Ramses AMER

China’s relations with the three countries of Indochina—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—have been marked by periods of collaboration interrupted by periods of tension and conflict. The relationship between China and Vietnam stands out as both the longest and the most multifaceted.

For more than a thousand years before Vietnam gained independence in the tenth century CE, it was a part of the Chinese empire. The independent Vietnam, however, remained under Chinese cultural and political influence in a tributary relationship (a prevalent feature of China’s dealings with foreign countries until the late nineteenth century, in which rituals of submission and offerings of money or goods were made to China with the assumption that those living within China’s ever-changing borders, as well as outside them, were in some sense Chinese subjects). But relations between China and Vietnam were not always harmonious, and in times of internal strife in Vietnam Chinese emperors interfered militarily in order to gain direct control, as the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) emperor did from 1407 to 1428, or in order to assist a threatened or deposed monarch, as in the case of the last emperor of the Vietnamese Late Le dynasty (1428–1788) in 1788. On both occasions the Vietnamese eventually defeated the Chinese. Another period of militarized conflicts occurred in the late thirteenth century when the Mongols ruled China and tried to expand political control into Vietnam. Eventually Vietnam won a decisive battle in 1288.

Vietnam also served as a safe haven for people fleeing political upheavals in China. One wave of immigrants came in the thirteenth century after the fall of the Song dynasty (960–1279). Another wave came in connection with the demise of the Ming dynasty during the seventeenth century when the Manchus ousted this dynasty.

The Chinese empire and the Khmer empire also had extensive contacts, as shown by the dispatch of Chinese diplomatic missions and also by trade relations. In fact, one of the most detailed accounts of life in the Khmer empire is the study of the customs of the Khmers by the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan.

During the period of French colonial rule over Indochina—gradually established during the second half of the nineteenth century—Chinese migration increased, and authorities in China became increasingly active in attempts to influence French policies toward the Chinese migrants. During the War with France (French, or First, Indochina War, 1946–1954) the support provided by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) after its victory in the civil war in China in 1949 was of crucial importance to the armed struggle of the Vietminh in the war against the French. Eventually the war ended in 1954 with the decisive victory of the Vietminh at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and with the Geneva Conference held shortly thereafter. China’s role at that conference was important, and the outcome agreed upon was a compromise, with Vietnam being divided into two parts and with the armed resistance in Laos regrouping into two provinces of the country. Because Cambodia had already been granted independence in 1953 it was not part of the agreement reached in Geneva.

Relations between 1954 and 1975

Relations between China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) were close in these years. China provided the DRV with extensive economic and military assistance and sent thousands of advisors to assist in various fields. China also provided the DRV with considerable assistance during the Vietnam War against the Republic of Vietnam and the United States in the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. However, conflicts developed because of different perceptions of the Soviet Union and divergent views on relations and negotiations with the United States. After the Paris agreement in 1973 Vietnam claimed that China had advised it to diminish the level of the fighting in the south for a few years; the advice was perceived to be aimed at keeping Vietnam divided. China rejected this claim.

China’s relations with Cambodia were also good but not as good as with the DRV. After the overthrow of Prince Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 China became one of the main sources of support for Sihanouk in his alliance with the Communist forces in Cambodia in the conflict against the Khmer Republic and its main ally, the United States.

In Laos China’s support logically followed its stand toward the DRV, and thus China’s support also extended to the Pathet Lao in the conflict against the government backed by the United States.

Relations between 1975 and 1991

In 1975 China’s allies emerged victorious in both Cambodia and Vietnam, and in Laos China’s ally assumed full control of power. Experts expected the new governments to continue their close collaboration with China. However, relations between China and Vietnam began to deteriorate over China’s uneasiness about Vietnam’s relations with the Soviet Union and China’s increasing support for Cambodia in the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia. The Vietnamese military intervention in Cambodia in late December 1978 caused further tension. There were also territorial disputes along the land border, in the Gulf of Tonkin, and in the South China Sea. The clashes that occurred along the border had more significance as an indication of deteriorating relations and of divergence on other issues than as conflicts in their own right. Finally, there was the issue of how the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam were treated by Vietnamese authorities. The mass migration of ethnic Chinese from Vietnam to China in the spring of 1978 led to the open and public deterioration of bilateral relations between the two countries. Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia in December 1978 eventually led to China’s attack on Vietnam in February and March 1979.

