By Edward Miller.

In recent years, as disputes over power and sovereignty in the South China Sea have escalated, many commentators have invoked history to explain the growing tensions between China and Vietnam. For some, the contemporary crisis is merely the latest episode in an age-old pattern of enmity and distrust between the two countries. According to this view, Vietnam has been fighting off Chinese invasions for centuries. Chinese aggression reinforces Vietnamese xenophobia, perpetuating an endless cycle of rivalry and conflict.

Fortunately, the actual history of Vietnam-China relations is not as bleak as this narrative suggests. While the two sides have sometimes lurched into military clashes with each other, their dealings with each other have also included many periods of mutually beneficial exchange and cooperation. The collaborative potential of the relationship can be glimpsed in the long and complex history of the interactions between the Vietnamese and Chinese Communist Parties. Although the parties were antagonists during the Third Indochina War of 1978-1991, that clash was preceded by a long period of revolutionary cooperation during Vietnam’s earlier wars against France (1945-1954) and the United States (1959-1975).  Leaders on both sides who hope to defuse the current tensions in the relationship would do well to remember this earlier era of comradery, as well as the way in which that era came to an end.

The ties between the Chinese and Vietnamese communist movements date back to the 1920s, when Ho Chi Minh (then known as Nguyen Ai Quoc) was working as a Soviet agent in southern China. During the 1930s and 1940s, many Vietnamese communist leaders held their Chinese counterparts in great esteem. Truong Chinh, who became the second-ranking leader in the Vietnamese party after Ho, displayed his admiration for Mao Zedong by adopting the Vietnamese equivalent of “Long March” as his nom de guerre. Following the outbreak of the First Indochina War in 1945, Vietnamese communist strategists drew heavily on Mao’s theory of “People’s War” to formulate the strategy they used against French colonial forces.

Relations between the two parties became stronger after 1949, following Mao’s victory in the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In early 1950, the PRC became the first government in the world to recognize Ho’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV). As historian Christopher Goscha has shown, Mao’s backing for Ho helped persuade Stalin to join Beijing in recognizing the Vietnamese revolutionaries. Over the next four years, the PRC furnished the DRV with extensive aid and strategic advice in their ongoing war against France. This aid was crucial to the success of the Vietnamese war effort—especially to the DRV’s spectacular capture of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The PRC-DRV relationship was tested in 1954, during the international conference held in Geneva to negotiate an end to the Indochina War. Soviet and Chinese leaders urged the Vietnamese to accept a compromise peace deal under which Vietnam would be temporarily divided into northern and southern zones, followed by nationwide reunification elections in 1956. DRV leaders would later accuse the Chinese of forcing them to endorse a proposal they wanted to reject.However, recent research suggests that the Vietnamese acquiesced because their military forces had been stretched to the limit at Dien Bien Phu, and because they feared possible U.S. intervention if the war continued. It was only later, after the consolidation of Ngo Dinh Diem’s anti-communist regime in South Vietnam and the cancellation of the 1956 elections, that Ho and his comrades came to regret what had happened at Geneva.

By the end of the 1950s, DRV leaders in Hanoi were contemplating a return to armed struggle against Diem in the south. As they moved to put North Vietnam on a war footing, they continued to enjoy strong Chinese backing. In 1962, Beijing agreed to provide 90,000 small arms for use in the DRV-sponsored insurgency in South Vietnam; PRC leaders also promised to send additional aid and even Chinese combat troops in the event of a direct U.S. attack on North Vietnam. Beijing made good on these promises in 1965, when U.S. warplanes began a strategic bombing campaign against the DRV. China eventually deployed hundreds of thousands of People’s Liberation Army soldiers to assist in the defense of North Vietnam, thus freeing North Vietnamese troops to fight in the south.

The first major cracks in the DRV-PRC alliance appeared only in 1968, following the launch of Hanoi’s Tet Offensive in South Vietnam. Although Beijing had endorsed the offensive, Chinese leaders strongly disapproved of DRV leaders’ subsequent decision to enter into peace talks with the United States—a move which the Soviets had previously urged on Hanoi. During a tense meeting in Beijing in October 1968, PRC Foreign Minister Chen Yi scolded the DRV’s Le Duc Tho for “accepting the compromising and capitulationist proposals of the Soviet revisionists.” In response, Tho pointedly reminded Chen of the bad advice that China had offered at Geneva and declared that Vietnam would henceforth keep its own counsel. “The reality will give us the answer,” Tho retorted.  “We have gained experience over the past fifteen years.  Let reality justify.”

Relations between the two parties deteriorated sharply in the years after Tet. Although the war in South Vietnam continued, China’s enthusiasm for the North Vietnamese war effort was much reduced, and it began to cut back on aid deliveries and troop deployments. Hanoi, for its part, was dismayed to learn in 1971 that Mao was seeking a separate rapprochement with U.S. President Richard Nixon. While China briefly reversed some of the aid reductions in a bid to allay the Vietnamese concerns, DRV officials still expected the PRC eventually to abandon them. In 1973, after Washington and Hanoi finally concluded a deal to end direct U.S. involvement in the war, Beijing again slashed its support. By the time North Vietnam launched its triumphant final offensive against South Vietnam in the spring of 1975, the Soviet Union had surpassed China as the DRV’s most important source of aid. China, meanwhile, had thrown its support behind the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime and its virulently anti-Vietnamese leader Pol Pot.

For Vietnamese and Chinese leaders today, the most relevant historical lessons about their relations with each other are drawn not from the ancient past, but from the era of the Indochina Wars. Senior officials on both sides should remember the close relations that their parties forged during the 1950s and 1960s, as well as their costly and bitter estrangement during the 1970s and 1980s. They should also recall how they worked together in 1991 to build peace in the region and to restore diplomatic, economic, and cultural ties between their nations. Current disputes such as the dangerous conflict over the South China Sea may appear intractable, but they do not have to lead inevitably to violence and war. History shows us that much.

Edward Miller is Associate Professor of History at Dartmouth College. and the author of Misalliance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and the Fate of South Vietnam (Harvard, 2013). Image Credit: CC by manhhai/Flickr