top of page

Henry Kissinger, China and Third Indo-China War

Ideology had disappeared from the conflicts. The communist power centres were conducting a balance-of –power contest based not on ideology, but on national interest.

Kisssinger, On China

There had been an amazing cynicism and duplicity on the Chinese side. And they preach against imperialism and act themselves in the old imperialist and expansionist way. Altogether their policy seems to be one of unabashed chauvinism.

Jawaharlal Nehru, Speech in Lok Sabha, December 10, 1962

The much awaited book, On China, written by scholar diplomat Henry Kissinger, not only makes fascinating reading, it is an invaluable reference material for students of international relations. From July 1971, when Kissinger made his first secret visit to China, he has maintained excellent equations with successive generations of Chinese leaders. He views contemporary history of China as a continuation of the past and describes the rationale behind Chinese thinking, diplomacy, strategy and negotiations.

This essay is a re-evaluation of the Third Indo-China War based on the writings of Henry Kissinger. The author has also referred to the Memoirs of Singapore statesman Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000, and the recently published autobiography of former President of Singapore SR Nathan, who was associated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs during the Third Indo-China War. The book is entitled An Unexpected Journey, Path to Presidency. Few preliminary observations are in order before analyzing the subject under scrutiny.

Significance of Vietnamese Revolution

The revolution in Vietnam, under the inspiring leadership of Ho Chih Minh, is one of the most brilliant chapters in the history of twentieth century. With massive aid from both Soviet Union and China, but with only their reluctant assent and occasionally even against their wishes, the heroic people of Vietnam humbled the United States and struck a death blow to imperialism and neo-colonialism. During the Third Indo-China War there was a vicious attempt to distort the true nature of the Vietnamese revolution, malign and vilify the Vietnamese leaders as war mongers and legitimize, in retrospect, the American military intervention in Vietnam. We must be on our guard against this distortion of history.

Sino-Vietnamese Relations – Historical Legacy

Bordering on China both by land and by sea, the northern part of Vietnam was subjected to successive invasions from imperial China and consequent sinicisation of its culture. It may be mentioned that while all other parts of Southeast Asia, including southern part of Vietnam, were subjected to Indian cultural influences North Vietnam came under frequent Chinese domination. Vietnamese national culture, as Kissinger points out, “came to reflect the legacy of two somewhat contradictory forces; on the one hand, the absorption of Chinese culture; on the other opposition to Chinese political and military domination”. And what is more, resistance to Chinese domination instilled in the Vietnamese a great pride in their separate identity. In fact, two great heroes of Vietnamese history are the two Trung sisters, who rallied their people against Chinese domination, threw off the Chinese yoke and when the Chinese army wanted to reconquer the territory committed suicide by drowning in the river. In February 1973, when Kissinger visited Hanoi in connection with the implementation of the Paris Agreements, Le Duc Tho escorted him to Hanoi’s national museum primarily to “show me the section devoted to Vietnamese struggles against China – still formally an ally of Vietnam”.

After last of the Ming rulers was driven out of Vietnam in the 15th century, a Vietnamese poet composed a poem which reads as follows:

There are no more sharks in the sea There are no more beasts on earth The sky is serene Time is now to build up peace for ten thousand years.

Indo-China – Developments after the Second World War

Since the end of the Second World War, the States of Indo-China – Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – have not enjoyed a sense of security and stable balance of power. During the first Indo-China conflict, spanning from 1945 to 1954, there was the inevitable confrontation between the forces of French imperialism and the resurgent nationalist aspirations of the Indo-Chinese peoples. The Second Indo- China War (1959-1975), which began with US intervention first in Vietnam and later in Laos and Cambodia was rationalized as an attempt to defend the “free world” against “monolithic communism”, but gradually turned out to be a savage war between the United States and its client states against the radical nationalist forces in Indo-China. No sooner did the conflict end in 1975, the hitherto concealed antagonisms among the three communist states – Vietnam, Kampuchea and China – burst into the open and paved the way for the third Indo-China conflict. The inter-related domestic and international factors made Kampuchea not only a theatre of internecine conflict, but also an area of major international concern.