The deterioration of relations between China and Vietnam also affected relations between China and Laos. Laos, as an ally of Vietnam and the Soviet Union, sided with Vietnam in the conflict with China, and consequently relations between Laos and China deteriorated in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.

Relations between Cambodia and China displayed a diametrically different development as compared to Sino-Vietnamese relations, that is, progressing from a good relationship to an alliance, with China emerging as the main supporter of the Cambodian government in its deepening conflict with Vietnam. China sought to mediate between Cambodia and Vietnam from 1975 to 1977. Initially, Chinese reporting on the conflict in early 1978 was fairly neutral, but China’s pro-Cambodian stand gradually became more apparent. The Chinese decision to support Cambodia was taken after a visit by Le Duan, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV), to China in November 1977, but it was not implemented until 1978. As China’s relations with Vietnam deteriorated in 1978 Chinese support to Cambodia increased. The Vietnamese military intervention that overthrew the Cambodian government was a major blow to China because a friendly government had been toppled, and China had not been in a position to prevent it.

China opted for a dual response to the Vietnamese presence in Cambodia. The first was a military response, which after the Chinese attack in February and March 1979 was characterized by continued military pressure and increased pressure in connection with Vietnamese military offensives in Cambodia. The other response was support for the Cambodian groups combating Vietnam and full diplomatic support for the policy of criticizing and isolating Vietnam
internationally—spearheaded by the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN).

The normalization process began with low-level contacts in the mid-1980s and expanded to high-level meetings from early 1989. In early September 1990 a secret Vietnamese high-level visit to China took place. Despite this meeting, political normalization did not gain momentum until mid-1991. Increased diplomatic interaction paved the way for a high-level summit from 5 to 10 November 1991, during which bilateral relations were officially fully normalized.

The relations between China and Laos were also normalized in the late 1980s in a process that was less complicated than the one between China and Vietnam, given that the deterioration in relations with Laos had not primarily been caused by bilateral disputes in the late 1970s.

Relations in the 1990s and 2000s

The relationship between China and Vietnam has been characterized by two contradictory trends: one is positive, with expanding contacts and cooperation in many fields; the other is negative with continued differences relating primarily to territorial disputes. The positive trend has been prevalent since full normalization has at times been slowed by the fluctuating levels of tension relating to the territorial disputes, in particular those in the South China Sea area.

The expanding political, cultural, economic, and military contacts between the two countries illustrate the positive trend in improving and expanding bilateral relations. On a regular basis official delegations of one country visit the other country to discuss ways of expanding cooperation in various fields. A strong political willingness exists to strengthen the overall relationship between the two countries. The two countries have signed a number of bilateral agreements. Economic relations have expanded, and bilateral trade has grown considerably. China is also providing loans and assistance to upgrade Chinese-built factories in northern Vietnam. In the political field the relationship between the two ruling parties, that is, the Chinese Communist Party and the CPV, has been expanded through a regular exchange of visits at various levels within the two parties. The contacts between the armed forces of the two countries have also expanded through regular visits.

Tension in bilateral relations has primarily been caused by sharp differences relating to territorial disputes—that is, overlapping claims to the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, to water and continental shelf areas in the South China Sea and in the Gulf of Tonkin, and to areas along the land border—that occurred on several occasions in the 1990s. However, efforts to resolve territorial disputes led to the signing of the Land Border Treaty on 30 December 1999 and to the Agreement on the Demarcation of Waters, Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelves in the Gulf of Tonkin on 25 December 2000. In the 2000s tension relating to the disputes in the South China Sea has been reduced.

