“Vietnam’s Strategic Thinking During the Third Indochina War” by Kosal Path

Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, Phnom Penh (via Wikimedia Commons) Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument, Phnom Penh (via Wikimedia Commons)

What Kosal Path calls the “Third Indochina War” resulted from Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and China’s subsequent invasion of Vietnam in February 1979. For Vietnam, it was a “protracted two-front war”, that drained the country’s economic resources and imperiled the ruling Communist Party. Path contends that throughout the war, the decision-making of the Vietnamese political leadership was shaped more by domestic economic factors and a realist view of national security interests than ideological abstractions. The war and its aftermath, he believes, also set the stage for Vietnam’s economic and national security reform policies called Doi Moi (renovation), and Vietnam’s improved relations with Western powers.

The author of Vietnam’s Strategic Thinking During the Third Indochina War is assistant professor of political science and chair of the Master’s Program in International Affairs and Global Justice at Brooklyn College, City University of New York. His parents, to whom the book is dedicated, are survivors of the “killing fields” of Cambodia. His book builds on the scholarship of Tuong Vu (Vietnam’s Communist Revolution) and David Elliott (Changing Worlds), and benefited from his research at Hanoi’s National Archives and access to internal Communist Party reports circulated before and during the war. The archives revealed important internal debates among the Party’s leadership, especially between orthodox Marxist-Leninists (“military-firsters”) and more reform minded Party officials (“economy-firsters”).

Path notes that Vietnamese hubris after its victory over the United States in and political unification in 1975, its belief in “socialist ideology and the power of authoritarian mobilization to solve economic problems”, and the growing conflict between its two great power patrons—China and the Soviet Union—led to an economic crisis or “shock” in 1977-78. Productivity suffered, resulting in a “severe shortage” in foods and consumer goods. The country’s transportation system was “clogged”, and its trade deficit continued to grow. Meanwhile, border conflicts with Cambodia and China escalated. These developments combined with “rampant corruption” within the party apparatus, Path explains, created a crisis of legitimacy for Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party.

Path contends that Vietnam’s decision to invade Cambodia was


a bold but calculated move intended to cement the Vietnamese-Soviet alliance and position Vietnam as the frontline state opposing Chinese expansion in Indochina.


He also writes that Vietnamese leaders, as other ruling groups have in the past, sought to retain legitimacy during its domestic crisis by focusing its citizens’ attention on a foreign enemy. Or perhaps, Vietnamese Communist Party leaders, like most other communist leaders throughout the 20th century, sought to expand their dominion and control of neighboring states in confirmation of the much-derided “domino theory”. In truth, all three of these factors could have played a role in the decision. Path, however, sees no evidence that “hegemonism” played any role in Vietnam’s decision to invade Cambodia and overthrow Pol Pot’s regime. Instead, he writes, Vietnam’s leaders sought what he calls “a Vietnam-dominated regionalism” in Indochina aligned to the Soviet bloc, which in essence is a milder or softer form of hegemonism.


Vietnam’s Strategic Thinking during the Third Indochina War, Kosal Path (University of Wisconsin Press, February 2020)
Vietnam’s Strategic Thinking during the Third Indochina War, Kosal Path (University of Wisconsin Press, February 2020)

Vietnam’s calculation of the risks and benefits of the invasion may have been, as Path contends, rational, but it was nevertheless a miscalculation that resulted in China’s invasion of Vietnam. The “military firsters” won the internal debate over policy and produced a two-front war that caused, in Path’s words, “the rapid depletion of vital material and human resources.” The entire nation was militarized, he writes, “at the expense of economic development.”

While the Soviet Union aided Vietnam, the Cambodian resistance received help from China, Thailand, and the United States. Vietnamese troops, in a reversal of roles from the First and Second Indochina Wars, faced an enemy in Cambodia that employed “entrenched guerilla warfare with the objective of controlling the jungle and mountainous regions, rural areas, and towns and cities surrounding river deltas.” Moreover, Vietnamese atrocities, including what Path calls “a terrifying campaign of arrest, interrogation, and torture of Cambodian officials in Siem Reap Province”, undermined whatever goodwill the Vietnamese “occupiers” had gained among Cambodians for overthrowing the murderous Pol Pot regime.

The human and economic costs of the war suffered by Vietnam had one salutary effect—the rise to power and influence in Hanoi of reformers in the mold of China’s Deng Xiaoping. The reformers, led by Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach, grasped the global transformations occurring in the mid-1980s, including China’s market reforms and Gorbachev’s “new thinking” in the Soviet Union. Thach and his allies in the Party, the author notes, understood that “science, technology, and free markets were driving trade across national and ideological boundaries”—globalization.

The result was the Doi Moi policy of economic modernization and the pursuit of strategic national interests unburdened by ideological constraints that guides Vietnam’s foreign policy today.

Francis P Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War. His writings appear in The Diplomat, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman and other publications. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.