On February 17, 1979 a substantial Chinese military force, eventually numbering more than half a million combatants, crossed China’s border with Vietnam. The rugged terrain favored the defenders: The Chinese had to hack their way through the dense jungle in the hope of forcing a showdown with the hidden enemy. After days of heavy fighting against well-trained Vietnamese militias and battle-hardened regular troops, China’s People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) captured three regional capitals. On March 5, the Chinese declared victory and began to withdraw. By March 16, the brief war was over. But hostility and border tensions continued until the early 1990s.
The Sino-Vietnamese War is rarely remembered or discussed today. Compared to the earlier, much longer, and far more brutal American war in Vietnam, the month-long affair comes across as just another bizarre twist in the long, complex history of Southeast Asia. But 40 years ago, the war appeared to herald a tectonic shift in regional and global politics and helped forge a close, more trusting relationship between the leader of the free world and the world’s largest autocracy.