). As a result, the Second Indochina War, also known as the Vietnam War of 1954-1975, began. Northern Vietnam was ruled by a communist government and, therefore, enjoyed cordial relations with both the USSR and the People’s Republic of China (Ang 2013). In the course of the war, it took the comfort of both the political and military support of China. Southern Vietnam, by contrast, openly espoused anti-communist ideology and maintained a quasi-democratic government (Westad & Quinn-Judge 2006). It mainly relied on the US and other Western nations for assistance. Overall, Communist China contributed greatly to Northern Vietnam’s victory over its pro-democratic enemy in the south.

However, China’s assistance to Vietnam did not come with no predefined agenda. In 1958, for example, at the request of the Communist Party of China, the Vietnamese authorities relinquished their claim to the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea and made a number of other similar concessions to China (Chen 1987). However, the Chinese authorities also had ceded some island territories to Northern Vietnam in the 1950s (Ang 2013). The two countries agreed to defer the resolution of other outstanding territorial disputes, such as delineation of the Gulf of Tonkin and other parts of the South China Sea, until the end of the Vietnam War. Somehow, the two parties were certain that Southern Vietnam would be defeated.

At the end of 1973, as the hostilities in Vietnam were ending, tensions between former allies heightened. The time was ripe for the resolution of the territorial issues between the two countries. The existence of unfathomable oil reserves in the Gulf of Tonkin prevented the establishment of common ground concerning these issues (Daum, Gardner & Mausbach 2003). What China saw as a perfidious move was the expression of Northern Vietnam of its readiness to attract foreign firms for the oil exploration works in the disputed waters (Willbanks 2013). Chinese officials made a series of demonstrations to the recalcitrant Northern Vietnamese counterparts, but to no avail. Tension level soared even higher in January 1974, when the Chinese and Vietnamese forces engaged in a maritime clash. In the aftermath of the clash, China established full control over the Paracel Islands (Lawrence & Logevall 2007). Both sides sustained a comparatively small number of casualties, losing fewer than 100 men in total (Li 2012), but the relations took another turn for the worse.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, two Vietnams unified. Even though socialism was established as a nationwide ideology in the new country, it did not help to improve souring relations with China. Unified Vietnam had once again claimed its rights to some of the disputed islands (Zhai 2000), sending a clear signal to China that it would not sacrifice its territorial claims at the altar of good neighborly relations. China’s support of Cambodia in its war against Vietnam between 1975 and 1977 (Calkins 2013), Vietnam’s oppression of its Chinese minorities (Zhai 2000; Ang 2013), and Vietnam’s gravitation towards the USSR as opposed to China’s split from it (Miller 2002; Scobell 2003) contributed to the deterioration of the bilateral relations. As tensions ratcheted up, the two countries found themselves in a state of war in early 1979. In the aftermath of the Sino-Vietnamese War, Vietnam continued its occupation of Cambodia, China withdrew from Vietnam, and the two parties lost dozens of thousands of their soldiers (Ganguly & Thompson 2011). The figures vary widely in different sources, but it is believed that each lost nearly 50,000 soldiers (Hood, 1993). Since the confrontation took place in Vietnam, this country also lost a large number of civilians with the death toll reaching as many as 100,000 people (Hood, 1993). The war lasted less than a month, but a formal armistice would not be signed until 1999. As desultory fighting continued for another decade, bilateral relations between the two countries suffered and the prospects for either peace or justice remained grim.

Relevant Theory

Realism describes the decades-long Sino-Vietnamese conflict better than any other political paradigm. According to realists, in the realm of international relations, states vie to establish hegemony over other international actors. Hans Morgenthau, a 20th-century ideologue of political realism, treated international politics as a cockpit for the ferocious power play between rival groups (cited in Mearsheimer 2003). He believed that foreign policy of any state should represent national interests, hence providing the justification for the use of force to safeguard these interests. Staunch supporters of the realist paradigm opine that each state has a right to follow a hawkish line on foreign policy and pursue its foreign-policy goals through confrontations, alliances, and wars in order to preserve its national interests. That is how the Indochina acted in the mid-20th century.

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Relevant Definitions

From the variety of definitions offered in class, several are most relevant to the Sino-Vietnamese War. They are “positive peace”, “negative peace”, “crimes against humanity” and “peace-building”. Others are less pertinent. While the term “genocide” is sometimes used in reference to Chinese actions towards Vietnamese civilians, it is confined only to informal discourse. All terms related to justice have little relevance to the Sino-Vietnamese conflict, as Vietnam never managed to bring the aggressor to justice.

According to Galtung and Fischer (2013), positive peace is “active love, the union of body, mind, and spirit”, whereas negative peace is the absence of physical and verbal violence, “passive co-existence” (p. 174).

According to Azimi, Lin, and Kenkyujo (2000), peace-building is a “complete range of activities accompanying the course of events before, during, after and even in the absence of a conflict” (p. 178).

According to Fournet (2013), crimes against humanity refer to inhumane acts of rotten nature, such as “willful killing, torture, and rape, committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population on national, political” or other grounds (p. 85).