Transformation in International Scenario- Changing US Stance

Since the mid-sixties the United States had been exploiting the Sino-Soviet differences to its advantage. The United States tacitly acknowledged the emergence of China as an independent centre of power and provided political backing to it. In 1964, when the United States escalated the Vietnam War, the Johnson administration assured China that it will not violate the latter’s air space. China, in turn, gave the guarantee that it will not directly intervene in the Vietnam War. The US fully capitalized on this understanding and intensified the bombing of North Vietnam to compel the Vietnamese to come to the negotiating table. It is worth remembering that the mining of the Haiphong harbour and the savage bombing of North Vietnam were undertaken immediately after the establishment of China connection in 1972.

How does Kissinger explain the United States debacle in Indo China? To quote Kissinger, “America’s overriding mistake in the Vietnam War was not what divided the American public; whether the US Government was sufficiently devoted to a diplomatic outcome. Rather, it was the inability to face the fact that a so-called diplomatic outcome, so earnestly – even desperately – sought by successive administrations of both American political parties, required pressure equivalent to what amounted to the total defeat of Hanoi – and that Moscow and Beijing had only facilitating, not a directive role”.

The debacle in Indo-China compelled the United States to readjust its foreign policy to suit the needs of post-Vietnam War Southeast Asia. The bases in Thailand were dismantled because they had outlived their utility and in the new situation had also become redundant. There was no indication that the United States wanted to close down the bases in the Philippines, because these bases were vital in ensuring the US supremacy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. The withdrawal of ground troops from Indo-China was accompanied by the augmenting of naval and air power in the Indian Ocean. Though the United States originally intervened in Vietnam to contain Chinese expansionism, the US hostility towards Vietnam continued even after the end of the Vietnam War and the normalization of US – China relations. Kissinger puts it in his characteristic frankness, “The United States opposed North Vietnam as the spearhead of a Soviet- Chinese design. China supported Hanoi to blunt a perceived American thrust to dominate Asia. Both were mistaken. Hanoi fought only for its own national account”. Paul M Kattenburg has described the continuing animus of the United States towards Vietnam as follows, “The US policy towards Vietnam is still driven by a profound animus on the part of the American policy makers towards a country they believe has embarrassed and humiliated the United States”.

The growing identity of interests between Beijing and Washington was facilitated by both sides to serve their own purposes. It is interesting to note that the Chinese invasion of Vietnam took place only after Deng Xiaoping’s visit to the United States and detailed discussions with American policy makers. According to Kissinger, “Deng assumed an identity of strategic interests and concentrated on achieving a parallel implementation”. Deng put it bluntly to Brzezinski, our objective is to cope with the “polar bear and that is that”. In an interview with the Time magazine, Deng advocated a united front against Soviet Union, “If we really want to be able to place curbs on the polar bear, the only realist thing for us is to unite. If we only depend on the strength of the United States, it is not enough. If we only depend on the strength of Europe, it is not enough. We are an insignificant, poor country, but if we unite, well, it will then carry weight”. What Deng wanted was not a formal alliance with the United States, but promoting of “parallel interests … an informal global arrangement to contain the Soviet Union”. Deng’s analysis of the strategic situation in Southeast Asia was Vietnam will not stop with the establishment of an “Indo-Chinese federation”. Kissinger quotes Vice Premier Geng Biao telling Brezezinski, “The Soviet Union’s support for Vietnam is a component of its global strategy. It is directed not just against Thailand, but at Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Straits of Malacca. If they succeeded it should be a fatal blow to ASEAN and also would interdict the lines of communication for Japan and the United States. We are committed to do something about this. We may have no capability to cope with the Soviet Union, but we have the capability to cope with Vietnam”. “China had an obligation to act”, Deng said. China “needed Washington’s moral support “by which he meant sufficient ambiguity about the American designs to give the Soviets pause”. Deng told President Carter, “China must still teach Vietnam a lesson. The Soviet Union can use Cuba, Vietnam and then Afghanistan will evolve into a proxy (for the Soviet Union). The PRC is approaching this issue from a position of strength. The action will be very limited. If Vietnam thought PRC soft, the situation will get worse”.

