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The war that changed China
Reuters[Tuesday, February 17, 2009 16:04]
Benjamin Lim

Thirty years ago today, China invaded its one-time Communist ally Vietnam to “teach it a lesson”, to the delight of Beijing’s newfound friend, Uncle Sam, which was still smarting from having lost its own Vietnam War.

A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham
A Vietnamese border guard stands next to a border marker between China’s Guangxi and Vietnam’s Lang Son provinces on Jan. 13, 2009. REUTERS/Kham
The attack came on the heels of Washington switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing and a closed-door meeting between China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and U.S. President Jimmy Carter in Washington.

Three decades on, it remains unclear just how much Deng told Carter about the incursion and whether Washington offered any assistance such as satellite imagery of Vietnamese troops and military bases.

Until the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department declassify minutes of the meeting, the world will not know for sure whether the United States offered to back China in the event the Soviet Union rushed to Vietnam’s rescue.

Now the great wheel of history has turned again, and 30 years on, the United States is seeking China’s help in applying pressure on another Communist neighbour, North Korea.

China’s foray into Vietnam was brief yet in some ways disastrous. Its troops suffered terribly against the battle-hardened Vietnamese who were fighting on their home soil.

But there is no arguing that the invasion was a watershed event that smoothed the way for China to mend fences with the West. American investors, tourists and students flocked to China. Western and Japanese aid and loans flowed in, while trade and investment mushroomed, helping to transform the world’s most populous nation from an economic backwater into an export powerhouse and the world’s third-biggest economy.

In an apparent quid pro quo, China abandoned its longstanding policy of “liberating” Taiwan and offered “peaceful reunification” in an overture to the self-ruled island it has claimed as its own since their split in 1949 amid civil war.

Also in 1979, Deng invited Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to visit, prompting the latter to renounce advocacy of Tibetan independence, beseech CIA-armed and -trained Tibetan guerrillas to end their struggle and send his older brother to China on fact-finding trips.

The United States softened its criticism of human rights abuse in China, including the imprisonment of dissident Wei Jingsheng for challenging Deng at the height of the Democracy Wall movement.

American Sinologist David Shambaugh described as a “marriage of convenience” the teaming up of the United States and China to curb Soviet expansionism.

On a lighter note, American culture invaded China. Many Chinese traded their Mao suits for jeans or business suits and dined at McDonald’s and KFC outlets. Hollywood movies and rock ‘n’ roll — once considered decadent by China’s ideologues — swept many Chinese off their feet.

The honeymoon abruptly ended on June 4, 1989, when Chinese troops crushed student-led demonstrations for democracy centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. China slipped into diplomatic isolation in the face of U.S. sanctions.

China broke out of isolation and forced the United States to deal with it after menacing Taiwan with war games in the run-up to the island’s first direct presidential elections in 1996. Bilateral relations see-sawed in the ensuing years, hitting low points when NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese jet fighter over Chinese airspace.

Fast forward to February 2009. When U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits on Friday, she will be dealing with a richer, more confident and assertive China. Again, but now in peacetime, it will be a China that needs the United States as much as the United States needs China.

The United States needs China to help rein in a nuclear North Korea and help nurse the global economy back to health. But China’s abrupt slowdown in growth and exports shows that it remains yoked to U.S. fortunes.
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