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40th anniversary of Vietnam-China 1979 border war a chance to reflect

The upcoming 40th anniversary of the brief but devastating border clash between China and Vietnam in 1979 offers a chance to reflect on history and draw lessons to consolidate bilateral ties, not to deepen hatred.

This was the consensus amongst history experts and researchers at a national conference entitled “The fight to protect the northern border – looking back, 40 years on,” held on February 15 in Hanoi by the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences and the Vietnam Historical Science Association.

In his opening speech, Associate Professor Tran Duc Cuong, President of Vietnam Historical Science Association and lead author of the definitive 15-book collection Vietnam’s History, said the conference would be a discussion of the real history of the border war, fought valiantly by the Vietnamese people and soldiers to defend the country’s territory.

The studies to be presented at the conference would also corroborate the Party’s and State’s policy on seeking friendly relations with China, promoting activities that nourish bilateral ties and denouncing activities that attempt to cause discord – including those that take advantage of the border war to stage reactionary tactics to undermine the Party and the State, said Cuong.

Professor Vu Duong Ninh from the Vietnam National University in Hanoi said that, based on historical texts and analysis from multiple sources, one of the underlying factors behind China’s attack on Vietnam’s northern border were the shifting dynamics between the US, China and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Ninh said China’s offensive on February 17, 1979 – starting with a series of armed attacks on the six northern provinces along Việt Nam’s 1,400km border with China – was an invasion waged with expansionist intent against a sovereign and independent State, despite China’s claims that the offensive was a “counter-strike” in retaliation to Vietnam’s hostility.

China announced a withdrawal on March 14, 1979, but Chinese military forces still illegally occupied several sites in Lang Son, Cao Bang and Ha Tuyen provinces and continued to provoke border clashes that would fester for another decade, culminating in the bloody battle of Vi Xuyen in Ha Giang Province in the summer of 1984.

Cuong said Vietnam, shortly after painstaking efforts to reunify the country in 1975 after 30 years of struggle, only wanted peace and stability to rebuild the war-ravaged country. But this dream had to be set aside, as Vietnam faced the threat of border violations from both the Khmer Rouge in the southwest and the Chinese in the north.

The China-Vietnam border war caused significant damage and psychological trauma to both sides and left “deep scars” in the traditional ties between the two neighbouring countries, which share the same political ideologies, Ninh said

Historical researchers said that if there was one positive thing that could be said about the border war, it was that the event served as yet another strong testament to Vietnamese people’s patriotism and unity in the face of invaders.

“All the Vietnamese people who have shed their blood to protect every bit of the country’s territory deserve to be honoured for generations to come,” said Professor Ninh, adding that authors of history, literature and other social sciences textbooks need to devote attention and resources to the 1979 war at a level comparable to the wars against the French and the Americans.

“We do not incite hatred, but reflections on the past to have appropriate responses today and prevent potential threats tomorrow are of great importance to the defence of the country’s territorial integrity,” Ninh said.

Brigader Nguyen Kim Chung, one of the surviving witnesses after fighting at the former Ha Tuyen Province front (the province would later be split into Ha Giang and Cao Bang in 1991), said at a meeting in Ha Giang yesterday that while the loss of human lives in the northern border localities was tragic, the Vietnamese only fought against the invading enemy, not against the Chinese people.

“They are still friends to the Vietnamese; they are also industrious workers who wish for peace and friendly co-operation and prosperity,” Chung said. “Therefore, today, we need to build up the unity between peoples of countries,” he said.