The United States gave tacit support to China in its punitive action against Vietnam in February 1979. The State Department called for the “immediate withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia and Chinese troops from Vietnam”, a formulation which implied that the United States would not object to Chinese staying in Vietnam as long as the Vietnamese were in Cambodia. The US also warned Moscow not to attack China, seeming to give further cover to Chinese adventure. It was apparent that Beijing during this period wanted the continuing US military presence in Southeast Asia, as it would checkmate its principal adversary the Soviet Union. The US decision was facilitated because the member states of ASEAN wanted the US to retain a credible military presence. They regarded American power, represented by the Seventh Fleet and the air force squadrons in the Philippines, to be the ultimate guarantor of their safety. Thailand and Singapore openly advocated continuing US military presence, while Indonesia and Malaysia were not so vocal. As a result the US assured ASEAN that it will continue to maintain a credible military presence. In addition the US was also offering substantial military assistance to South East Asian countries to strengthen their defence preparedness.

Soviet Failure to win Friends in Southeast Asia

From the point of view of Soviet Union the significance of Southeast Asia arose from its adversarial relations with China and the necessity to contain the influence of the United States. In the 1950’s and 1960’s the Soviet Union showed only minimal interest in Southeast Asia, with significant exceptions. The communist-led revolutionary movements, which attempted to seize power in the immediate post-war years, received vocal support from the USSR. In the late 50’s and early 60’s (before the forging of Peking-Jakarta axis and the overthrow of Sukarno in 1965) the Soviet Union provided considerable economic and military aid to Indonesia. Third, and most, important, it had been continuously supporting Vietnam in its struggle against US imperialism, an assistance, it must be pointed out which was conditioned to checkmate the Chinese influence in Indo-China.

Since 1975, the Soviet goal in Southeast Asia had been the containment of Chinese influence and creating, wherever possible, a viable Soviet presence. In the bitter Sino-Soviet dispute for winning friends and influencing people, the Soviet Union had certain positive advantages. Moscow’s ability to provide economic aid to the developing regions was considerable. China could never match the Soviet Union in this respect. Secondly, Soviet Union was not “bowed down” by the burden of the “Overseas Chinese”, who are an object of envy and hatred in many Southeast Asian countries. Thirdly, Moscow could claim “greater respectability” as most of the communist parties were aligned to Beijing.

Despite these advantages, Moscow could not make much headway in Southeast Asian capitals. The Soviet drive to sell the “Collective Security System” did not attract many buyers. The Vietnamese intervention in Kampuchea and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan acted as serious impediments to improved relations. Thailand, the Philippines and Singapore dutifully echoed the US-China view that Vietnam is the “proxy of Soviet Union” and considered Soviet Union working through Vietnam as the imminent threat to the peace and stability of Southeast Asia.

The major focus of Soviet Union’s Southeast Asia policy, therefore, centred around Vietnam. The Soviet objective of limiting China’s influence found a natural ally in Vietnam because of Vietnam’s burgeoning conflict with China. Soviet policy paid rich dividends. Vietnam joined the COMECON and entered into a Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation with the Soviet Union. The prolonged war in Kampuchea and the requirements of economic development made Hanoi rely more and more on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was the major country which prevented the isolation of Vietnam in the most difficult times of Vietnamese history and the Vietnamese were grateful for it. This did not mean that Soviet Union had a decisive voice in Hanoi’s decision making. The Soviet role was one of enabling the Vietnamese to pursue their national objectives, which generally coincided with Soviet objectives in Southeast Asia.

The major question is how did Hanoi view Moscow? After 1975, Hanoi was committed to multiple options and wanted to reduce its dependence on Moscow as the sole arms provider. From the Indian point view, an interesting incident, cited in Nayan Chanda’s book, Brother Enemy, needs mention. In the course of an unpublicized visit to New Delhi in June 1975, General Giap made a request to India that it should start an ordnance factory in Vietnam to produce small arms. Unfortunately Indian response was lukewarm. New Delhi expressed its inability to assist on the ground of lack of resources. Vietnam’s relations with Soviet Union is a subject on whom there are wide differences between Indian observers of Southeast Asian scene and the simplistic view of Kissinger, echoed by many ASEAN countries. My reading of the situation is that the political developments in Indo-China and the hostile polices adopted by United States, China, Japan and ASEAN pushed Hanoi nearer to Moscow. Even then, Hanoi tried to limit Soviet involvement to the minimum. Vietnam had three objectives when China launched its military offensive in February 1979. First, prevent China from gaining a military victory. Second, maintain and consolidate its position in Kampuchea and not be cowed down by Chinese invasion and most important, from the point of view of Vietnam – USSR relations keep the Soviet involvement to the minimum. It is very difficult to accept the proposition that Vietnam is a “proxy” or “satellite” of the Soviet Union. A country so intensely nationalist as Vietnam will never be subservient to any country.

