The 16th of March is the 40th anniversary of the last day of the last war in which China fought. The war between China and Vietnam lasted just one day shy of four weeks and afterwards, both sides claimed victory. The rival Chinese and Vietnamese governments that found themselves on the opposite sides of a post-Sino-Soviet split in the Cold War, continued to engage in minor skirmishes throughout the 1980s, but in terms of a formal war in which China was a party, early 1979 was the last time that China was involved in such a conflict and Beijing has not looked back since.
1979 was the first full year in which China began to develop a new economic model after Deng Xiaoping’s introduction of Reform and Opening Up during the previous year. As such, China adopted Deng’s mentality on global relations which can be summed up in the following quote:
“Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead – but aim to do something big”.
As Deng Xiaoping Theory continued to shape China in the 1980s, the country began prioritising internal development, poverty relief, education and the elevation of the people’s living standards whilst taking a backseat in foreign affairs compared to the American and Soviet superpowers that in the early 1980s, tended to increase their well known rivalry.
It was later in 1979 that the USSR made the fateful decision to become militarily involved in its biggest ever quagmire: the war in Afghanistan. Whilst China’s last war was short and ultimately laid the foundations for a new era in which China refrained from engaging in direct military conflicts with others, the Soviet war in Afghanistan proved to be a disaster for all sides.
Moscow came to intervene in Afghanistan in order to help the fledgling Democratic Republic of Afghanistan that was facing a great deal of internal resistance from traditional communities. Because of the expansionist tendencies of Kabul, Pakistan developed a natural sympathy with the rebels whilst China also worried that the chaos in Afghanistan could pose a wider threat to regional stability.
The United States was the most prominent supporter of the rebels and as such, the world’s strongest military superpowers ended up each having high stakes in seeing that their side came out on top in the conflict. For the USSR, conventional military power was met with guerrilla fighters armed by foreign allies, notably the United States.
In this sense, just as during its war in Vietnam, the United States faced highly capable and largely foreign armed guerrilla fighters of the Viet Cong, so too did Soviet troops have a similar experience fighting the foreign armed Mujahideen in Afghanistan.
The result was much the same in both cases. In spite of technical superiority, the US ended up withdrawing from Vietnam and in February of 1989, the Soviets likewise withdrew from Afghanistan. The parallels however do not end there. Whilst the expenses that the US incurred during its war in Vietnam played a substantial role in ending gold standard as the basis of the value of US dollars, for the USSR, a combination of ill thought out political “reforms” during the 1980s, when combined with the expenses incurred in Afghanistan, helped to weaken the Soviet Union so much so that it helped to pave the way for the country’s eventual collapse just two years after the end of direct USSR military involvement in Afghanistan.
Finally, while the US was technically fighting in Vietnam at the request of the government of The Republic of Vietnam (aka South Vietnam), in Afghanistan, the USSR was intervening at the behest of the fledgling Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Yet in both cases, forces opposed to Saigon as well as those opposed to Kabul, proved to be more representative of the population as a whole than those that the US aligned with in Vietnam and those which the USSR aligned with in Afghanistan.
Whilst Vietnam, Cambodia and China recovered from the events of 1979 and are now trading partners (in spite of minor lingering disputes between Hanoi and Beijing), Afghanistan has not recovered from the tumultuous string of events that started with the Saur Revolution of 1978. Likewise, whilst China concentrated its national strengths in the 1980s on lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, by the 1990s, the USSR had not only ceased to exist as a state, but its former citizens found themselves living in impoverished conditions though much of the decade.
The lessons that can be derived from examining how in 1979 China and the USSR embarked on very different foreign policy paths, is that wars are detrimental to economic development, good neighbourly relations and political stability. By turning its back on conflict and focusing on internal economic reform, China was able to strengthen its sovereignty, its standing in the world (even among former foes) and the material condition of the people. By contrast, the USSR’s involvement in Afghanistan achieved the opposite effect in each of these areas.
While the main effects of most wars are felt immediately, in many respects, the effects of China and the USSR’s very different experiences with war in 1979 are most thoroughly understood by examining the different long term consequences of each event.