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2.5  Full Normalization of Bilateral Relations under Carter & Deng (1977 - 1981)

1 January 2017

The Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979


Nixon’s intention was to complete the normalization process in his second term and withdraw American troops from Taiwan in that time frame. Because of his Watergate scandal, however, full normalization of relations did not occur until January 1979 under President Jimmy Carter (served 1977 – 1981). By then, both Zhou and Mao had passed on, and Deng Xiaoping, as the Vice Premier, was still consolidating his position in his second return to power — a process not completed until 1980.


Both Carter and Deng shared the geopolitical objectives of containing the risks posed by expansionist Soviet Union. Carter’s apprehension was driven especially by Soviet’s rising military power and political short-sightedness, fed by big-power ambitions. In the face of Soviet pressures in Africa and the Middle East, Carter opted for rapid normalization and a de facto strategic alliance with China.


Deng, on the other hand, was worried about not only the Soviet Union in the north but increasingly also the formidable Vietnam in the south. If Vietnam realized its aim of an Indochinese Federation comprising also of Cambodia and Laos, it would constitute a bloc of 100 million in population and be in a position to bring significant pressure on Thailand and other Southeast Asian states. Ensuring the independence of Cambodia as a counterweight to Hanoi thus became a principal objective for Deng. Events in Cambodia and in Vietnam would determine who would wind up surrounded and neutralized: Beijing or Hanoi.


In the second half of 1970s, Deng’s nightmare scenario of encirclement by hostile powers appeared to be coming true. After China ended aid program to Vietnam in February 1976, Hanoi moved promptly toward the Soviet Union. By June 1978, China was identified as Vietnam’s “principal enemy” at a meeting of the Vietnamese Politburo. The same month, Vietnam joined COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Aid), the Soviet-led trade bloc. In November 1978, the Soviet Union and Vietnam signed the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which contained military clauses.


Deng reversed Mao’s domestic policy and embarked on his programmes of economic reforms and opening up (改革开放) but left Mao’s foreign policy largely in place. Faced with an immediate threat at China’s southern border with Vietnam and a latent threat in the northern border with Russia, Deng no longer harboured any Chinese nostalgia for communist revolutions around the world.  


To isolate Vietnam, Deng embarked on his Asian tour in 1978, visiting Burma in January, Nepal in February, Japan in October, and Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore in November. The three-nation tour of Southeast Asia was especially timely as there were mounting fears that following a likely Vietnamese takeover of Cambodia, countries lying southwards of Vietnam – Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore – would collapse like dominoes. Deng itinerary excluded the Philippines and Indonesia because of an earlier visit in March by Vice Premier Li Xiannian, in the case of the former, and of concerns over communist insurgents backed by China, in the case of the latter. In Deng’s design, ASEAN was to be a counterweight to a Vietnam-dominated Indochina. Deng warned Southeast Asian nations to beware of Vietnam as it was the “Cuba of the East”.[1] He asserted that Vietnam was under the total domination of the Soviet Union and argued that the Soviet aimed to surround China.


In December 1978, in response to a series of border clashes with the Khmer Rouge, which had taken over Cambodia in 1975, Vietnamese troops invaded and occupied Cambodia, overthrowing the pro-Beijing Khmer Rouge Pol Pot regime and installing a pro-Vietnamese government.


To prevent the emergence of an Indochina bloc linked to the Soviet Union, Deng ended the ambivalence about the American relationship of Mao’s last year. On January 1, 1979, the US and China issued the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations stipulating that the US acknowledged mainland China's “One China” principle and severed normal ties with Taiwan which also means the US’ nullification of the Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty signed with Taiwan in 1954.[2]


Following the normalization, Deng Xiaoping visited the US in January 29, 1979. While there, Deng shared with Carter China’s intention of a limited preemptive strike against Vietnam. Though agreeing with Deng views of the strategic implications of the Vietnamese control of Cambodia, Carter was in principle against any preemptive strategies involving military movements across sovereign borders. He also reminded Deng that resorting to violence would mean China forfeiting its favourable moral position causing international opinion to turn against China. Despite so, Carter demonstrated an attitude of ambivalence by offering intelligence about Soviet troop movements. Deng, however, was determined to teach Vietnam a lesson. The goal was not only to preserve the strategic equilibrium in Asia, as China saw it, but also to show Vietnam that China is no pushover. Deng asserted, “If Vietnam thought the PRC soft, the situation will get worse.”[3] He thus wanted the invasion to inflict sufficient damage to affect Vietnamese options and calculations for the future.