China’s Policy towards Indo-China

Reading Kissinger’s book one comes to know how obsessed Beijing was with Soviet-Vietnamese co-operation and how dangerous a threat it posed to China’s security. It should be recalled that Beijing had always this ”siege mentality” that its opponents were encircling it and, therefore, China was bent upon forging new alliances to come out of the isolation and also contain the perceived threat. The fact this time China’s military target was “a fellow communist country, recent ally, and long time beneficiary of Chinese economic and military support.” did not figure in its consideration. As Kissinger puts it, “The goal was to preserve the strategic equilibrium in Asia, as China saw it. Further China undertook the campaign with the moral support, diplomatic backing and intelligence co-operation of the United States – the same “imperialist power” that Beijing had helped to eject from Indo-China five years earlier”.

After 1975, since China’s foreign policy came to be dominated by anti-Sovietism, the most serious source of concern was the position of Vietnam. The end of the Vietnam War brought to the surface the long standing differences between the two communist neighbours. A matter of concern for China was the possibility of Vietnam emerging as an independent centre of power, with Soviet support. The fear, in fact, was unfounded for the facts clearly prove that Vietnam was keen to preserve and demonstrate its independence from both China and the Soviet Union and, at the same time, welcome aid from all quarters for the economic rehabilitation of the country. Hanoi was committed to multiple options in order to maximize its independence. During this period, Vietnam turned down the proposal to join the COMECON, because it would have resulted in a breach with China. But since Beijing followed a foreign policy on the assumption that Hanoi and Moscow were potential allies against China, it chose to underwrite and support the Pol Pot regime in Kampuchea against what both China and Kampuchea called “Vietnamese expansionism”. Vietnam, for its own domestic reasons of rapid economic integration, passed legislation and took administrative steps against the Hoa people and, as a result, the relations between the two countries deteriorated rapidly. The United States played a blatantly dangerous role in escalating the Sino-Vietnamese rift. Beijing came out openly against Hanoi only after Brzezinski visited China in May 1978 and denounced “regional hegemonism” implying the foreign policy of Vietnam. Brzezinski’s reference to “regional hegemony” indicated American support to Chinese action against Vietnam. The US successfully played off Hanoi and Beijing against each other as Vietnam strove for diplomatic recognition and economic aid and China for American technology and support against Soviet Union. The shared concerns about China and the United States brought Hanoi and Moscow closer. Events moved swiftly – exodus of the boat people, withdrawal of Chinese technical assistance, Vietnamese entry into the COMECON, Treaty of Friendship and Co-operation with Moscow, Vietnamese entry into Kampuchea and installation of the Heng Samrin Government and China’s punitive expedition against Vietnam.

Of all the Chinese leaders, the most bitter against Vietnam was Deng Xiaoping. In a meeting with the Thai leader Kriangsak in November 1977, Deng said, “There is a possibility that Phnom Penh will fall. This would not be the end of the war, but the beginning”. Deng strongly hinted that China would resort to punitive steps against Vietnam. The leaders of Singapore concurred with this view. According to S. Rajaratnam, “The Chinese never get emotional, but when Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew asked Deng about the Vietnamese, I saw in his eyes a glint. I mean real, not simulated. These ungrateful people must be punished. We gave them $20 billion of aid, Chinese sweat and blood and look what happened”.

As Kissinger has pointed out, China attacked Vietnam on Feburary 17, 1979 to put “a restraint on the wild ambitions of the Vietnamese and to give them an appropriate limited lesson”. “Appropriate” meant to inflict sufficient damage to affect Vietnamese options and calculations for the future; “limited” meant “that it would be ended before outside intervention or other factors drove it out of control”. It was also a direct challenge to the Soviet Union. The Indian observers should remember that when China attacked Vietnam it claimed a parallel with Chinese attack on India in 1962 to “teach a lesson “to the other countries. AB Vajpayee, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, was on an official tour of China at that time and had to cut short his visit. Just as in the case of India, the attack was followed by a retreat.

