PEKING — The Chinese government Wednesday confirmed reports from Hanoi that new fighting has broken out along the Sino-Vietnamese border, with both sides reporting casualty levels among the highest since they fought a monthlong war in 1979.
The official New China News Agency said the fighting began Monday morning on the border near Laoshan, in the Chinese province of Yunnan. It said that at the time of the report--Wednesday night Peking time--the fighting was still going on.
On Monday, the news agency said, Chinese frontier guards "wiped out 200 Vietnamese troops while repulsing their attacks," and on Wednesday morning, "a Vietnamese company was annihilated."
Hanoi radio had said earlier that Vietnamese troops killed or wounded nearly 500 Chinese soldiers.
There was no independent corroboration of these casualty figures. Foreign correspondents are not permitted to visit the border areas where fighting has taken place. However, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman did not directly deny the report of 500 Chinese casualties.
The spokesman, Ma Yuzhen, described the Hanoi report as "sheer boasting" and "rumors."
Historically at Odds
Ordinarily, when the Chinese government wishes to label something untrue, the Foreign Ministry labels it a "sheer fabrication," but on Wednesday, Ma carefully avoided that wording.
Although China supported Vietnam in its war with the United States, the two countries have been at odds with each other throughout much of their history. Since the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, China and Vietnam have been sparring over efforts by both to become the dominant influence in the Indochinese country of Cambodia.
In February of 1979, China mounted an invasion of Vietnam in order to "teach it a lesson" after Vietnamese troops had overrun Cambodia and toppled the Chinese-backed Khmer Rouge regime. China withdrew four weeks later after suffering 20,000 killed, wounded or missing.
There have been repeated border skirmishes between the two countries since then. The timing is usually linked to the situation in Cambodia, where Vietnamese troops have been fighting guerrilla forces backed by the Chinese.
All-Out Attack Avoided
However, despite occasional warnings by high-ranking officials that China might deliver "a second lesson" to Vietnam, China has refrained from all-out attack. Instead it has concentrated on modernizing and reorganizing the People's Liberation Army, which with more than 3 million men is the world's largest fighting force.
A Western diplomat said Wednesday that he was "mystified" as to why fighting has broken out now. The Soviet Union, which supplies Vietnam with military equipment and financial aid, has been trying to improve its own relations with China, and in the process has been looking for ways to reduce Sino-Vietnamese tension.
At a party congress in Hanoi last month, Vietnam revamped its leadership and received assurances of continuing Soviet support from Yegor K. Ligachev, a member of the Soviet Politburo. Chinese officials said at the time that they saw no sign of any change in Vietnamese foreign policy.
China's position has been that it cannot normalize its relations with Vietnam until Vietnam withdraws all its forces from Cambodia. Peking-based analysts say there has been no sign of any progress toward agreement on Cambodia.
A West European analyst here theorized that Vietnam may be using the skirmishes to show the Soviet Union that it will not be pressured into an unfavorable settlement with China. It is also possible, he said, that China wants to show the Soviet Union and Vietnam that there will be no compromise in its demand for a withdrawal of Vietnamese troops from Cambodia.
According to Vietnam's account, the present incident started Monday when Chinese troops took advantage of overcast skies to open fire with artillery and mortars on hilltop positions in Vietnam--14,000 rounds in all. Vietnam said Chinese troops then crossed the border and attacked Vietnamese positions.
China's version also has the fighting breaking out Monday morning, but the New China News Agency said that Vietnamese troops "launched a dozen attacks on Chinese positions in the Laoshan area" and were repulsed by Chinese frontier guards.
It is now the dry season in Cambodia. Every year at this time, Vietnamese troops attack the Cambodian resistance forces fighting the Vietnam-supported regime of Heng Samrin, seeking to reduce the strength of the resistance forces or at least to push them across the border into Thailand.
Peking's Tone Harsher
For the past week there has been a slight increase in and a harder edge to Chinese propaganda regarding Vietnam and Cambodia.
A New China News Agency interview on Monday with Cambodian resistance leader Son Sann said that he "admitted that the war (in Cambodia) was arduous, because the resistance forces had to face a stronger Vietnamese invasion army supported by the Soviet Union."