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One of the major wars waged after the Second World War was the Vietnam War (1965-1968). The two major antagonists in this war were China which backed North Vietnam and the US which backed South Vietnam. This war was in actual sense a front from which an ideological war between China and America was waged.
China was keen on spreading communism while the US was equally keen on advancing capitalism or at least curbing the spread of communism. The then US president Lyndon Johnson adopted a policy favorable to South Vietnam. Therefore, the US extended its commitment to preserve the independence of South Vietnam from the communist threat that North Vietnam posed.
On the other hand, there existed a close relationship between North Vietnam and China. Evidence of this is present in the assurance from Chinese Leader Mao Zedong to the North Vietnamese that “your business is my business; my business is your business, we together will unconditionally fight America” (Bradley 9). China therefore vowed to support the north to whatever extents were needed. This paper shall analyze the specific manners in which China supported Vietnam in the course of the Vietnam conflict.
Reasons for Chinese Involvement and Support
A major result of World War two was the emergence of two Super Powers, The USA and the Soviet Union, both of which favored different political ideologies. While the US favored capitalism, the Soviet Union was pro communism and aimed to spread this ideology to its spheres of influence. One of the biggest allies of the Soviet Union was China which advocated for an even more radical implementation of communism.
China was committed to the idea of a communism which emphasized violent revolution and Vietnam presented a perfect ground from which China could propagate its ideology. In addition to this, China was even more determined that Moscow to spread the communism ideology everywhere. Aiding North Vietnam presented an immediate means through which China could oppose the US and as such, undermine capitalism.
Vietnam was the arena for China’s support for “wars of national liberation” and china encouraged North Vietnam to take on an aggressive course in the fight to unify the north and the south. As of the time of the war, the capital city of South Vietnam was Saigon while that of the North was Hanoi. US defense of South Vietnam was an expression of greater commitment to battle against Communism in Southeast Asia.
Another reason for the increased Chinese support of Vietnam was the deteriorating relationship between the Soviet Union and China. These Sino-Soviet tensions were brought about by ideological and political issues between the two communist states. This split between the Soviets and Chinese resulted in public criticism of each other’s policy and each party aimed to establish itself as the major communist power. For China, supporting Vietnam would reinforce its power and influence among the communist countries.
While it was possible to arrive at a political resolution of the Vietnam conflict, China firmly opposed any political settlement. This opposition was as a result of the realities from the First Indochina War which ended in 1954 with a decisive victory for Hanoi against the French. Following this victory, China and the Soviet Union had failed to support North Vietnam in their ambition to reunify Vietnam under communist rule.
This lack of support had resulted in North Vietnam failing in its unification attempts and Hanoi viewed this as a betrayal by their Communist comrades. With this historical backdrop, China was keen to ensure that North Vietnam did not lose out again since a loss would destroy Hanoi’s trust in China.
Ways in which China Supported North Vietnam
Even before the Vietnam War began, China had made it clear to the US that any military action against Hanoi would be considered as action against China and as such, China would give military support to North Vietnam. Actual Chinese support of North Vietnam began following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in which a US navy ship was engaged by North Vietnamese boats resulting in a sea battle.
Following this incident, America undertook reprisal air strikes against North Vietnam. The air strike code-named “Rolling Thunder” commenced on March 2, 1965 and its aim was to pressure Hanoi and Beijing into stopping their aggression against Saigon.
In response to this reprisal Beijing ordered Chinese air and naval units which were to the south of China to be ready for combat. In addition to this, a number of air divisions and anti-aircraft artillery divisions were deployed near the North Vietnam border. Dinglie and Kongjun document that China “sent some MIG-15 and MIG-17 jets to Hanoi to deter further U.S. escalation of the war”(385).
Weaponry plays a crucial role in all battle and the availability of surplus quality weapons often dictate which side emerges victorious. Under the terms of the 1954 Geneva Agreements, Hanoi was forbidden from increasing its military force. This meant that Hanoi had a limited supply of military forces and the international community was unwilling to supply Hanoi with military equipment.
As a result of this, North Vietnam was ill equipped for battle against the American backed South which had superior weaponry. The Chinese helped to equal the battle ground by supplying the North with better weapons. China ignored the arms embargo imposed against Hanoi and continued to supply significant amount of arms to the Northern forces. Shaplen reveals that the basic weapons for the North were Chinese-manufactured 7.62 millimeter family which were better than the traditional Vietnam guns (98).
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In addition to this, China stepped up its efforts to train North Vietnamese soldiers into a professional modern force that could engage in combat with western forces (Zhang). This Chinese military hardware support to Vietnam was critical to Hanoi which had suffered from international isolation in the years leading up to the war.
Chinese support also included building of new infrastructure in North Vietnam to streamline the war efforts. China helped in the construction of roads in North Vietnam and an improvement of the railways. The roads serve as infiltration routes that helped to move Hanoi troops to the south in a bid to match the US escalation.
The railway lines were improved so as to handle the increasing flow of Chinese supplies to North Vietnam. Also, China undertook efforts to reinforce Hanoi’s defenses. In anticipation of a US amphibious assault, China engaged in the construction of defensive works in the northeast islands and the coast between Haiphong and Hon Gai (Shang, 748).
The Vietnam War was characterized by heavy bombardment of North Vietnam targets by American forces. This ever-widening pattern of bombing which aimed at weakening the North greatly damaged infrastructure and property. The North undertook projects to repair this extensive bomb damages. China assisted and as of 1965, Shaplen records that over 100,000 Chinese volunteers were involved in the repairing of bomb damages in North Vietnam (95).
In late 1965, Chinese troops were engaged in repairing a 554 kilometer stretch of railroad that had been damaged by US air attacks. Zhang highlights the effectiveness of Chinese repair efforts by revealing that while the rail complex at Kep was bombed nearly 50 times and was severely damaged from each strike, it was always quickly repaired and in fact remained operational for the entire duration of the air war (755).