ASEAN was caught in a dilemma when China attacked Vietnam in early 1979. Having severely criticized Vietnam for occupying Kampuchea, how can ASEAN remain silent on this flagrant violation of Vietnamese sovereignty? As Ambassador Nathan has written, the purpose of Chinese invasion was to “teach Vietnam a lesson” for invading Cambodia. “Having strongly opposed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the ASEAN countries had a problem now in coming to terms with Chinese invasion of Vietnam. They could not reasonably endorse it. Fortunately Chinese troops began to withdraw on 16 March 1979, only a month after the initial attack, and so ASEAN was let off the hook”.

Beijing believed that, in the long run, Hanoi will meet its “Vietnam” in Kampuchea. It wanted to fight Vietnam to the last Kampuchean soldier and, if possible, to the last Thai soldier. With the connivance of the Thai Government, Beijing gave military and economic support to the Khemer insurgents. Beijing also embarked on a programme of recruiting and training Laotian insurgents for acts of subversion in Laos. And more than all these, Beijing kept the Sino-Vietnamese border tense and held out the possibility of a “second lesson” being taught to Hanoi… In Beijing’s calculation, if this “leechcraft” (Malaysian Foreign Minister Ghazalie Shafie’s phrase) is successfully implemented, the Government in Hanoi will get weakened and discredited. In such a situation, the pro-Chinese elements in Vietnam will revolt against the pro-Russian elements and a government friendly to China and amenable to Chinese interests will assume power in Hanoi.

Beijing successfully exploited ASEAN fears of Vietnam to the maximum. According to Kissinger Deng undertook a journey to Southeast Asian countries and practiced his own brand of “highly visible, blunt and occasionally hectoring diplomacy”. In November 1978, during his visit to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, Deng branded Vietnam as the “Cuba 0f the East”. He pointed out that the security of Southeast Asia was threatened by the Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty. This Treaty “is not directed against China alone…It is a very important world wide Soviet scheme. You may believe that the meaning of the Treaty is to encircle China. I have told friendly countries that China is not afraid of being encircled. It has a more important meaning for Asia and the Pacific. The security of Asia, the Pacific and the whole world are threatened”. The result was ASEAN, China and the United States working together, and keeping the Heng Samrin Government out of the United Nations. The joint action implied legitimacy to the murderous Pol Pot regime. They also demanded the immediate withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Kampuchea. China was then exhorting the Southeast Asian countries to exercise vigilance so that the “Tiger must be prevented from coming in from the backdoor while the wolf is repelled at the front gate”. But there was another danger which caused apprehension in the Indian minds. While driving the wolf out of the front door and warding off the Tiger through the backdoor, ASEAN should not allow the dragon to step in through the side door. In fact, the entire strategic significance of Indo-China revolved around that possibility. If Heng Samrin Government falls, China will be the next door neighbour of Thailand, with all its consequences. And if there was one country which could prevent such a possibility and stand up against the hegemonistic designs of Beijing, it was Vietnam.

Developments within Indo-China

Kissinger turns a blind eye to the domestic developments within Indo-China, especially the emergence of the Pol Pot regime. As mentioned earlier if one wants to understand the Third Indo-China War, one must clearly keep in mind the inter-related domestic and international developments.

After 1975, Vietnam subscribed to the view that after a protracted struggle against a common enemy, a new era of peace will usher in Indo-China. Hanoi was keen to forge co-operative links with Kampuchea and Laos and proposed a “special relationship”, which implied joint utilization of economic resources and co-operation in matters of defence like the stationing of Vietnamese troops in Laos. Kampuchea, as mentioned earlier, resented any mention of special relations, to them it smacked of Vietnamese hegemonistic designs.

In the new Kampuchea that the Khemer revolutionaries wanted to build, the Vietnamese had absolutely no place. As early as 1973, the Khemer Rouge had initiated a purge of pro-Vietnamese elements within the party. After the establishment of the revolutionary Government in 1975, the purge was continued and gathered momentum when Pol Pot assumed power in October 1976. Anti-Vietnamese sentiments were whipped up and thousands of Vietnamese had to flee for their lives. The Vietnam-Kampuchea border became tense and a series of border clashes took place in 1976 and 1977. Negotiations began in 1976, but could not make much headway due to the uncompromising stand of the Kampuchean Government. Gradually Kampuchea-Vietnam relations reached a point of no return. Vietnam began to openly advocate the overthrow of the Pol Pot Government.

