Major Post-war Chinese Military Engagements and Their Implications for the Future

Published on Author tuckerj17

Compared to Western nations of similar size and influence, the People’s Republic of China has not been involved in nearly as many post-WWII/Chinese Civil War military engagements as, for example, the United States and Russia.  That said, conflicts that the People’s Liberation Army have chosen to get involved in have been fairly destructive, each seeing military casualties upwards of 10,000.  The most recent of these being the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, over 35 years ago.  This raises a question, for a nation for a nation erupting onto the world stage as fast as China is, what problems does having a military with no modern combat experience present?

Sino-Indian War

The Sino-Indian War of 1962 occured as tensions boiled over regarding border disputes along the Himalayan border.  As negotiations deteriorated and the Chinese government grew impatient, the PLA launched a two-pronged invasion of Northern India along the Himalayan frontier.  As a result of the fighting 1383 Indian soldiers were killed along with 722 Chinese soldiers despite the fighting only lasting a month.  Similar to the United State’s recent war in Afghanistan, the entirety of the Sino-Indian war was fought in mountain terrain at elevations of over 14,000 feet however, neither side made use of any type of air forces.  Following a ceasefire declared on November 21st, 1962, the Indian government conceded the Aksai Chin area of Northern India, allowing it to be fully under Chinese control.

Sino-Vietnamese War

Similar to the Sino-Indian War, the Sino-Vietnamese War was another short yet immensely destructive war that arose in the wake of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, an important Chinese ally.  While only lasting about 4 weeks, contradictory figures from both nations put military deaths on both sides at around 20,000.  Despite the Chinese taking a small chunk of northern Vietnamese territory, the Sino-Vietnamese War had no clear victor, and skirmishes along the border and in the neighboring oceans occurred throughout the 1980s.  Also similar to the Sino-Indian War, air support was not utilized by either side, despite both having fully capable air forces within relatively close distances.


Even though it has been 30 years since the Sino-Vietnam War, strategies and tactics utilized by the Chinese in both wars continue to resonate.  One of the most important assets to any major military in the modern era is a well maintained and effective air force.  Air support operations in support of troops on the ground minimize friendly casualties as well as allowing ground troops to advance quickly and efficiently.  The fact that China chose not to make use of the PLAAF in either of these engagements means that the last Chinese pilot with official combat experiences would have flown in the Korean War, their insights being less valuable as time goes on and air combat evolves.  Essentially, at the moment the Chinese air force has no relevant combat experience, and should the Chinese choose to go to war any time soon, this would put them at a severe disadvantage.

In addition to this, much of the strategy employed by the PLA in both of these wars involved throwing wave after wave of infantry at the enemy in the hopes of overwhelming them.  While this may have worked at the time, combat has evolved from the open-plains type battle seen here into a much more precise form of warfare carried out by highly trained and highly skilled operators.  While the PLA acknowledges this and has special forces of their own, they are at a disadvantage when compared to special forces of other nations.  The Navy SEALs, Russian Spetsnaz, and British SAS units have been extremely active in the past few decades
carrying out operations all over the world.  Experience in this line of work is key, and this again puts the Chinese at a disadvantage.


Click to access 2094-1962-12-KS-a-JHS.pdf

9 Responses to Major Post-war Chinese Military Engagements and Their Implications for the Future

  1. The NY Times article discusses hatred from Vietnamese that remember the bloodbath of the Sino-Vietnamese war that included 10,000 civilian deaths in a matter of weeks. If another, potentially larger skirmish occurred, to what extent would civilians be at risk and what sort of destruction would happen to the land under contention?

  2. If both sides in the Sino-Vietnamese war had fully capable air forces, why was neither air force used?

    • From what I have been able to gather, the reasoning behind neither side deploying air forces is a result of multiple factors.

      For the Vietnamese, much of their air force was occupied with operations in Cambodia (the Cambodian-Vietnamese war lasted from 1977-1991), and seeing as it had not yet returned to full operational status following the Vietnam War it would be fairly difficult to field an air war on two fronts.

      For the Chinese it pretty much boils down to air strikes not being part of their traditional warfighting strategy. In the Korean War the airspace was more or less dominated by the United States, so while the PLAAF was certainly involved in air operations there they were never able to truly see firsthand the benefits of utilizing air strikes to soften enemy positions.

      In addition to these reasons, another factor that could have led to this is the short time frame within which the war took place. A month is a long time to try and scramble an air force in a country without the operational capabilities of say a United States or Soviet Union.

  3. Would the war of attrition style of combat appear to be a lingering strategy for the People’s Republic, with the country maintaining the world’s largest army?

    • The outcome of the war was that Chinese troops proved poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly led. It was a big wake-up call to the leadership, and is one (but hardly the only) stimulus for a modernization program aiming to create a professional military.

  4. For more on the war and the subsequent normalization of relations see: Womack, Brantly. 2006. China and Vietnam: The Politics of Asymmetry. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press. Leyburn DS740.5.V5 W65 2006