For the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime, history is instructive and its lessons are invaluable for the future. The xuanchuan (propaganda) that the world sees is a less-than-accurate expression borne out of insights from real history. What is absorbed and internalised is different from what is shown. Seventy-three years of single-party rule (since 1949) in China has seemingly bred a sense of ‘insecurity’ that forces respect towards history, unlike in democracies, where the focus of governance is on the future whilst glossing over the past and the present.
17 February to 16 March 1979 marked the month-long Chinese invasion of Vietnam. Exactly like Ukraine today, where Russia felt threatened by the possibility of NATO troops on its borders, China in 1979 imagined a security threat with Vietnam over Hanoi’s military alliance with a rival superpower, in Moscow. Like Vladimir Putin today, Deng Xiaoping, too, had sought to teach its neighbour Vietnam a ‘lesson’.
Attacking with over 400 tanks and 1,500 artillery guns, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) resorted to the defunct ‘human waves’ and the brutal ‘scorched earth’ tactics. Yet, the numerically superior PLA estimatedly lost 28,000 lives and 43,000 were wounded; in contrast, less than 10,000 were dead for the Vietnamese.
Notwithstanding the standard propaganda of ‘victory’ claimed by Beijing, everyone across the world, especially within the PLA & the CCP, knew that the facts were otherwise.
A Slew of Important Lessons from Vietnam
The first lesson that the CCP learnt was never to mix the personal ambitions of leaders with offensive actions abroad. It is believed that Deng Xiaoping had committed the PLA to distract the masses and defang the internal threat from the Gang of Four (led by Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing).
Secondly, committing militarily to “someone else's” war is always questionable – trying to aid the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia was costly and unproductive.
The third lesson was the inefficacy of the PLA soldiers. Their ineffective training, weaponry, tactics, and the related wherewithal – including the humiliation of Nathu La and Cho La clashes in 1967 – was never acknowledged, till then.
The fourth lesson for the CCP was the sham of militaristic alliances and commitments made by other foreign powers – the USSR never intervened as mandated by its supposed commitment to Vietnam.
Perhaps the last – though significant – lesson was that of the absence of the fighting will among the PLA troops, unlike the battle-hardened Vietnamese soldiers, who had just finished fighting the Americans. In battle, the quality of the soldier behind the weapon counts.
Vietnam was the last time the PLA committed to a full-fledged war. Its sabre-rattling across many subsequent conflicts aside, it never deployed the 1979 Vietnam scale again.
The PLA then invested in a furious exercise of reformation technologically, doctrinally, and fundamentally.
The Need for Reforms Wasn't Lost on China
Clearly, neither Putin nor Zelenskyy have read the 1979 Vietnam notes.
While tilting towards Russia to further China’s own tactical interests, Xi Jinping ‘abstained’ from voting to please the Russians, yet insisted on ‘respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries’, to the bemusement of many. Deception and doublespeak remain at the heart of the Chinese stratagem. The 1979 Vietnam war is not publicly spoken about in China for good reasons, but its lessons haven’t been forgotten, for even better reasons.
Equally, the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 impacted and changed the Chinese narrative forever. The public cry for reforms was crushed immediately with thousands of deaths, but the necessity for change/reform was not lost on the CCP either. The way forward was a trade-off. An unsaid social contract was implemented with the angry masses by introducing ‘market-economy-socialism’.
Importantly, political reforms were off the menu. The GDP per capita, which was then embarrassingly pegged to sub-Saharan Gambia’s level, has today shot up, with the country becoming arguably the biggest economy in the world. The underlying economic desperation fueling the Tiananmen movement was addressed, whilst ensuring that the CCP never had a tighter grip on governance than what it does today.
This economic miracle and reforms emanating from that pivotal moment in history have since fueled belligerent Chinese expansionism, both economically and territorially.
Like the Vietnam War of 1979, the Tiananmen Square massacre, too, has been expunged from public discourse, and the ‘prosperity for loyalty’ deal with patented Chinese control levers has emerged.
Add to this economic prosperity, a toxic mix of xenophobic nationalism, illiberalism, surveillance paranoia and dosage of ‘manifest destiny’, and a winning lesson from history is well-learnt.
Realpolitik Matters the Most
Later, when the Balkans and the USSR imploded, the CCP got into a hypersensitive mode to curb the emergence of any potential societal-political ‘divide’ or alternative or competing governance formulations. Actions like the incarceration of the Uyghurs in ‘re-education’ camps stems from the insecurities of that churn in time.
The integration of Hong Kong did not have any salutary impact on the Chinese instinct for democracy. Instead, Hong Kong itself got systemically vassalised and regressed to adapt itself to the mainland ways.
Even distant and seemingly irrelevant events, such as the 21st century’s Arab Spring, led to more intellectual introspection in the Middle Kingdom than anywhere else. Swift, hard and permanent action to nip any doubt was institutionalised – national pride was conflated with the CCP and showcased with events like the hosting of the Summer/Winter Olympics.
The publicly stated ‘non-interference’ in the internal affairs of foreign countries combined with a generous largesse funded by the Chinese juggernaut won over many isolated regimes, which were routinely termed by the ‘West’ as lacking democracy, human rights, freedoms, etc. Beijing simply didn’t care for or attach any moral strings, and so it became the preferred partner for these roguish regimes.
Meanwhile, the US continuously shot itself in the foot with having boots-on-ground in bloody wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. In contrast, the Chinese stayed away from these unpopular wars and instead offered financial help to whichever side seemed to be winning. Pragmatism, realism and, above all, realpolitik, mattered.
The Chinese Are Taking Notes
Every global crisis was domestically milked to stress the criticality of social stability and progress, which was then linked to the presence and centrality of the CCP. The ‘West’ and the US were routinely lampooned in the Chinese media, and their stuttering posture and the results of virtually every crisis helped the Chinese storyline.
The Chinese have mastered the dual art of patience and speed. They will pounce on any geopolitical opening, for example, regime changes in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, etc, and will simultaneously bide their time without adopting an intrusive position on any ‘pariahised’ state, for example, the Junta-ruled Myanmar or North Korea.
Therefore, it is not surprising that while both Russia and the United States are burning precious amounts of resources in Ukraine towards seemingly no good end – that too during a pandemic – China is subtly playing it both ways, and not committing a single life or Yuan to either.
The Chinese no longer seem to fancy a full-scale intervention a la Vietnam (or a Russia in Ukraine), and instead prefer the stealthy ‘10 miles forward, five miles back’ sort of a hard bargain, Doklam earlier and Galwan later reflect that approach.
It’s the same pattern of salami slicing in the South China Sea, with what the Indian Foreign Minister called, ‘friction, coercion, intimidation and bloodshed on the border’. It is a calculated but relentless attempt at expansionism, though not like Vietnam earlier or Ukraine today.
The CCP reserves the exclusive right to define and inspire collective action in China, and anything outside of the CCP levers is seen as an existential threat. Mythologising the Chinese destiny (obviously interlinked with CCP) is the most potent weapon of propaganda, and lessons from history are invaluable.
Rest assured, the Chinese are taking copious notes of the happenings in Ukraine as they remain the masters of learning from their own mistakes, as also those made by others.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)