Politics and International Relations
This study examines the role elite factional politics in Beijing played in China’s decision to attack Vietnam in 1979. Whereas existing studies have clarified the geopolitical context and the influence of China’s international relations with other states, this one explains the domestic political dynamics and rationale that underpinned the decision to “teach Vietnam a lesson.” To establish whether causation exists, this study conducts a careful investigation of the relationship between the decision to go to war and the power struggle between Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping. Process tracing, a fundamental tool of qualitative research, is used to contextualize the sequence of the “two-line” factional struggle from 1959-1982; that is, in the lead up to, during, and in the aftermath of the war. Each of six distinct stages in the causal process is carefully described in an effort to elucidate how Chinese domestic politics influenced the decision to go to war. This study concludes that, in addition to international considerations, Deng Xiaoping and his coalition strongly supported the attack on Vietnam because it gave them an advantage over their political rivals, and because it allowed them to accelerate military modernization and de-Maoification.