The Dragon in the Jungle
The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War
Oxford University Press, New York, 2020, 344 pages
Book Review published on: July 3, 2020
Volumes have been written about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam conflict. Xiaobing Li examines a lesser-known aspect of the Vietnam conflict, China’s support to North Vietnam, in The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War. This welcome addition to the study of the Vietnam War is the result of meticulous research of primary and secondary sources in describing China’s decision to intervene, the Chinese army’s role during the war, and events leading to a Sino-Soviet conflict breaking the communist alliance.
Li describes China’s decision to intervene in Vietnam as part of its strategy of active defense conceptualized by Mao Tse-tung in the 1950s. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) transformed itself from a “liberation army” into a national force with two new components: a defensive force to repel foreign invasions and a security force against internal threats to the new regime. Mao believed the United States’ plan was to destroy the new People’s Republic by attacking it from Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He further believed a successful defense against international imperialist attacks could be achieved by stopping foreign invading forces outside China. Mao considered the United Nations (UN) forces’ northward advance across the 38th parallel north during the Korean War a direct threat to the security of China. Mao warned the United States through backdoor diplomatic channels that China would intervene in Korea if UN forces did not return to the 38th parallel. The conflict would have ended early if UN forces had stopped at their initial end state of the 38th parallel, instead it resulted in a bloody stalemate for three more years.
Mao became equally concerned with the French Indochina War and the threat it posed to China’s security. Mao initially sent military advisers to assist the Viet Minh forces. Li describes the challenges faced by Chinese advisors in gaining acceptance of recommended strategy by reluctant Viet Minh leadership. After several costly Viet Minh offensives against fortified French positions, the Viet Minh leadership were more receptive in accepting their Chinese advisors’ recommendations for a strategy to defeat French forces. The Viet Minh forces with Chinese support defeated French forces securing Communist control of North Vietnam in the Geneva Agreements of 1954.
Li informs the reader that the first Chinese troops entered North Vietnam on 9 June 1965 in response to Rolling Thunder, a U.S. air campaign that targeted military bases, transportation systems, and industries to compel North Vietnamese leaders to stop fighting. Initial deployment of Chinese troops were engineering and air defense troops wearing North Vietnam Army uniforms. By the end of 1965, more than 160,000 Chinese soldiers were serving in North Vietnam. PLA forces in North Vietnam, termed “volunteers” by China to avoid an overt war with the United States, were successful in building three new rail networks, seven highways, and numerous bridges while repairing existing North Vietnamese road and rail networks damaged by Rolling Thunder.
Li describes the numerous challenges ranging from bacterial infections, jungle rot, lack of adequate food and water, and unfamiliarity of Vietnamese language and culture faced by Chinese forces in North Vietnam. His research indicates PLA companies experienced between 30 and 60 percent of personnel ill during their deployment in North Vietnam. Despite the challenges, Li describes an adaptive military that learned from its encounters with the United States during Rolling Thunder. China successfully revised its tactics and strategies, and improved its early warning and tracking of pending air attacks, thus developing one of the most comprehensive air defenses by 1966. China interviewed downed U.S. pilots, conducted after action reviews, and took the opportunity when possible to assess Soviet air defense units serving in North Vietnam.
Chinese and North Vietnamese concerns of a U.S. invasion of North Vietnam led to PLA engineering forces developing a series of fortifications along North Vietnam’s 1,062-mile-long coastline. PLA engineering troops were subject to American air strikes until the PLA moved more anti-aircraft artillery companies near construction sites. While the PLA navy had been involved in China’s intervention from the beginning regarding intelligence and transportation, Li describes the transformation of the PLA navy from a coastal fleet to a modern ocean-going naval force. China was successful in developing its mine sweeping capability as part of its efforts to keep North Vietnamese ports opened during the Vietnam War.
Li describes 1968-1969 as a pivotal point in China’s relations with North Vietnam. The Soviet Union provided North Vietnam advanced missile technology and radar systems, giving North Vietnam the most effective air defense system in the world by 1968. China simply could not match the Soviet’s superior missile technology. North Vietnamese officers complained about inferior Chinese air defense while praising Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles. Li asserts increased Soviet support to North Vietnam was the fundamental cause of the cracks in the Sino-Vietnamese alliance that resulted in the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 and the Third Indochina War.
Tension between China and the Soviet Union increased during this period as a result of furthering ties between North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union viewed China’s increased presence in Southeast Asia as a challenge to the Soviet Union. China viewed increased Soviet influence in the region as an attempt to encircle China. The Soviet Union’s deployment of military forces along China’s border in April 1968 led to China’s belief of a pending invasion of China by the Soviet Union. A seven-month-long border conflict between the Soviet Union and China erupted, threatening to expand into a major war. Li’s research indicates the Soviet Union had entertained the use of nuclear weapons against China if the border conflict had expanded into war. Deteriorating relations between China and the Soviet Union resulted in the Soviet Union replacing the United States as China’s perceived immediate threat. China began withdrawing its forces from Vietnam. Normalization of relations between China and the United States dramatically shifted the balance of power between the superpowers.
The Dragon in the Jungle’s strength is Li’s exhaustive research of Chinese archives, manuscripts, collected military papers, and personal interviews. Li’s service in the PLA and knowledge of the Chinese language and culture provides for a unique understanding of China’s perceptions, its military culture, and decision-making for its role in the Korean, First Indochina, and Vietnam conflicts. It describes the evolution of China’s military from a peasant’s army to a professional one. The work is highly readable and may be the most comprehensive examination of China’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict to date. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas