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  • Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance by Nicholas Khoo
  • Pierre Asselin (bio)
Nicholas Khoo. Collateral Damage: Sino-Soviet Rivalry and the Termination of the Sino-Vietnamese Alliance. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011. x, 267 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-0-231-15078-1.

The aim of Khoo’s book is to account for the collapse of the Sino-Vietnamese alliance. Essentially, it seeks to explain how two close allies eventually became bitter enemies. The explanation, it turns out, is sensible: in aligning itself with the Soviet Union, “China’s principal enemy,” in the late 1970s, Vietnam earned the opprobrium of Beijing, and became its “secondary enemy” (p. 4). The alliance collapsed in dramatic fashion in early 1979 when Beijing launched a war against Hanoi less to “teach Vietnam a lesson,” as standard accounts of the collapse have maintained, than to protect China from Soviet encirclement. Khoo’s argument is based on a neorealist understanding of international relations. Specifically, he relies on principal enemy theory to explain the strategic thinking of Chinese leaders on Vietnam. Ideological differences played no part in undermining Sino-Vietnamese unity. It was, instead, concerns about national security and fear of Soviet imperialism and expansionism in particular that conditioned Beijing’s thinking and informed its policies vis-à-vis Vietnam.

Following the onset of the so-called Vietnam War in 1965, Moscow, which until then had provided only lukewarm support for the Vietnamese national liberation movement, markedly increased its aid to Hanoi. It even sent sophisticated military hardware, including surface-to-air missiles, and its own technicians to operate it. In light of the Sino-Soviet dispute then wreaking havoc in the socialist camp, Beijing responded in kind to “compete with the Soviets” (p. 28) and not lose Hanoi’s constancy to the benefit of Moscow. It also dispatched soldiers of its own armed forces, whose presence in Vietnam neared 170,000 at one point. For Khoo, China became deeply involved in the Vietnam War not because of historical or ideological ties to Vietnam or even hatred of the United States, but to curry favor with Hanoi and contain Soviet influence in the region.

In 1968, at the height of the Sino-Soviet dispute, Moscow invaded Czechoslovakia. In the aftermath of that event, Beijing considered the Soviet Union, not the United States, as the “leading imperialist in world politics” (p. 97). The Chinese became fearful of the so-called Brezhnev Doctrine legitimating Soviet military intervention in socialist countries, of Soviet encroachment upon their territory, and of encirclement in particular. That same year, Hanoi opened peace talks with the United States, a move consistent with Soviet aspirations but contrary to Chinese ones. Although the Vietnamese were, in fact, using the talks to further their military objectives — not to negotiate in the traditional sense — Beijing “failed to appreciate” (p. 64) the tactic. That and other circumstances made Chinese leaders nervous about the prospect of Vietnamese strategic alignment with Moscow. To preempt that prospect, Beijing resorted to coercion, recalling all of its troops in North Vietnam and reducing its military aid to Hanoi. Predictably, such [End Page 508] measures backfired, pushing the Vietnamese closer to the Soviets and creating an important fissure in the Sino-Vietnamese relationship.

As Sino-Vietnamese relations deteriorated, Beijing began a dialogue of its own with the United States. According to Khoo, a desire to “counter the increased Soviet threat following the declaration of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1968 and subsequent border clashes in 1969” (p. 66) prompted the decision. To be sure, Sino-American rapprochement alienated Hanoi, which interpreted China’s behavior as an act of betrayal, and irrevocably damaged the Sino-Vietnamese partnership. However, Khoo insists, it did not make the subsequent Sino-Vietnamese conflict, and the 1979 war in particular, inevitable, as other scholars have suggested.

Increasing cooperation between Moscow and Hanoi following the signing of the Paris Agreement of 1973 calling for the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from South Vietnam “led Beijing to hedge against the prospect of a unified Vietnam and to adopt actions that were antithetical to North Vietnamese interests” (p. 91), including supporting the Khmer Rouge...