‘We’re Very Sexy People’: How the U.S. Miscalculated Its Allure to China

On February 17, 1979 a substantial Chinese military force, eventually numbering more than half a million combatants, crossed China’s border with Vietnam. The rugged terrain favored the defenders: The Chinese had to hack their way through the dense jungle in the hope of forcing a showdown with the hidden enemy. After days of heavy fighting against well-trained Vietnamese militias and battle-hardened regular troops, China’s People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) captured three regional capitals. On March 5, the Chinese declared victory and began to withdraw. By March 16, the brief war was over. But hostility and border tensions continued until the early 1990s.

The Sino-Vietnamese War is rarely remembered or discussed today. Compared to the earlier, much longer, and far more brutal American war in Vietnam, the month-long affair comes across as just another bizarre twist in the long, complex history of Southeast Asia. But 40 years ago, the war appeared to herald a tectonic shift in regional and global politics and helped forge a close, more trusting relationship between the leader of the free world and the world’s largest autocracy.

China’s 1979 invasion of Vietnam demonstrated that Beijing stood on the American side in the global Cold War—a message that President Jimmy Carter and his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, embraced. China may have been a brutal dictatorship, but the fact that it went to war against America’s erstwhile enemy, Vietnam, pointed to a commonality of interests between China and the United States.

The Sino-Vietnamese war capped years of deepening conflict between the two ostensibly Communist countries. The main problem between Beijing and Hanoi was their different perceptions of their relative positions in the regional pecking order. The Chinese resented Hanoi’s arrogance, born of euphoria at having defeated the world’s mightiest power, while the Vietnamese resisted Beijing’s meddling in Indochina. Cambodia triggered the war. The country’s genocidal ruler, Pol Pot, quarrelled with his Vietnamese patrons and sought Chinese support. Fed up with Pol Pot’s antics, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978 and installed a more pliant government.

The Chinese were scandalized. China’s then leader Deng Xiaoping set out to teach Vietnam a “lesson.” “In reality,” boasted the Vietnamese Premier Pham Van Dong in December 1979 to a visiting Mongolian leader, “it was not they who gave us a ‘lesson,’ but it was we who gave them a ‘lesson’” The Mongols, who had been petrified of the prospect of a Chinese invasion, were pleased to see Deng’s ambitions thus curbed, according to newly available Mongolian archival documents.

Regardless of who actually won in Vietnam, the war had tremendous symbolic value for China, which Deng understood better than anyone. The war followed Deng’s January 1979 visit to the United States, which celebrated the establishment of diplomatic relations between the one-time Cold War rivals. That sequence of events projected a message of implicit American support for Deng’s war in Vietnam.

In D.C., Deng informed U.S. President Jimmy Carter that war was coming. Invasion had become necessary, he said, because the Vietnamese were “extremely arrogant.” He added, “they now claim to be even the third most powerful military nation in the world, after the United States and the Soviet Union.” If they were allowed to continue unopposed, Deng implied, they would soon be threatening the rest of Southeast Asia, and even China itself. He asked Carter for “moral” support.

Carter was taken aback. On January 30, 1979, he handwrote a note, which he then read out to Deng, calling the proposed war a “serious mistake,” and suggesting that it would “cause serious concern in the United States concerning the general character of China.” Deng ignored him. When China invaded, the White House deplored the violence—but not too strenuously. Indeed, Carter revealed at a meeting of the National Security Council that he “feels more sympathy for the Chinese in this conflict.” There were also perfectly sound geopolitical reasons to sit back and watch the war unfold: Vietnam was the Soviet Union’s ally in the Cold War. China, though, was Moscow’s implacable enemy.

Deng understood that by fighting Washington’s sworn enemy and a Soviet proxy, he was anchoring China on the American side of the Cold War. That was exactly what he wanted. As he left Washington, Deng reportedly told one of his advisors: “If we look back, we find that all of those [Third World countries] that were on the side of the United States have been successful [in their modernization drive], whereas all of those that were against the United States have not been successful. We shall be on the side of the United States.”

At the end of 1978, Deng had set China on a course towards economic modernization. The goal was to catch up with the advanced countries of the West; the means of getting there: the import of technology. In the months after the Sino-Vietnamese war, Beijing flooded the United States with purchase requests, including of the most sensitive military kind.

Now that China had fought the Vietnamese, Deng felt entitled to better treatment. When Defense Secretary Harold Brown visited Beijing in January 1980, his Chinese counterparts asked him for state-of-the-art computers and components, infrared sensors (which the U.S. was not even selling to its allies in Western Europe), a laser guidance system, pulse Doppler radar, and other items of obvious military application. The P.L.A. also wanted to send students to study at Los Alamos, the Livermore National Laboratory, and underground nuclear testing stations—in other words, access to the very core of the U.S. nuclear weapons program.

