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FROM COMRADES TO ENEMIES

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By Nicholas Khoo

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The Montréal Review, May 2011

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Nicholas Khoo, Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011)

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In a speech at Da Binh Square, Hanoi on 12 May 1963, Liu Shaoqi, a senior Chinese leader characterized the Sino-Vietnamese relationship as having been "forged in the storm of revolution, a great class friendship that is proletarian internationalist in character, a friendship that is indestructible." (1) These claims appeared eminently credible at the time. Personal ties between the leadership of both parties stretched back to the 1920's, and the People's Republic of China had been the first state to recognize the Vietnamese communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam in January 1950. The Chinese subsequently provided critical material aid required to secure their comrades' defeat of the French in the First Indochina War, and the Americans in the Second. Yet, in 1978, Liu's claims were dramatically refuted by Vietnam's decision to form an alliance with Beijing's Cold War nemesis, the Soviet Union. This development altered the strategic landscape in the Cold War Asia, and was followed up by a short but vicious war on the Sino-Vietnamese border. While discrepancies exist between Chinese and Western sources, either way, the casualty figures are high for a war that lasted just under a month. Estimates for deaths on the Chinese side are reported at 6,900 in one recent Chinese source, and upwards of 25,000 or more in various Western sources. (2) It is reasonable to assume at least as many fatalities on the Vietnamese side.

The termination of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance thus had significant consequences, making the search for an explanation at once important and compelling. Collateral Damage attempts to do this. The book uses Chinese language materials, and to a lesser extent, translated Russian materials released since the end of the Cold War to make the case that developments in China's relationship with the Soviet Union were critical in explaining the termination of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance. In this interpretation, absent Sino-Soviet conflict, however troubled post-1975 era Sino-Vietnamese relations were over their maritime and land borders, or the treatment of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam, the relationship would have weathered the storm. The decisive development in this narrative is the defacto termination of the Sino-Soviet alliance in the early 1960's. This set the stage for an intense competition between Beijing and Moscow that was played out on a global scale. In Southeast Asia, both sides competed for influence over their comrades in Hanoi. With the gradual strengthening of the Soviet-Vietnamese relationship during the course of the Second Indochina War, an attendant increase of conflict occurred in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The final straw for the Chinese came in the post-1975 era, with the signing of the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance in November 1978. When the Vietnamese subsequently invaded Cambodia at the end of December, with the aim of overthrowing the Chinese-aligned Khmer Rouge regime, the Chinese viewed that act as a casus belli. Chinese retaliation was swift, if less than sure. The border war of February 1979 extracted a heavy toll in terms of deaths and casualties on both sides.

Besides establishing a causal theory for the termination of the alliance, Collateral Damage also seeks to contribute to the ongoing debate on the relevance of realist theory in interpreting critical events during the Cold War. Using the basic historical narrative presented above, the book's theoretical contention is that realist theory's focus on security threats from materially stronger powers provides significant leverage in analyzing the basic dynamics at play. Thus, the Soviet Union presented a threat to China, which in turn was a source of threat to Vietnam. Strategies were also similar. Just as the Soviet Union sought to encircle China via alliance with Vietnam, the Chinese sought to encircle Vietnam via alliance with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Alternative explanations are investigated. Collateral Damage examines, and finds to be unpersuasive, explanations that attribute the fundamental cause of the alliance's termination to non-material causes such as ideology, culture, and/or by reference to a variety of issues within the Sino-Vietnamese relationship, such as Vietnam's attempt to establish a sphere of influence over its neighbors Cambodia and Laos, land and maritime border disputes, and Vietnam's treatment of its ethnic Chinese community.

The Sino-Vietnamese conflict ended in the late 1980's, in tandem with Sino-Soviet rapprochement. In September 1990, at a secret summit in the Chinese city of Chengdu, the Chinese and Vietnamese leadership signed an agreement to normalize diplomatic relations. It was a watershed event in Asia's strategic landscape, marking the end of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. Yet, the legacy of the Cold War remains. Vietnamese offers, made at the time of the normalization negotiations, to establish a defensive socialist alliance were decisively rebuffed by the Chinese. Ideological affinity, it would appear, falling victim again to the imperatives of realpolitik.

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1 Joint Statement of Liu Shaoqi and President Ho Chi Minh (Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1963), 19.

2 Zhang Xiaoming, "China's 1979 War with Vietnam: A Reassessment," China Quarterly 184 (December 2005): 866-867.

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Nicholas Khoo is Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Otago, New Zealand.

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"Collateral Damage" offers both a sophisticated analytical treatment and a comprehensive history of Sino-Vietnamese relations in the 1960s and 1970s, thus presenting a persuasive explanation of the emergence of Sino-Vietnamese friction in the 1960s and the emergence of Sino-Vietnamese animosity and war in the 1970s."

- Robert S. Ross, professor of political science, Boston College

"Nicholas Khoo returns to the roots of international relations theory to explain how the Chinese, Soviet, and Vietnamese behavior toward one another during the 1960s and 1970s because of their relative power. He uses new information released in China in the form of memoirs, scholarly works, and archival publications to tell a dramatic and in some ways tragic story with insight and vividness."

- Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University

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