In October, 1949, the Chinese Communists won the Civil War and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mainland China. This historic event changed the situation in the First Indochina War with the Viet Minh now having a geographically direct link with their powerful communist ally in the North.
First Indochina War
Ho Chi Minh wasted no time in sending representatives northward asking for support and assistance. In January of 1950, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) was officially recognized by the PRC. In April, Viet Minh formally requested military aid including equipment, advisors and training for the People Army of Vietnam (PAVN). The PRC began to send their advisors and later form the Chinese Military Advisory Group (CMAG) to assist the North Vietnamese forces in return.
The CMAG was lead by General Wei Guoqing, along with Senior General Chen Geng, and included 281 officers. CMAG and Viet Minh began training for their first campaign. In September of 1950, the Border Campaigns were launched. Outnumbered 8 to 1 by the Vietnamese, the French garrisons fell one by one. After these campaigns, the French had almost completely lost control of the Vietnam-China border region.
From 1951 to 1954, the logistical support from China began to increase rapidly. In 1951, the supply provided was only 10-20 tons a month, increasing to 1,500 to 4,000 tons monthly in 1954. This military aid enabled the PAVN to expand their forces from 3 divisions in 1950 to 7 divisions in 1952. China even provided skilled manpower to North Vietnam with an estimated 15,000 Chinese Communists serving in diverse roles from advisors, technicians to garrisons in Vietnam by 1952.
In July 1953, the Korean Armistice was signed. China now could shift more supplies to Vietnam to prepare for the Dien Bien Phu campaign. In this decisive campaign, China provided 4,620 tons of petroleum, 1,700 tons of rice, 1360 tons of ammunition and 46 tons of weapons to Viet Minh. The Dien Bien Phu Campaign Command was established with General Giap as Commander of Chief and General Wei Guoqing as General Advisor. Although Chinese advisors were involved in various levels during the battle, its support is hardly mentioned in the Vietnamese decisive victory against the French in 1954.
The First Indochina War ended in 1954 and the CMAG who had completed its mission began to return to China. Nonetheless, from 1955 to 1963, China continued to provide around $106 million in military aid to North Vietnam which effectively allowed them to form an insurgency force in the South called “National Liberation Front” or best known as the Viet Cong in December 1960 .
After the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the U.S. began to increase military actions against North Vietnam by launching a massive aerial bombardment campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder in March 1965. To counter these U.S. overwhelming air strikes, Ho requested Chinese Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) units in a meeting with Mao in May, 1965. In response, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces began flowing into North Vietnam in July, 1965 to help defend Hanoi and its major transportation systems. According to a CIA Special Report, there were seven PLA units in North Vietnam, including the 67th AAA Division, with an estimated of 25,000 to 45,000 combat troops in total. In addition to AAA forces, the PLA units also took responsibility to repair and rebuild North Vietnamese infrastructure damaged by U.S. air strikes. Numbers of Chinese forces in North Vietnam peaked at 170,000 including 16 AAA divisions in 1967.
In addition to helping the DRV defend itself in the North, the Chinese Communists also provided the sinews of modern war that enabled the PAVN to launch two massive offensives against South Vietnam in 1972 and 1975 respectively. In the 1972 Easter Offensive, the PAVN were supplied enough first-class military vehicles and weaponry such as Chinese trucks, tanks, 130mm mortars, MIG jet aircraft, Surface to air missiles, 130mm artillery pieces and shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles to launch a large-scale 20-division offensive to South Vietnam. When the PAVN suffered a terrible loss in which around 450 tanks were lost and more than 100,000 troops were killed in the offensive, China, once again, continued to compensate for the PAVN equipment loss so that they could reform its units for another large-scale offensive that ended the Second Indochina War in 1975.
“It was having China as a secure rear and supply depot that made it possible for the Vietnamese to fight for 25 years and beat first the French and then the Americans”. The remark of Mao Zedong’s biographer sums up the truly crucial role of the PRC’s support, including a promise to step in with a massive numbers of troops if North Vietnam had been invaded by the U.S., to the final victory of North Vietnam against the two world powers. It was decisive!