Brown torpedoed some of the more ambitious requests, but military cooperation between Beijing and Washington continued to deepen. At the core of this relationship was what Brown called a “close convergence between U.S. and Chinese views on broad strategic interests.”

It helped that Deng supported strengthening NATO, and called on the U.S. to beef up its security alliances in East Asia. These steps were necessary to oppose the growing Soviet threat. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, Deng also called for Sino-American cooperation to oust the Soviets from the Middle East. “We must turn Afghanistan into a quagmire in which the Soviet Union is bogged down for a long time in a guerrilla warfare,” Deng told Brown on January 8, 1980. “That is what we intend to do, but we must keep our intentions confidential,” Brown replied.

The tilt towards China in 1979-1980 had its detractors in the Carter Administration. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, for instance, preferred a more even-handed approach. So did the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow Thomas J. Watson, who worried the Chinese, “had a tendency to jump around from bed to bed.” Brzezinski had an answer: “You have to remember,” he told Watson, “that we are very sexy people.”

Meanwhile, the ailing Soviet leadership eyed America’s ever closer relationship with China with growing apprehension. Despite Carter’s effort to keep a distance from China’s attack on Vietnam, as the Chinese forces massed on the border with Vietnam, Moscow suspected collusion: “You [i.e. the West] may be in a euphoric mood now about China,” The Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko warned his French colleague Jean François-Poncet in early February 1979, just before China invaded, “but the time will come when you will all be shedding tears.” The Soviet Politburo concluded in October 1980 that a strong China “will probably begin swallowing neighboring countries and invade vitally important regions of the world, and it definitely will not serve as a tool of the U.S. or any other country.”

Not all Soviet officials were equally scared. Having weathered the Sino-Soviet split—when China, supposedly an ideological ally, suddenly turned into a dangerous and unpredictable enemy in the 1950s and ’60s—at least some China hands in Moscow expected that the reverse may one day come. “China has nothing to lose from anti-Soviet views,” the senior Soviet diplomat Mikhail Kapitsa explained, according to recently declassified Mongolian documents. “These views pay for Western capital.” The good news, though, was that the Chinese “never befriended anyone for long.”

Kapitsa was right. Just a few years after China’s invasion of Vietnam, Beijing began to shift towards a more conciliatory position to its Soviet neighbor. In May 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng agreed to turn the page on the conflicts of the past. As a part of this rapprochement, the Soviets helped facilitate Vietnam’s exit from Cambodia, while the Chinese agreed to stop supporting Pol Pot’s guerrillas.

40 years is a long time in a rapidly changing world. Today, China and Russia are on better terms than at any time since the 1950s. Kapitsa’s prediction that the Chinese “never befriend anyone for long” was fully borne out by events, though the same prediction spells eventual doom for current Sino-Russian relations. Afghanistan remains a quagmire—only this time for the Americans, not the Russians. The United States and China still struggle for influence over Southeast Asia, and the Chinese are winning with economic inducements what they failed to win with military force in 1979.

China and the United States, however, are a gulf apart. Their relationship has come full circle since the Deng era. In his time, Deng had wanted to be “on the side of the United States.” This was the key to modernization. Deng went out on a limb to achieve this goal. His little adventure in Vietnam showed that he was willing to side with the United States in the Global Cold War.

Yet in the long term, the West proved less “sexy” to the Chinese leaders than Brzezinski wanted to believe. Carter and his national security team may have hoped that China would one day become more democratic and more open. But 10 years after sending tanks to invade Vietnam, Deng ordered tanks into Tiananmen Square to suppress Chinese democracy activists. Today’s ruler, Xi Jinping, shows equal aversion to freedom, both inside China and overseas.

Viewed in retrospect, Washington’s misreading of China in 1979 as a quasi-ally in a U.S.-led democratic world was one of the greatest strategic blunders of American foreign policy in living memory. Carter and Brzezinski failed to appreciate that Deng’s commitment to economic modernization obscured an even deeper commitment: maintaining the Communist Party’s hold on power.

Deng’s attempt to teach a “lesson” to Vietnam was a pointer to Beijing’s regional ambitions, but those ambitions went unnoticed in Washington in February 1979. What mattered was that the Chinese were helping the Americans fight the Cold War against the Soviets and their allies. The Soviet Union has long disappeared into history, but Beijing’s regional ambitions remain strong. Today, China is in a much better position to project its power into Southeast Asia, and globally. Modernized but deeply undemocratic, China has taught a lesson to the United States: “broad strategic interests” are meaningless in the long term without broadly shared values.