The Campaign at the China–Burma border (simplified Chinese: 中缅边境作战; traditional Chinese: 中緬邊境作戰) was a series of battles fought at and around the China-Burma border after the Chinese Civil War, with the communist People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Union of Burma on one side and the nationalist forces of the Republic of China (ROC) on the other. The government of the PRC refers to the campaign as the Sino-Burmese border Surveying and Security Operation (中缅边境勘界警卫作战).
Refer to An Overview of the Kuomintang in Burma (1950-1961).
After the communist revolution in China, some surviving nationalist forces withdrew to Burma and continued to fight. Under international pressure, the Nationalist government in Taiwan withdrew the surviving force in the China-Burma border totalling over 6,500 in May 1954. However, many ardent nationalists refused to retreat to Taiwan and decided to stay in Burma and carry on the anti-communist struggle. To better lead these troops, the Nationalist government sent the original deputy commander-in-chief, Liu Yuanlin (柳元麟) back to Burma to form Yunnan People’s Anti-communist Volunteer Army in June 1954. By the early 1960s, the nationalist force in northern Burma had reached its peak, totalling near ten thousand troops. Because there were a much higher proportion of officers among the nationalist force in the China–Burma border, the structure of nationalist forces in northern Burma differed from ordinary military structure: Yunnan People’s Anti-communist Volunteer Army was organised into five armies, each consisting of two to three divisions, and each of these divisions, in turn, was directly consisted of two to three regiments, while the brigades level structure was eliminated. The size of each regiment of Yunnan People’s Anti-communist Volunteer Army varied greatly in size, from two dozen troops to over a thousand troops. The nationalist force controlled an area that was 300 km long along the China-Burma border, and 100 km deep. The nationalist area of control was typical mountainous jungle regions, with the rainy season lasting six months, and the area was covered by fog for most of the time. It was extremely difficult to navigate in the region where there were few roads and trails, and the natural environment was extremely harsh.
On 28 January 1960, Burmese premier Ne Win visited China and signed a deal aimed to solve the historical disputes between China and Burma. In October 1960, Burmese premier U Nu and Burmese chief-of-general-staff General Ne Win visited China once again and on 01 October 1960, they signed a new border treaty with Chinese premier Zhou Enlai. Before the border treaty was signed, both sides agreed in May 1960 to jointly eradicate the Chinese nationalist force in the border region, and since the treaty required that the China-Burma border had to be surveyed for demarcation, it provided reasons for the following military actions.
In October 1960, the communist high command ordered Kunming Military Region to prepare for the campaign. In early November 1960, communists and Burmese government held a joint conference on the matter of communist force fighting in Burma. The Burmese representatives were headed by Brigadier Generals Aung Gyi and San Yu, and the Chinese communist representatives were headed by Ding Rongchang (丁荣昌), the deputy commander-in-chief of the communist Yunnan Provincial Military Region, and Cheng Xueyu (成学渝), the director of Border Defence Directorate of the War Department of the General Staff Ministry of the People’s Liberation Army. By 04 November 1960, the deal was signed in which communist force was allowed to fight in Burma in a region that was 20 km deep, 300 km long, along the border.
On 14 November 1960, the communist central military committee formally issued the order to cross the border to destroy the Nationalist troops in Burma according to the personal direction of Zhou Enlai. The political implication of the campaign was especially emphasised and failure was not an option. The communist force would be mainly deployed in Mengma (孟马; 孟馬), Mengwa (孟瓦) and Sandao (三岛; 三島) regions. The communists intended to avoid scattering the enemy, but instead, completely annihilating the enemy by first cutting off the retreating route of the nationalists after a surprise attack. Restrictions on the communist actions were also implemented: for example, if the nationalists were to retreat toward Burma-Laos-Thailand border, communists could not give a chase on their own and must be coordinated with Burmese government first, just as in any situation that would occur unexpectedly. The local civilian casualties should be avoided at all costs. After receiving the order, the communist Kunming Military Region decided to mobilise five infantry regiments and militias totalling over 6,500 for the campaign, including a regiment from the 39th Division of the 13th Army, a regiment of the 40th Division of the 14th Army, and three border defence regiments. To better coordinate their actions in Burma, communists formed a frontline command at Fohai (佛海) in early November 1960. Li Xifu (黎锡福), the commander-in-chief of the communist Yunnan Provincial Military Region was named as the commander-in-chief of the new frontline command. Ding Rongchang (丁荣昌), the deputy commander-in-chief of the communist Yunnan Provincial Military Region, and Cui Jiangong (崔建功), the deputy commander of the communist 13th Army, were named as the deputy commanders-in-chief of the new frontline command.