According to Elster, Nagy and Williams (2012), “transitional justice is concerned with contributing to giving force to a regime of equal rights, one that can instantiate a defensible conception of justice, strengthening a system of norms whose best characterization is that they are capable of guiding people’s behavior” (p. 57).

Critical Analysis

The Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, is the highlight of the decades-long conflict between the two states, has received such little coverage in mass media and history textbooks that very few people outside East Asia have any rudimentary knowledge about it. Even though the Chinese army was defeated after a month of hostilities, it carried out an extensive scorched-earth policy in the course of its evacuation to China. They razed to the ground villages and small towns and destroyed infrastructure. Most important, however, China subjected the captured prisoners of war and civilian populations to torture and other types of inhumane treatments, such as blindfolding (Chen 1987). Some authors say that the Chinese army slew as many as 100,000 Vietnamese civilians (Chen 1987). It is true that the Vietnamese did not treat Chinese prisoners with kid gloves, and they rode roughshod over people of Chinese origin living in Vietnam. However, their treatment was less brutal than that offered by China. Whether the wartime crimes of Chinese soldiers perpetrated against Vietnamese prisoners of war and civilians can be called genocidal is a matter of dispute, but they certainly border on the definition of the term “crimes against humanity”.

Vietnam appealed to the UN to intervene in the conflict but did not sever its diplomatic relations with China. Even though the system of international law at the time was not as effete as it is now and the UN was stronger than it is now, the organization was helpless in this case. It deployed almost 20 peacekeeping operations during the Cold War but left the conflict between Vietnam and China unaddressed. The UN played a more active role in the resolution of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War of 1975-1977, but again its peacekeepers would not be dispatched to Cambodia until 1992 (Westad & Quinn-Judge 2006). At the time when China invaded Vietnam in 1979, the United Nations could do nothing but offer to mediate, but it did not do that. The problem is that it takes the UN too much time to decide whether to deploy its “blue helmets” in the conflict zone. Because the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 lasted less than a month, the UN had not even managed to consider peacekeeping operations before it ended. Moreover, because the conflict received little attention in East Asia and beyond, the international community did not take adequate measures to ensure peace and justice between the two countries in the future (Westad & Quinn-Judge 2006). International organizations other than the UN have also been largely ineffective in establishing the post-war justice between the two countries, despite numerous appeals from Vietnam (Westad & Quinn-Judge 2006).

Thus, it was neither an international community nor any particular international or nongovernmental organization that made negotiations between the warring parties possible, saving lives and promoting the overall cause of peace. After the Chinese retreated in March 1979, the lull in the fighting did not last for a long period, as the desultory skirmishes along the border lasted for another decade. During this time, the two countries made some peace-building efforts, which proved to be not very vehement. Even though both Chinese and Vietnamese people referred to themselves as brotherly nations, they failed to establish positive peace. Indeed, when peace was established, it was more of negative peace, i.e. passive coexistence. Even now, years after the conflict officially ended, there is no sign of established positive peace, as negative peace persists. The justice was never achieved, despite all attempts on the part of Vietnam to receive at least official apologies from China for its invasion in 1979. On the contrary, China spurned all such initiatives and even persuaded Vietnam to drop such demands (Westad & Quinn-Judge 2006).


When projecting the findings of this paper onto the current situation in East Asia, it would be wise to predict the future of peace and conflict in the region instead of simply adumbrating the findings. China’s unparalleled rise on the Asian continent vaults this country to the status of a global leader. It means that confrontation with the US, another existing superpower in the world, will become inevitable at some point. When focusing more on a regional level, it can be said that although Asia is a veritable hive of economic activity characterized by economic interdependence and the growing importance of regional institutions, China’s rise has the potential to destabilize the continent. Even though some commentators dismiss economic categories as being irrelevant and inconsequential to peace and stability on the Asian continent, they in fact matter. For example, David Kang (2005), a vehement opponent of political realism, argues that once China becomes a truly dominant regional power, it will recreate the hitherto defunct Sino-centric regional order. He further opines that such a regional order will be stable and long-lasting (Kang 2005). To buttress his arguments with facts, Kang gets back to the earlier epochs, when the Celestial Empire, as Chinese people referred to their country at that time, was wealthy and powerful. The whole region benefited from the Celestial Empire’s prosperity and stability and thrived. Kang (2005) dismisses realist pessimism about Asia’s future and says that it would be “primed for peace” rather than “ripe for rivalry” (p. 553). Mearsheimer (2003) also believes in the ability of Chinese hegemony to balance out the increasing regional tensions. However, such arguments are false in theory and pernicious in practice, because the analysts blithely ignore the history of Chinese wars and atrocities in the 20th century, including those committed during the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979. Although the country has not engaged in direct hostilities with its neighbors for some time, its ever-faster military buildup and pugnacious saber-rattling in the disputed waters compromise regional peace and security. Because China has escaped unscathed from the 1979 war with Vietnam, at least in terms of legal retribution, it will likely engage in similar activities if its national interests are at stake. It would be folly to assert that Asia is marching inexorably into a world of everlasting peace.



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