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China and the Vietnam Wars, 1950-1975.


Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Pp. xiv, 304. Maps, Illustrations, Index.

Of all aspects of the French and American wars in Vietnam, the Chinese role is undoubtedly the least understood. This is due in large part to the lack of available Chinese-language archival materials. Zhai Qiang attempts to fill this important gap in the historiography of the Vietnam wars, utilising newly available sources from the People's Republic of China (PRC). Relying on provincial archives, published documentary collections and memoirs and diaries of Chinese officials, Zhai explores the nature of China's participation in the wars and its relationship to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) from 1950 to 1975. Zhai examines the rise and fall of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance with greater depth and stronger documentation than earlier works on the subject.

The book is organised chronologically, describing China's assistance to the DRV and analysing the dynamics of PRC-DRV relations. Zhai identifies four factors that shaped Mao's Vietnam policy: national security concerns, a sense of ideological obligation to assist a fraternal communist party in a war of national liberation, personal ties to and a strong sympathy for the Vietnamese revolutionary cause, and a Chinese domestic political agenda. The author argues that Chinese aid to Vietnam was essential to its victories over the French and the Americans, but that Chinese 'ethnocentrism and paternalism' (p. 220) created considerable tension between the two states and led to the eventual break in Sino-Vietnamese relations.

Beginning with the war with France, Zhai describes the importance of Chinese advice and material support. In addition to supplying weapons and tactical advice, Chinese advisors helped reorganise, politicise and professionalise the DRV armed forces, which was crucial to the DRV victory over the French. The Chinese shared experiences acquired against the Japanese and the Guomindang in China and United Nations forces in Korea, showing their Vietnamese colleagues how to select proper role models, the proper way to deal with prisoners of war and how to celebrate victories in order to promote unity and bring the DRV armed forces together as a fighting force. The results were evident in 1954 with the victory at Dien Bien Phu. It is clear that Chinese advice was not always successful, such as when the Chinese encouraged Viet Minh forces to attack French strongholds in the Red River Delta in early 1951. Nonetheless, Zhai concludes that Chinese advice and support were indispensable to the DRV victory over the French.

Chinese advice also helped sow the seeds of PRC-DRV discontent. Zhai describes the better-known sources of this tension, such as Chinese pressure on the DRV to compromise at Geneva in 1954, but he also discusses Vietnamese dissatisfaction with the Chinese model of revolutionary development. For example, the Chinese advised the Vietnamese to conduct a Chinese-style land reform campaign that involved the confiscation of property of landlords and rich peasants. This proved inappropriate for the Vietnamese, as many members of these two groups had supported the Viet Minh for nationalist reasons. As Zhai puts it, 'the excessive class struggle and repression [of the Chinese model] during the land reform contradicted the party's united front policy' and 'alienated an important segment of the population' (p. 42), leading DRV officials to question the validity of the Chinese model for Vietnam.

China continued to support the DRV in its war against the United States, but Mao eventually found that his strategic goals differed from those of his Vietnamese counterparts. Disagreements over strategy and tactics and the repercussions of the Sino-Soviet split made it increasingly difficult for the DRV to work closely with China. The Chinese decision to seek rapprochement with the United States while the war continued in Vietnam spelled the end of the wartime alliance.

Among the most interesting aspects of the book is the connection between Mao's domestic agenda and his Vietnam policy. By 1962, Mao's displeasure with China's domestic situation resulted in a renewed emphasis on class struggle and 'continuing the revolution', and consequently a more militant policy of supporting Vietnam's war for national liberation. Zhai concludes that the American escalation of the war in Vietnam made Mao 'more eager to put his own house in order' (p. 151), contributing to his sense of urgency in launching the Cultural Revolution. Zhai also illustrates the importance of Laos and Cambodia in relations between China and Vietnam. Chinese attempts to improve relations with these other Indochinese communist parties provoked suspicion from the DRV leadership and further exacerbated PRC--DRV relations.

This book is an important contribution to our understanding of China's relationship with Vietnam. Its impressive research, strong documentation and insightful analysis make it essential reading for those interested in the international aspects of the Vietnam Wars.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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