An armed conflict between Vietnam and China in the former's northern frontiers in February-March 1979. Soldiers of Vietnam's People's Army defending the city of Lang Son against the Chinese aggressors.

Vietnam’s state censors have adopted a notably more relaxed posture toward the discussion of past clashes with China, which was treated as a sensitive topic until recent years.

Last month, state-controlled news outlets widely recalled the Battle of the Paracel Islands in January 1974. Major national newspapers, such as Thanh Nien, overtly said that China used force to occupy Vietnam’s Paracel [Hoang Sa] archipelago and has since used a wide range of illegal tactics aimed at taking control of the entire South China Sea.

During the last few days, state media have extensively written about the 1979 border war with China, which was long considered a taboo topic.

Most well-known newspapers and news sites, such as Tuoi Tre, Thanh Nien and Vietnamnet, have been publishing content about the conflict describing it as a just war by Vietnam against the Chinese invaders.

On February 13, Voice of Vietnam (VOV) published an opinion piece by a scholar at the Political Academy of the Ministry of Defense that depicted China’s invasion as inhumane, anti-humanist and heartless.

On the following day, the national radio station ran an interview with Tran Cong Truc, former chief of the Government Border Committee. In the introduction, the VOV said the war to protect Vietnam’s northern border was “a struggle against China’s cruel and unjust invasion.”

The interviewer rightly observed that the Vietnamese, especially young people, have the right to learn about Vietnam’s war but for a long period there wasn’t enough information about it. Truc agreed with this view.

In fact, from 1990 – when the two sides held a secret summit in Chengdu, China, that led to the renormalization of diplomatic ties the following year – to the present, the 1979 border conflict was almost ignored. It is only scarcely referenced in two school history textbooks. At a national conference to mark the 40th anniversary of the event in Hanoi on February 15, several Vietnamese scholars raised concerns about the scant attention it has received.

But that has changed this year. The chief editor of school history textbooks pledged at the conference, which attracted scholars from across the country, that the border war will be properly taught in schools in future.

Hardly ever during the last three decades have Vietnam’s state-run media and academics talked about the border war in such an extensive, vivid and vehement manner

Indeed, hardly ever during the last three decades have Vietnam’s state-run media and academics talked about the border war in such an extensive, vivid and vehement manner. In Vietnam, a highly-censored country, all of this would only have been possible with the pre-approval of the ruling Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV).

Judging by the coverage of the state media, the voices raised at the conference and many other activities to mark the event during the last few days, it’s clear that Vietnam – or, more exactly, the CPV – is now much more open about the 1979 conflict. There are a wide range of reasons behind this change in posture.

One of these is the brutality and consequences of the military skirmish. Though it lasted only 27 days, the devastation it caused was colossal. The casualty figures are still in doubt, as they have never been released by either Beijing or Hanoi. Some have estimated that Chinese casualties were between 21,000 and 63,000. It is also estimated that tens of thousands of Vietnamese died and suffered, most of them civilians because the war broke out suddenly and was fought exclusively on Vietnamese soil.

That border battle also heralded a decade of hostilities between the two neighbors, which included a one-sided naval attack on Vietnam by China in 1988 that resulted in the death of nearly 70 Vietnamese sailors and China’s occupation of several islets and rocks in the Spratly Islands.

From the Vietnamese perspective, as stressed by media outlets, whatever reasons Beijing may have used to justify its actions, its brutal attack on its much smaller neighbor Vietnam, a fellow communist state, was unacceptable.

February 17 was the 40th anniversary of the start of the short-lived but deadly military conflict.

While they are right that the country should rise above the past and head towards the future, Vietnam’s leaders may now realize that it’s unwise to ignore or hide their country’s history – especially such a major war, memories of which remain vivid in the minds of many Vietnamese today.

Its role in leading the country to fight against foreign invaders – Japan, France and America – is still an important source of the party’s legitimacy.

While the ruling party – and together with it, the country – proudly celebrates its war wins against Japan, France and the US, it had been mostly – and conspicuously – silent on its 1979 war with China. If it continued to maintain an official wall of silence on the war, it would certainly have further incited discontent among the Vietnamese public.

The official aversion to discussing Vietnam’s past conflicts with China, including the devastating border war, had led some Vietnamese to believe that their leaders were submissive to Beijing. This, in turn, had fuelled antipathy towards both the regime and China.

Vietnam’s leaders may now realize that refusing to acknowledge the war is not the best way forward, both in terms of dealing with the past and managing the country’s relations with China

What’s more, Vietnam’s leaders may now realize that refusing to acknowledge the war is not the best way forward, both in terms of dealing with the past and managing the country’s relations with China.

Indeed, while the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War was deadly, Vietnam’s war against the US was much worse. Still, American officials and leaders do not ignore the war in their current interaction with Vietnam. In his address to the people of Vietnam during his state visit to the country in May 2017, then US president Barack Obama spoke about the devastating and lasting consequences of the war.

In recalling the long conflict and its severe consequences, Obama, who was just 13 years old when US forces left Vietnam in 1975, said, “War, no matter what our intentions may be, brings suffering and tragedy. Even if we disagree about a war, we must always honor those who serve and welcome them home with the respect they deserve.”

The US and Vietnam have now overcome their past enmity, mainly because they acknowledged such a conflict existed and that it caused huge damages and, consequently, they needed to heal their wounds. What was remarkable – and indeed, praiseworthy – is that those who were proactively involved in reconciling the two former adversaries were war veterans, such as John Kerry and John McCain.

That’s something both Vietnam and China should do on the 40th anniversary of their border war. This is because the two communist neighbors cannot truly build a better and more peaceful relationship if they refuse to confront their painful memories.

It is often said that the Vietnamese government doesn’t mark – or allow the people to talk about and commemorate – past conflicts with China because such an action could irk Beijing and harm the country’s relations with its giant neighbor. Yet, despite its commemoration and celebration of war victories against the Japanese, French and Americans, Vietnam’s relations with these three powers today are largely unaffected by such activities.

In some respects, the contrary is true in Vietnam’s interactions with China. Though Hanoi has been largely silent about its major conflicts with China, including the two naval clashes in 1974 and 1988, China has assumed an unfriendly and at times rather aggressive posture toward its southern neighbor in the disputed South China Sea in recent years.

In his interview, Tran Cong Truc, who led the Government Border Committee from 1995 to 2004 and was actively involved in Vietnam’s border negotiations with China, said that Vietnam should honestly look at the 1979 border war in order to draw lessons from it. One of the lessons he suggests Vietnam should learn is: be vigilant against [China’s] expansionism and hegemony.

In recent years, Hanoi has apparently become more confident in its foreign policy, succeeding in fostering stronger ties with other powers, notably the US. Together with that, it has also become more expressive and critical of China’s historical and current actions. This could be another key factor behind its permissiveness of more public discussion, commemoration and coverage of the 1979 border war.

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