February 17, 2009 / 1:53 PM / 10 years ago

China downplays anniversary of Vietnam border war

BEIJING (Reuters) - China on Tuesday sought to downplay the 30th anniversary of a short but bloody border war with one-time close Communist ally Vietnam, barely mentioning it in the media and seeking to deflect questions.

China invaded Vietnam on February 17, 1979, to punish Hanoi for toppling the Beijing-backed Khmer Rouge in Cambodia one month earlier. China had previously given Hanoi steadfast support against U.S. forces in the Vietnam War.

The month-long border war in which some say 60,000 soldiers or more were killed is a memory both governments are happy to suppress.

Neither country, run by stability-obsessed Communist parties, wishes to stoke any expressions of strident nationalism among their people, and both are keen to expand trade bilateral trade, which last year grew to $21 billion.

“China and Vietnam have had a period of unhappiness in their past,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters.

“But what’s important is that the leaders and people of both countries have a broad wish and consensus to create a bright future together. History has already reached its conclusions,” she added, declining to say if China planned to mark the day at all.

Chinese media made little mention of the anniversary, though the website of the Global Times (www.huanqiu.com), an outspoken tabloid published by Communist Party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, carried a series of old pictures from the war.

The war was “forced” on China following Vietnam’s mistreatment of ethnic Chinese and its invasion of Cambodia, all of which “seriously threatened and damaged China’s modernisation and border security,” it said.

The war “punished and taught a proper lesson to the Vietnamese invaders,” the newspaper added.

“People say that a war between two socialist countries is the hardest to comprehend, and that war between two Eastern countries is the bloodiest,” said the article on the “counter-attack in self-defense war.”

Two comments by online readers of the piece, also carried on a Shanghai-government linked website, www.eastday.com, did not mince their words, though.

“China’s old generation of leaders believed that struggle was necessary to protect territory. Today’s officials should learn from that!” wrote one.

“I really don’t understand why veterans of the war have to go to Hong Kong to get their books on the war published,” wrote another.

Vietnamese newspapers did not mention the war at all, though at a small park near the Chinese embassy in Hanoi, about 40 Vietnamese police did marching drills.

The embassy has been the scene of a few protests over the years, including one with a few hundred youth when China reportedly set up a county-level government to administer the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

Both governments claim ownership of the islands, which are thought to sit on valuable oil and gas deposits.

Hanoi and Beijing have agreed not to upset the status quo, but both are firm in their claims of sovereignty.

Last July, China pressured Exxon Mobil Corp to pull out of an oil exploration deal with Vietnam that it saw as a breach of Chinese sovereignty. In May, BP Plc halted plans to conduct exploration work off the southern Vietnamese coast, citing territorial tensions.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang also defended China’s ties with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime, saying it was part of normal diplomatic relations, as a trial began in Phnom Penh of the group’s chief torturer.

Additional reporting by John Ruwitch in Hanoi; Editing by Nick Macfie

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