In recognition of the aerial threat that US posed, China dispatched a fighter regiment which consisted of 36 MIGs to North Vietnam. These aircrafts were based a few miles outside the capital city of Hanoi and they were aimed at ensuring air defense in case of US invasion (Zhang 741).
In addition to this, China also sent a number of air force engineers to help with the upgrading of airfields which were meant to be used by jet fighters. Vietnamese pilots were also trained to operate the war planes in to enable them to wade of US aerial attacks. Zhang notes that while the presence of these Chinese-made MIGs would not pose any threat to the superior American air power in Vietnam, the fighter planes meant that any US air raids would carry with them a real risk of retaliatory attacks from North Vietnamese air force (741).
Supply routes are a critical resource in any war since they are the bloodline of the war. In the Vietnam War, the supply routes used by the Northern forces were under continued attacks from American bombardment. The Chinese troops helped to maintain the vital supply route from China to Vietnam (Gilbert 85). Before 1965, most supplies to Hanoi were by sea route. These same routes could not be used during the war since the US Navy launched a number of sea operations that effectively closed off the sea route for Chinese shipments.
Zhang documents that China build a special transport line that went to South Vietnam vie Cambodia for supplies to the Northern forces that were engaged in the region (749). When this route became inadequate due to the increased number of Northern forces in the South, China assisted Hanoi to improve the Ho Chi Minh Trail which traversed eastern Laos into South Vietnam (Rosenau).
The American forces made use of their air force for a number of tasks including: reconnaissance, attacks and transporting military personnel. To get to North Vietnam, US warplanes at times intruded into Chinese air space through the Hainan Island. While the Chinese initially ignored this intrusion on their air space, they changed their stance as the war intensified and their support for Hanoi soared. As of April 1965, the Chinese military had requested for permission to engage US warplanes that flew over China’s air space (Zhang 744).
Once this permission was granted, Chinese units extensively engaged US warplanes that got into China’s air space en route to North Vietnam. China asserted that these attacks on US warplanes were retaliatory action against an invasion of China’s air space and hence were to be viewed as China protective herself.
However, this was not entirely true since the US had in numerous occasions assured China that it had no intention of invading China. As a matter of fact, the warplanes took care not to hit any Chinese target and tried to steer off Chinese air space. The attacks on US warplanes were therefore action in direct support of North Vietnam which China considered to be a Comrade.
As US strikes against North Vietnam intensified, North Vietnamese leaders requested Beijing for a consignment of Chinese volunteer pilots and fighters in April 1965. Vietnam’s leader Le Duan’s stated that the presence of Chinese forces would not only assist in the defense of Hanoi from US air bombardment but it would also raise the morale of the Vietnamese people and therefore increase their likelihood of pushing on with their war efforts (Zhang 747).
In response to this request, China mobilized some of its troops for deployment in Hanoi. Shang states that the first Chinese deployment to Hanoi consisted of three special division sized units that were designated as “the Corps of the Chinese Rear Services” (125). Chinese fighters served as a strategic reserve that was to be used in the event of an American led invasion by the South into Hanoi.
These Chinese reserve forces were placed under the command of Hanoi greatly boasting the Northern military capacity. The deployment of Chinese troops had a number of positive implications for North Vietnam. To begin with, Chinese troops mitigated the escalation of the US war in Vietnam. In addition to this, Chinese forces took up the task of defending Hanoi and as such, Vietnamese troops were freed up to go to the South and engage in offensive action.
Discussion and Conclusion
Without a doubt, Chinese support to the North had huge implications on the War. To begin with, China’s support was unequivocal and even General Vinh who commanded the Northern Army acknowledge that “China gives us wholehearted support” (Shaplen 98).
Duiker notes that the goal of North Vietnam in the war was not to defeat its enemy but rather to prevent the US from controlling South Vietnam (30). As of the 1960s, North Vietnam was one of the world’s poorest nations lacking a modern army and without an arms plan, both of which were vital to the war effort. It is therefore inconceivable that Hanoi would have managed to achieve its objective without outside help.
It was China’s large scale infusion of aid that enabled North Vietnam to survive the war and indeed achieve its objectives. The huge support received by Vietnam from the Chinese was a direct attempt by China to stop the perceived spread of American imperialism and challenge the Soviet’s leadership of the International Communism movement. In addition to this, China was committed to the success of the war of national liberation that it encouraged Hanoi to engage in.
This paper set out to highlight how China supported North Vietnam in the Vietnam War. To this end, this paper has discussed the specific means through which China demonstrated its support for North Vietnam.
China made a promise that she would regard Vietnam’s problems as her own and was throughout the war the major ally for Hanoi. From the arguments presented in this paper, it is clear that Chinese assistance was crucial to the success of North Vietnam in the war and it is inconceivable that Hanoi would have faired as well as it did without Chinese support.
Bradley, Mark. Vietnam at war. Oxford University Press, 2009.
Dinglie, Wang and Kongjun, Zhongguo. “Modern Chinese Air Force”. Social Science Publisher, 1989.
Duiker, William. Waging Revolutionary War: The Evolution of Hanoi’s Strategy in the South, 1959-1965. Werner and Luu.
Gilbert, Marc. Why the North won the Vietnam War. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.
Rosenau, William. Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets. 2002. Web.
Shang, Like. Shedding Blood in Vietnam. Beijing: China Personal Press, 1993. Print.
Shaplen, Robert. Vietnam: Crisis of Indecision. Foreign Affairs, 2004.
Zhang, Xiaoming. “The Vietnam War, 1964-1969: A Chinese Perspective”. The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 4, 731-762.