China’s relationship with Cambodia has been growing steadily since the early 1990s. China participated in the United Nations’ peacekeeping operation in Cambodia in 1993. The shift away from support of the Party of Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) to support of the elected government in Cambodia and the traditionally good relations between King Norodom Sihanouk and Chinese leaders facilitated the political collaboration in the 1990s, and the trend has continued into the 2000s. Economic links also have been established and expanded. To maintain good relations with China is of considerable importance to Cambodia, given its complex and at times sour relations with Thailand and Vietnam, respectively.

Relations between China and Laos have expanded during the 1990s and 2000s. In October 1991 the two countries signed a treaty relating to their land boundary. The relationship has been characterized by both expanding economic ties and by closer political collaboration at both party and government levels. Its relationship with China has provided Laos with the opportunity to diversify its foreign policy and its dependence on Thailand economically and on Vietnam politically.

The Future

The history of relations between China and Indochina has been dominated by the relationship between China and Vietnam; periods of collaboration have been interrupted by periods of conflict and war. This pattern characterized the second half of the twentieth century. Currently a period of cooperation prevails after the improvement of relations during the 1990s and the expansion of relations in the 2000s. Relations between China and Laos have mainly been linked by the patterns of relations between China and Vietnam, in particular since 1975. The impact of the Sino-Vietnamese relationship on China’s relations with Cambodia has also been evident since 1975, in particular up to the resolution of the Cambodian conflict in 1991.

The future of the relationship between China and Vietnam will be determined by how the two sides handle disputes. Expanding bilateral cooperation and economic interaction contributes to building a more stable bilateral relationship, and progress in managing territorial disputes has contributed to the prospect of long-term stability in the bilateral relationship. However, the disputes in the South China Sea remain a serious challenge. China’s activities along the Mekong River also could lead to disputes with Vietnam and also with Cambodia. Otherwise, relations between China and Cambodia can be expected to strengthen. The same can be said about relations between China and Laos.

Further readings

Boudet, P. (1942). La conquête de la Cochinchine par les Nguyen et le rôle des émigrés chinois [The Conquest of Cochinchina by the Nguyens and the role of the Chinese Emigrants]. Bulletin de l’école française d’Extrême-Orient, XLII: 115–132.

Elliot, D. W. P. (Ed.) (1981). The Third Indochina Conflict. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Holmgren, J. (1980). Chinese colonization of Northern Vietnam: Administrative geography and political development in the Tonking Delta, First to sixth centuries A.D., Oriental monograph series, 27. Faculty of Asian Studies, Australian National University, Canberra.

Joyaux, F. (1979). La China et le règlement du premier conflict d’Indochine (Genève 1954) [China and the Settlement of the First Indochina Conflict (Geneva 1954)]. Série internationale—9, Université de Paris-I Panthéon-Sorbonne, Institut d’histoire des relations internationals contemporaines (IHRIC). Paris: Publication de la Sorbonne.

Maisonneuve, A. & Maisonneuve Successeur, J. (1997). Mémoires sur les countumes du Cambodge de Tcheou Ta-kouan [Memoirs on the customs of Cambodia by Tcheou Ta-kouan]. Paris: Librairie d’Amérique et d’Orient.

O’Dowd, E. C. (2007). Chinese military strategy in the third Indochina war. The last Maoist war. London and New York: Routledge.

Ross, R. S. (1988). The Indochina tangle: China’s Vietnam policy, 1975–1979. New York: East Asian Institute, Columbia University, Columbia University.

Westad, O. A., & Quinn-Judge, S. (Eds.) (2006). The third Indochina war: Conflict between China, Vietnam and Cambodia, 197279. London and New York: Routledge.

One cannot refuse to eat just because there is a chance of being choked.


Yīn yē fèi shí

Source: Amer, Ramses. (2009). Indochina-China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1154–1158. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Indochina-China Relations (Yìndùzhīnà hé Zhōngguó de wàijiāo guānxì 印度支那和中国的外交关系)|Yìndùzhīnà hé Zhōngguó de wàijiāo guānxì 印度支那和中国的外交关系 (Indochina-China Relations)

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