By early 1978, the domestic politics of the Pol Pot government had affected large sections of the Khemer population. The crimes of the Pol Pot Government are well known and need not be narrated here. Conservative estimates of the number of people killed cross the two million mark, which does not include thousands who fled the country. In an interview with William Shawcross, Sihanouk said in 1977, “I lost, two sons, two daughters and ten grand children. I do not know whether they are dead, wounded or alive… I do not know what was happening in my country”. To quote Sihanouk again, “In 1969, there were seven million Khemers. In 1979, there are less than four million Khemers in Kampuchea. According to UN estimates, in 1980 at least two million Khemers will die of famine or disease and also because of war, not to speak of the genocide that you know off”. Pol Pot tried to gain maximum advantage of the conflict with Vietnam and projected himself as the saviour, defending the Khemer race against the historical enemy.

Till 1977, Hanoi was prepared to leave Kampuchea alone, even a strongly independent Kampuchea, so long as it did not play the Chinese game. Pol Pot by himself was only a nuisance, but Pol Pot backed by China was a danger to Vietnam’s survival. The Vietnamese believed with justification that the anti-Vietnamese stance of the Kampuchean Government was being fuelled and encouraged by China. In fact, the announcement that Kampuchea was under attack by Vietnam and its decision to sever diplomatic relations with Hanoi were made in Beijing. China extended whole hearted support to Kampuchea. On January 13, 1979, in a meeting with Ieng Sary, Hua Guofeng said, “ The Kampuchean peoples struggle is our struggle. We supported you in the past, we are supporting you now and we will continue to support you in future”. Hanoi considered Kampuchean attacks on Vietnam as indirect Chinese aggression. After repeated pronouncements describing the true nature, both internal and external of the Pol Pot regime, Vietnam resorted to the only course of action that was available. In December 1978, Vietnamese forces occupied Kampuchea and installed Heng Samrin in power.

Differences within ASEAN

While Kissinger writes in glowing terms about the unity displayed by ASEAN, a keen student of Southeast Asian politics could discern subtle differences in the approach of the member states. The five countries differed in their own assessment of China and Vietnam, depending on their national interests and their appraisal of the geo-politics of the region and changing inter-relations among the super powers. Thailand, effectively backed by Singapore, was the most hawkish towards Vietnam .in all ASEAN meetings and international forums. On the other hand, there was greater appreciation in Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta about Hanoi’s fears and the factors that led to Vietnamese invasion of Kampuchea. The two countries wanted to find a political solution to the problem quickly, lest Vietnam gets destabilized in furtherance of Chinese strategy. They wanted Vietnam to be strong and independent and emerge as an independent centre of power, free from both Soviet Union and China. Sheldon Simon has summed up the intra-ASEAN differences as follows: “The primary disjunction in ASEAN lies between Thailand and Indonesia with Singapore aligning more with Bangkok, Malaysia leaning towards Indonesia, and the Philippines and Brunei located more or less in the middle”.


Three decades after the end of the Third Indo-China War, the political landscape of Southeast and East Asia has completely changed. Pol Pot has become a frightful dream. Heng Samrin has consolidated his power by winning successive mandate from his people. Vietnam and China have normalised their relations, though the territorial disputes in the South China Sea continue to cast its long shadow. China has emerged as a political and economic giant and has become the major trading partner of all Southeast Asian countries. US – China linkages have been strengthened although sections in the United States are apprehensive of China’s long term intentions and goals in Southeast Asia.

