How Vietnam Became a Part of the Sino-Soviet Tussle for Communist Dominance

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

By Richard Baum, Ph.D.University of California, Los Angeles

As the Vietnam War intensified with the American bombing of the north in 1965, particularly much to China’s annoyance, Ho Chi-Minh, North Vietnam’s leader, found himself growing ever more dependent on the Soviet Union. After all, the Sino-Soviet competition for leadership of the Communist movement in Third-World arenas included Vietnam.

VPAF pilots and MiG-17s during the Vietnam war
The Vietnam War was part of the great competition between Russia and China. (Image: National Museum of the U.S. Air Force/Public domain)

Vietnam Asserts Independence

In a famous speech given by China’s Defense Minister Lin Biao in September of 1965, on the eve of the Cultural Revolution, Lin urged the Vietnamese Communists to reject Russia’s conventional military advice and large-scale military assistance and to instead adopt the Maoist strategy of “people’s war”, with its emphasis on light armaments, mobile operations, and “fish in water” guerrilla tactics.

Meanwhile, though Ho Chi Minh welcomed increased Soviet assistance, he remained stubbornly independent. To maximize his freedom of maneuver, Ho played off the Russians against the Chinese. While accepting Soviet money and tanks and MIG-17 jet fighters, he also readily accepted Mao’s offer to send substantial numbers of non-combat troops from the PLA’s “Production and Construction Corps” to repair the substantial damage inflicted by America’s bombing campaign in North Vietnam.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of ChinaWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Sino-Soviet Rivalry

Sino-Soviet rivalry in Vietnam came to a head in the late winter of 1968 when Ho Chi Minh launched his famous Tet Offensive. In that most celebrated of military operations, North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces launched a series of simultaneous surprise attacks against all major South Vietnamese cities.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh launched the famous surprise Tet Offensive against the United States, which angered China. (Image: Takashi Images/Shutterstock)

Although the Tet Offensive was eventually repulsed, with great loss of life to the attacking North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, the psychological damage done to the Americans’ sense of military invulnerability marked a significant turning point in the war, insofar as it demonstrated that the enemy could attack in force anywhere, at any time of its choosing.

But the Tet Offensive infuriated Beijing’s leaders. Chinese advisors had been urging Hanoi to follow the Maoist playbook, that is, to persist in small-scale, guerrilla-style mobile warfare operations in the countryside and to avoid large-scale, concentrated urban assaults until much later in the conflict after the insurgents had secured a decisive shift in the balance of military forces.

This, after all, was how Mao ultimately defeated Chiang K’ai Shek. If it was good enough to defeat a huge American-equipped army then, it was good enough to do the same now.

Learn more about the shift in Sino-American relations under the Nixon presidency.

Red Guards’ Vietnam Offensive 

Beijing’s growing impatience with North Vietnam spilled into the open in the spring of 1968, when radical Red Guards in Guangxi stormed Hanoi’s consulate, where they verbally and physically harassed the Vietnamese diplomats within the compound. At around the same time, Red Guards in southern Guangxi began to raid Soviet supply trains loaded with arms and equipment bound for Vietnam.

Although Mao was clearly upset by the upsurge in anti-Vietnamese violence in south China, he made little attempt to hide his growing frustration with Ho Chi Minh. And the fact that he was denouncing revisionists and their stooges in the Soviet bloc gave the Red Guards the impression that Mao welcomed their radical attacks on Soviet allies like Hanoi.

It’s Lonely in the Communist Bloc

The strain in Beijing’s relations with Hanoi was clearly displayed on the occasion of China’s annual National Day celebration on October 1, 1968. Normally a showcase for patriotic displays of China’s rising global prestige and diplomatic success, the 1968 National Day celebration was a particularly austere and underwhelming affair.

In response to escalating Chinese verbal and physical hostility toward the Russians and their allies within the Socialist bloc, virtually every member of the foreign Communist diplomatic community in Beijing, including the North Vietnamese, boycotted the National Day celebration. 

Learn more about the secret negotiations that ended the Vietnam War.

Growing Tensions between Russia and China

Illustration of Soviet and Chinese Flags waving on a plain white background
By December 1966, the Soviets had reinforced their combat units along China’s northern border. (Image: patrice6000/Shutterstock)

Meanwhile, Sino-Soviet relations continued to slide dangerously downhill. With the activation of the Red Guards in the summer of 1966, thousands of Chinese students, carrying portraits of Mao and Stalin, demonstrated outside the Soviet embassy in Beijing, shouting  anti-revisionist  slogans and renaming the street leading to the embassy “Struggle against Revisionism Street”.

In response to the rising shrillness and intensity of the Red Guards, the Soviets began to quietly reinforce their combat units along China’s northern border. With more than a dozen Soviet divisions amassed along the Manchurian and Mongolian borders, in December of 1966, China’s foreign minister, Chen Yi, accused the Russians of conspiring with the United States to launch a surprise attack on China.

In January of 1967, a group of overseas Chinese students got into a brawl with Russian police and bystanders in Moscow’s Red Square. Fistfights broke out when the students lined up at the entrance to Lenin’s mausoleum and began shouting quotations from Mao’s Little Red Book.

And, a few weeks later, Red Guards stormed the Soviet embassy in Beijing for a second time.

Common Questions about How Vietnam Became a Part of the Sino-Soviet Tussle for Communist Dominance

Q: When Lin Biao made his famous speech in 1965, he urged the Vietnamese communists to stop following Russian tactics. What did he suggest they do instead?

He suggested the Vietnamese communists follow Mao’s manual. His “fish in water” guerrilla tactics and low-profile operations had been used successfully in China, so Lin believed they could be used in the Vietnam War as well.

Q: What happened to America after the Tet Offensive?

The Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War led to America finding a new sense of vulnerability. The offensive showed the world that the enemy could attack them by surprise any time they chose.

Q: What was unique about China’s national celebration day in 1968?

Because of China’s aggressive behavior towards its fellow communist nations and meddling in their affairs like in the Vietnam War, most countries in the Communist bloc boycotted the ceremony.

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