Deng left the US on February 4, 1979. On his way back, he stopped off in Tokyo for the second time in six months to assure himself of Japanese support for the imminent military action and to isolate the Soviet Union further. After having visited Burma, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Japan twice, and the US, Deng had accomplished his objective of drawing China into the world and isolating Hanoi. And With the “moral support” of the US, Chinese troops crossed the border into Vietnam on 17 February 1979.


The Chinese calculated that a brief limited war would not give Moscow time for “a large reaction” and that winter conditions would make a full-scale Soviet attack on northern China difficult. Moreover, the million troops Soviet Union amassed along the border were not enough for a major attack on China. For the Soviets to redeploy troops from Europe would not only take time and risked weakening their western front.[4]


By March 16, 1979, Chinese forces had captured the capitals of three Vietnamese provinces along the border. After declaring that their punitive mission had been achieved, China withdrew their troops from Vietnam. The whole operation took 29 days. As it turned out Deng’s prediction that the Soviet Union would not attack China was borne out. In the end, even though Hanoi did not withdraw its troops from Cambodia for another decade, until when Vietnam lost its funding source to finance the occupation because of Soviet Union’s disintegration, Chinese diplomatic efforts in Southeast Asia before, during, and after the war did help to isolate Hanoi. More importantly, China succeeded in exposing not only the limits of the Soviet defense commitment to Hanoi but also of its overall strategic reach.


Because of the exceptionally high casualties suffered by the poorly-equipped Chinese troops, the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was conventionally regarded as a failure. This conventional analysis, however, paid scant regard to the strategic goals achieved by the Chinese in stopping the hegemonic grand design of both the Soviet Union and Vietnam. In the words of then Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, “I believe it (the war) changed the history of East Asia. The Vietnamese knew China would attack if they went beyond Cambodia on to Thailand.”[5]

Deepening Collaboration & Taiwan Relations Act


The war also ushered in the closest collaboration between China and the United States for the period of the Cold War. After arriving at the conclusion that an increase in China’s technological and military capacity was important for global equilibrium and American national security, the Carter administration allowed transfer of some military technology to China through the sales of “military equipment”, such as surveillance equipment and vehicles, though not “arms.” Moreover, the US announced that it would no more interfere in decisions by NATO allies to sell arms to China.[6]  


Finally, in April 1979, the US also saw the passing of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) by the Congress which acted because they believed that President Carter struck a bad bargain in establishing relations with the PRC. They felt that by giving into Chinese demands that he terminate diplomatic relations with Taiwan and end the mutual defense treaty, Carter had left the island profoundly vulnerable. The TRA was therefore passed to reaffirm US’ continued strong political and legal commitment to Taiwan.

Besides allowing commercial and cultural relations between the US and Taiwan to continue, TRA also requires Washington to provide Taipei with defensive arms. However, the act does not guarantee US will intervene militarily if the PRC invades Taiwan nor does it relinquish it. It primary purpose is to ensure US' Taiwan policy will not be changed unilaterally by the president and that any decision to defend Taiwan will be made with the consent of Congress. Moreover, most of the TRA language is rendered as statements of policy rather than law. It therefore lacks binding force. The "strategic ambiguity" of the TRA is designed to dissuade Taiwan from a unilateral declaration of independence, and to dissuade the PRC from unilaterally unifying Taiwan with the PRC.

PREVIOUS : 2.4  Rapprochement Under Nixon-Ford & Mao (1969 - 1977)

NEXT 2.6  US' Six Assurances & Peaceful Co-evolution and China's Opening Up Under Reagan & Hu-Zhao (1981 - 1989)



[1] See Razak Abdulla. (2015). “China-Malaysia Relations and Foreign Policy.” Routledge. August 11, 2015. Pg 192.

[2] See Austin Krug. (2016). “The China Dilemma: A Study of the Ideological Roots of U.S. Foreign Policy Towards China During the Cold War.” Clocks and Clouds. Vol. 7 No. 1

[3] See Kissinger. (2011). Pg 474 - 500.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See Lee Kuan Yew. (2012) “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000.” Marshall Cavendish. Volume 2, Pg. 603

[6] See Kissinger. (2011). Pg 507.

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