In retrospect, what impact did the Third Indo-China War have on political developments in Southeast Asia? First and foremost, it enabled the ASEAN to emerge as a united, cohesive and viable regional organization. During its formative years ASEAN could neither influence regional developments nor bring about any change in the attitude of the super powers. The Third Indo-China War brought about a fundamental change. Prime Minister Phan Van Dong’s visit to ASEAN capitals in 1978 could not make much headway. On the contrary, the member states of ASEAN rallied round the frontline state Thailand. Despite the differences in their perception of Vietnam and China, the regional organization responded collectively and succeeded in rallying support to the ousted Pol Pot regime (despite its genocidal record) in the United Nations. ASEAN also demanded the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces from Cambodia as a precondition for a negotiated settlement. The author agrees with the assessment made by the Singapore scholar-diplomat Chang Heng Chee, “The Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea was God sent. It became the common cause energizing the process of co-operation, galvanizing ASEAN unity. Without Kampuchea there was every likelihood that ASEAN would suffer internal dislocation on how to handle an emergent Vietnam and would be forced to confront the structuring of a long term strategy in a fluid environment”.

Though it did not find vocal expression, the member states of ASEAN were not very happy that they were providing legitimacy to the ousted Pol Pot Government. Sihanouk, as quoted earlier, had severely criticized the policies of the Khemer Rouge Government. In Singapore Sihanouk explicitly accused the Khemer Rouge of murdering his children and grand children and told how he himself was saved because of the intervention of his friend Chou En Lai. On another occasion, in New York, Sihanouk sought US protection, denounced the Khemer Rouge for mass murder and called for their expulsion from the United Nations. On US persuasion, Sihanouk eventually agreed to go to France. Singapore was conscious that the ASEAN policy was becoming more and more untenable. As Amb Nathan has written, “We did see a need to respond to the disastrous reputation that the Khemer Rouge was gaining internationally for the brutality and inhumanity of its regime”. Nathan adds, “ASEAN’s defence of the Khemer Rouge was becoming untenable, and equally it did not share China’s desire to see the Khemer Rouge return to power after the Vietnamese withdrawal”. Singapore began to work assiduously for an alternative, consisting of various nationalist elements in Cambodia. The Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Rajaratnam appealed to all freedom living Cambodians struggling against the Vietnamese Occupation to “set aside their differences and come together in a new Cambodian united front and so present a new face to the international community”. Ieng Sary vehemently opposed the formation of a united front. Then Singapore played its trump card. If the proposal for a united front was not acceptable to Ieng Sary, Rajaratnam declared that “he had no alternative but to instruct his delegate at the United Nations to vote for allowing the Vietnamese backed regime to take over the Cambodia seat in the United Nations”. The threat had its desired effect. Ieng Sary agreed that he would try to persuade the Khemer Rouge leaders to agree to the formation of a broad united front. Finally the three factions – led by Sihanouk, Son Sann and the Khemer Rouge respectively – issued a joint statement and announced that they would work together for forming a Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea.

A positive gain for Southeast Asian countries was China’s decision to terminate its powerful ideological support to the communist parties. The situation was rendered complex by the fact that in Malaysia and Singapore, the revolutionary leadership and militant following of the communist parties came from ethnic Chinese. It may be recalled that even when PRC established diplomatic relations with member states of ASEAN, beginning with Malaysia in 1974, it maintained the distinction between party-to-party relations and government-to-government relations. Lee Kuan Yew in the course of his visits to China explained that this policy was acting as a hindrance in the normalisation of China’s relations with Southeast Asian countries. To quote Lee, “There are underlying suspicions and animosity between the Malay Muslims and Chinese in Malaysia and between Indonesians and the ethnic Chinese” Because China was exporting revolution to Southeast Asia, many ASEAN neighbours were reluctant to side with China against Soviet Union. They regarded radio broadcasts from China appealing directly to ethnic Chinese as “dangerous subversion”. Lee Kuan Yew’s persuasive diplomacy had its desired effect. China wound up the broadcasting stations operating from Southern China.

In his book, Kissinger quotes Lee Kuan Yew to suggest that the Third Indo-China War prevented the fall of dominoes to Vietnamese supported communist parties. To quote Kissinger, “Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has summed up the ultimate result of the war: The Western press wrote off the Chinese punitive action as a failure. I believe it changed the history of East Asia”. The question naturally arises in Indian minds – were the Southeast Asian countries in the late 1970’s weaklings to fall like dominoes before Vietnamese onslaught? I believe that by the late 1970’s the Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, had developed sufficient resilience to withstand both internal and external pressures.

( The Writer Dr. V. Suryanarayan is, a former Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras, is currently associated with two think tanks in Chennai, the Center for Asia Studies and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. He was a member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India for one term. His e mail

4 views0 comments


bottom of page