In making a quick and probably limited strike into Vietnamese territory, China's leaders appear deeply influenced by 17-year-old memories of one of the oddest -- and politically most successful -- military campaigns in Chinese history.
In 1962, Chinese troops plunged into India and moved farther than they are expected to go in this latest invasion. But the desire to chastise a difficult neighbor with a quick strike, and then win international approval with a quick withdrawal, seems to motivate both actions.
Although it is difficult to identify specific military and foreign actions with certain members of the Chinese leadership, the men who appear to control Chinese policy today also held great power in 1962.
Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping, probably the most important Chinese leader today, was Communist Party general secretary and among the top six party leaders in 1962. It was a time following the disastrous Great Leap Forward when Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung, now dead, was temporarily less active and pragmatic leaders like Teng were particularly influential.
Analysts here wonder, however, if the Chinese have overlooked some important differences between their actions in Vietnam and the fighting in 1962 along the border with India.
Whatever the bad impression created by an invasion of a sovereign neighboring state, the Chinese seem to be convinced that they came out ahead when widespread praise greeted their unilateral decision to move back within their border after routing the Indians in November 1962. The action caused many reappraisals of China's belligerent image abroad.
"Astonishment almost blots out relief at the sudden Chinese decision," The Times of London said at the time.
The Chinese objective had been to stop the movement of Indian troops into areas claimed by China in the mountainous wastes of the border between Tibet and India. According to Australian journalist and historian Neville Maxwell, this goal was achieved.
India's "forward policy was not revived." Maxwell said. "The [Indian] Army built up its strength in Ladakh and opened roads to its forward positions, but these remained outside the Chinese claim line -- and the dispositions were defensive."
In Vietnam, analusts here say,the Chinese are fighting with far more troops in much easier terrain. But now they have neither the time nor the well-defined political and military goal that they enjoyed in the Indian campaign. The regional bitterness left behind by the Indian attack is likely to be even greater in Indochina.
India moved much closer to China's archrival, the Soviet Union, after the 1962 invasion. This probably means little to Peking policymakers planning the Vietnam invasion, since Hanoi already has become one of Moscow's closet allies. But it also leaves less of an opportunity for any future easing of border tension, invasion or no invasion.
Some controversy remains over whether the Vietnamese have been trying to provoke incidents on the Chinese border to chastise Peking for its support of Cambodian guerrillas fighting a Hanoi-backed government in Phnom Penh.
"In 1962 the Indians were clearly pursuing a forward strategy to move into areas claimed by China," said one analyst, "while I sort of doubt the Vietnamese have been taking that sort of initiative."
After they withdraw, the Chinese have far less of a chance to stop a renewal of hostile incidents along the ill-defined, thickly populated Sino-Vietnamese barder than they did in 1962, when they were dealing with an almost uninhabited Himalayan wasteland.
But the similarities in the way the Chinese approached the two border problems remain compelling. In both instances, a series of sometimes contradictory warnings and offers of negotiation preceded the invasion. In each case, the Chinese attempted to cloak their massive assault in the aura of a "counterattack" against aggression from the troublesome neighbor.
On Oct. 20, 1962, the Chinese began their assault by saying the Indians had launched "massive attacks" on the border. Chinese troops "in self-defense... were compelled to strike back resolutely, and cleared away some aggressive strong points set up of the Indian troops," Peking said.
Maxwell, who mostly endorses the Chinese side in the dispute, says the Indians made no such mass attacks. China described its attack on Vietnam yesterday as a "counterattack to defend the country's borders" following a steady escalation of Hanoi's "armed incursions into China."
In India, the Chinese moved quickly down the Thag La Ridge in the east and through the Indian Army lines at Aksai Chin in the west. They stopped at their claimed border in the west, but moved at least 40 miles into Indian territory in the east and seemed poised to invade the plains of Assam with the Indian Army in disarry.Then on Nov. 21, Peking suddenly announced a cease-fire and promised to withdraw within a few days to lines 13 miles behind its line of control in 1959.
In a general way that is the example with which the Chinese appear to have approached their new border problem. But as one analyst here pointed out, "With the Soviets breathing down their necks, this time they probably can't go that deep, or stay that long."