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China determined that Vietnam, heady with its victory in the American War, must be taught a lesson.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s diminutive leader, had good reason by late 1978 to view Vietnam’s victory in the American War (1959-75) as a threat to China’s security. Vietnam had clearly chosen the Soviet Union – China’s main enemy – as its patron, was actively oppressing Vietnam’s Chinese minority, had committed violent border provocations, and in November had invaded Cambodia to eradicate China’s Khmer Rouge clients. Meanwhile the USSR was massively building up forces on China’s northern border.

For Deng, this situation – although ominous – was ripe with opportunities. A punitive strike against Vietnam would make the Vietnamese more reasonable, show Soviet patronage to be worthless, and expose the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership as hopelessly inadequate. Deng’s well-reasoned strategy to modernize China required the removal of obstructionist Maoist PLA cadres. He scandalized the Maoists by asking, “What does a dead 19th-century German Jew [Karl Marx] have to teach China?” Combat with the Vietnamese would be the PLA’s blood test.

In early January 1979 Deng visited the United States, verifying that the Americans would stand aside in case of a Sino-Vietnamese conflict. Events in Cambodia dictated the timing. The Vietnamese took Phnom Pen on January 7, and on January 14 they reached the Thai border. On February 15 China abrogated its 30-year alliance with Vietnam and announced its intention “to teach Vietnam a lesson.” Two days later the PLA poured across Vietnam’s northern border.

The timing of the attack favored China: It was just before the rainy season blanketed the Vietnamese border, and nearly coincident with the spring thaw in China’s north that mired Soviet mechanized armies massed there. Deng had balanced the PLA’s infirmities against the fact that most of Vietnam’s field army, the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN), was in Cambodia. Only 70,000 soldiers in a few regular and border guard divisions remained in Vietnam; however, as many as 100,000 troops in 3,500-man reconstruction divisions were also in the country, and these were toughened combat veterans.

In the pre-dawn hours of February 17, the spearheads of a PLA force of 200,000 men in 20 divisions supported by 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery pieces attacked in the direction of five regional capitals. Fully aware of Vietnam’s combat experienced modern air defense system, the PLA kept its aircraft grounded.

It was very much a conventional operation, with the Chinese attacking down major roads, overrunning population centers, and seizing the controlling high ground. The PLA relied on human wave attacks, likely losing 3,000 men in the first few days as the Vietnamese infiltrated and raided behind PLA lines. In one example of the deadliness of these tactics, a Vietnamese female sniper killed eight PLA tank commanders. When the commanders’ outraged crewmen caught her, they pinned her to the ground and crushed her beneath the treads of their tanks.

Chinese artillery was outranged and outfought by the more modern and experienced (Soviet-manufactured) Vietnamese guns that pounded PLA troop concentrations and slowmoving columns. The PLA lost at least 100 tanks to the enemy’s advanced Sagger antitank guided missiles. As if the attacking Chinese did not have enough problems with outmoded equipment, tactics and doctrines, they also suffered great friction caused by the absence of a clearly identified rank structure – a holdover of Maoist People’s War doctrine.

The PLA modified its operational goals to concentrate 70,000 men against the regional capital of Long Son, a strategic point controlling access to the Red River Delta and Hanoi. (See “History’s Top 10 Forgotten Victories,” March 2010 ACG.) Defending Long Son was the Vietnamese 3d Gold Star Division. The PLA drove the division back toward the city, which had been fortified for just such an event. On February 27 the PLA seized the dominant terrain north of Long Son with a tank-infantry assault preceded by a massive artillery strike. Within a few days the Vietnamese were surrounded, and on March 2 the PLA closed in for the kill. During three days of ruthless house-to-house fighting, the Chinese wiped out the Gold Star Division and reduced Long Son to rubble. On March 5 the capture of the high ground south of the city opened up the vital Red River Delta to invasion. Beijing, however, then announced that enough punishment had been administered and ordered a withdrawal that was completed in 10 days.

Neither side advertised its casualties. The PLA admitted to 7,000 dead and 15,000 wounded, but Western estimates ran as high as 28,000 Chinese dead and 43,000 wounded. Vietnam did not release casualty figures other than widely publicizing 100,000 Vietnamese civilian deaths. The PLA’s “scorched-earth” campaign that left a swath of destruction in its path gave some credence to Vietnam’s claimed civilian toll.

Although the Vietnamese remained pugnacious – a national trait – the war made clear that their Soviet patron would not fight to defend them. The USSR’s only contribution to the conflict was a supply airlift. Deng had bluffed and called, and the Soviets folded.

Obviously the PLA accomplished its mission, but the Vietnamese had taught the Chinese a lesson on the battlefield – one that Deng used for his own larger purpose. The lessons of the war allowed Deng to sweep out the ossified Maoist old guard and embark on the modernization and professionalization of the PLA. The result today is technologically advanced, operationally sound and strategically sophisticated Chinese armed forces to match the country’s emergence as an economic giant.

Peter Tsouras is a military intelligence analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency and the author/editor of 24 books