Order of Battle
The surviving nationalist force at the China-Burma border reached its peak in the early 1960s, totalling almost ten thousand troops, excluding their non-combatant family members. The nationalist force was divided into five armies which were each responsible for an area. There were also Ximeng (西盟) Military Region and Mengbailiao (孟白了) Garrison Region in addition to the five areas of responsibility of the five armies. Communists mobilised sixty-five hundred troops, out of which forty-five hundred were deployed during the campaign.
Nationalist Order of Battle
- Yunnan People’s Anti-communist Volunteer Army (commander-in-chief: Liu Yuanlin, 柳元麟):
- 1st Army headquartered at Mengwa (孟瓦), commanded by Wu Yunnuan (吳運暖).
- 2nd Army headquartered at Suoyong (索永), commanded by Wu Zubo (吳祖柏).
- 3rd Army headquartered at Laidong (萊東), commanded by Li Wenhuan (李文煥).
- 4th Army headquartered at Mengma (孟馬), commanded by Zhang Weicheng (張偉成).
- 5th Army headquartered at Menglong (孟隆), commanded by Duan Xiwen (段希文).
Communist Order of Battle
- 117th Regiment of the 39th Division of the 13th Army.
- 118th Regiment of the 40th Division of the 14th Army.
- 116th Regiment.
- 9th Border Defence Regiment of Yunnan Simao Military Sub-region.
- 10th Border Defence Regiment of Yunnan Simao Military Sub-region.
- 11th Border Defence Regiment of Yunnan Simao Military Sub-region.
- Militia units.
Both sides had been limited by various factors. The nationalists, due to their low numbers, adopted the strategy to avoid fighting any large scale battles, but instead, concentrated on keeping their own strength, so that in the event of communist offensive, they would quickly withdraw away from the China-Burma border. The communists, on the other hand, was bounded by the redline that limited their actions, which eventually resulted in the successful escape of nationalists to the Laos-Thailand border keeping most of their strength.
The nationalist frontline bordering China was 300 km long and 20 km deep and was the main target of the communist offensive. There were a total of 22 nationalist strongholds in the region, including the headquarters of the nationalist 1st Army and 4th Army, 2nd Division, 3rd Division, 5th Division, 6th Division, eight regimental headquarters, eight guerrilla strike teams. The nationalist strength in the region totalled more than 800 troops and was divided into three lines of defence. The first line of defence was manned by the nationalist 1st Army and its 3rd Division totalling over 150 troops, stationed in strongholds including Mengwa (孟瓦), Mengyu (孟育), Mengjing (孟景), and Jingkang (景康), and with the exception of Jingkang (景康), all of the nationalist strongholds in their first line of defence faced the Southern Luo (洛) River and with hilly forest in the back, and all of the roads and trails to and from China was heavily mined. The nationalist 4th Army deployed to the south and east of Mengyong (孟勇) was the backbone of the nationalist 2nd line of defence, and its 35th Regiment totalling over 200 was stationed at the critical peak 1404. The Mengbailiao (孟白了) and Jiangle (江拉) regions were the nationalist 3rd line of defence, with the general headquarters of the nationalist commander-in-chief Liu Yuanlin (柳元麟) setup in Mengbailiao (孟白了), with the training group, garrison regiment and communication battalion totalling over 450 troops. Jiangle (江拉) region was the nationalist logistic headquarters totalling over 200 troops, including the 1st Training Group.
Communists divided the combat zone into smaller individual areas and planned to cut off the retreating routes of the nationalists. The 117th Regiment and a portion of the 116th Regiment of the 39th Division of the Communist 13th Army were tasked to destroy the headquarters of the nationalist 4th Army at Mengma (孟马), the nationalist 6th Division, 2nd Division, 5th Regiment, 17th Regiment and 4 guerrilla strike teams totalling 439 troops. In reality, the communists overestimated the nationalist strength, which only totalled 334 troops. The 118th Regiment of the 40th Division of the communist 14th Army was tasked to destroy the headquarters of the nationalist 1st Army at Mengwa (孟瓦), garrison battalion, headquarters of the nationalist 3rd Division, the 8th Regiment, the 9th Regiment, and a guerrilla strike team totalling 265 troops. Once again, the communists overestimated the nationalist strength, which only totalled 156 troops.
