The Dragon in the Jungle by Xiobing Li

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Xiaobing Li, a professor of history and the director of the Western Pacific Institute at the University of Central Oklahoma, served in China’s People’s Liberation Army from 1970-72. His new book, The Dragon in the Jungle: The Chinese Army in the Vietnam War (344 pp. Oxford University Press, $34.95), is rooted in his military experience—along with sixteen years of research on the subject.

Li’s goal is to provide an international perspective to help readers gain a better understanding of the the Vietnam War and China’s role in it. He offers answers to questions about China’s objectives, the planning and carrying out of its fighting methods, why the nation withdrew its forces from Vietnam before the war ended—along with the impact China’s intervention ultimately had on the modernization of the its army.

What this book brings to the discussion is a better understanding of the ground-level actions of the Chinese army in the Vietnam War. It also provides a view of the war through the eyes of Chinese officers and soldiers, obtained by interviews with the author.

Historically, China had once dominated both Vietnam and Korea, and entered the second-half of the twentieth century with the view that both countries were still within its defense orbit. China and Vietnam fought with the Allies against Japan in World War II. The Chinese supported the North Vietnamese in their 1946-54 war against France, known as the French Indochina War and First Indochina War, and then continuing supporting the communist North during the 1955-63 civil war.

The worlds’ two largest communist nations, China and the Soviet Union, openly split with each other during the 1956-64 period,  known as the Sino-Soviet Rift. Each nation saw the other as a rival for the support of the North Vietnamese. North Vietnam always tried to remain neutral in this rivalry.

Early in the American War, also known as the Second Indochina War (1965-73), Chinese troops entered North Vietnam in response to the U.S. Rolling Thunder bombing campaign. Eventually, more than 300,000 Chinese service personnel would serve, mostly in air defense, railroad and highway construction, and combat engineering. China wanted to avoid a major war against the United States, but did not want Vietnam

to be under Western control. China also supported North Vietnam to reduce its need for aid from the Soviet Union.

As the war went on, the Soviet Union began significantly increasing its military aid to the North. China then saw itself as battling two superpowers, the U.S. militarily, and the Soviet Union politically. Eventually, China withdraw all its troops from Vietnam. The nation was dealing with economic limitations, a serious technological gap and continuing rivalry with Moscow, as well as serious concerns of getting into a war with the U.S.

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 “Oppose the American infringement upon the Vietnamese Democratic Republic!” – February 1965 Chinese Propaganda Poster

The Dragon in the Jungle is an especially important book because, while it focuses on China’s military, it also analyzes the military actions of the U.S., Soviet Union, North Vietnam, and South Vietnam. That’s a lot of ground covered.

Xiaobing Li frequently uses newly available sources to take this deep dive into the Chinese military’s strategy and planning, tactical decisions, and problem-solving efforts. This is a major work that unearths new and important information about China’s role in the American war in Vietnam.

–Bill McCloud