The 11th Border Defence Regiment of communist Yunnan Simao Military Sub-region was tasked to destroy the nationalist 7th Regiment and a guerrilla strike team totalling 59 troops, but the communist intelligence had underestimated the nationalist strength, which totalled 81 troops. The 9th and 10th Border Defence Regiments of communist Yunnan Simao Military Sub-region were tasked to destroy the headquarters of the nationalist 5th Division at Barbarians’ Nest (Manwo, 蛮窝; 蠻窩), the 14th Regiment, the 1st Regiment and two guerrilla strike teams totalling 159 troops. Once again, the communist intelligence had underestimated the nationalist strength which actually totalled 171 troops. The communists mobilised a total of 6639 troops of their own, though not all of them had crossed the border. The communists divided their forces into 22 routes and would attack in the early morning of 22 November 1960 by crossing the border.
The communist 2nd Company of the 9th Regiment of Border Defence and the 2nd Company of the 10th Regiment of Border Defence were tasked to attack nationalist strongholds at Man’enai (曼俄乃), and reached their target by 5:00 am on 22 November 1960. However, the numerically inferior nationalist troops had just learned about the upcoming attack and retreated, abandoning the stronghold. The Communist’s main force immediately sent out four companies to chase the retreating nationalists and caught up with them around ten kilometres south of the stronghold. After ensuing battles that included mop-up operations, thirty-three nationalist troops including Li Tai (李泰), the commander of the nationalist 5th Division were killed, marking the destruction of the nationalist garrison of Man’enai (曼俄乃) stronghold. Meanwhile, the communist force consisted of the 117th infantry regiment under the command of Yan Shouqing (阎守庆), the deputy commander of the 39th Division, and the 118th infantry regiment under the command of Zhao Shiying (赵世英), the commander of the 40th Division, and the 1st Battalion of the 116th infantry regiment attacked nationalist positions in Mengwa (孟瓦), and Mengma (孟马). The numerically inferior nationalist force at these positions were no match with an enemy that enjoyed overwhelmingly superior numbers and firepower, and the communist 117th infantry regiment succeeded in completely wiping out a sixty-member strong nationalist battalion at the Tabanmai (踏板卖) stronghold and the sixty-two member strong nationalist battalion of the 7th Regiment at Mengxie (孟歇) stronghold. Major General Meng Baoye (蒙宝业; 蒙寶業) and Colonel Meng Xian (蒙显; 蒙顯), the commander and deputy commander of the nationalist 2nd Division, were both killed in action. Communist 118th infantry regiment meanwhile attacked nationalist positions at Mengwa (孟瓦), Jingkang (景康), Mengyu (孟育) and Mengjing (孟景), succeeding in killing over a hundred nationalist troops and capturing Colonel Ye Wenqiang (叶文强), the deputy commander of the nationalist 3rd Division.
After several hours of fierce battle, the headquarters of some nationalist forces were destroyed. However, due to the complete lack of experience in jungle warfare in the mountainous region, half of the six communist task forces assigned to outflank the targets failed to reach their destination on time. As a result, communists only managed to annihilate nationalist forces at six targets out of the original sixteen, with the nationalist forces at the rest ten slipped away. The subsequent mop-up operation ended on 20 December 1960, marking the end of the first stage of the campaign, succeeding in killing a total of 467 nationalist troops in the region bounded by the redline, or only 53.4% of the original target set by the communists. After the operation, the Burmese government asked the communist force to stay in Burma to guard the local region against possible nationalist counterattacks, and Zhou Enlai, the Chinese premier, agreed and ordered the Chinese communist troops to stay until the demarcation was completed.
After the first stage of the campaign had concluded, the surviving nationalists decided that their strength was no match with superior communist force and it was best to avoid confrontation with the enemy to conserve their strength. Instead, nationalists would gain new territories from the Burmese government by attack Burmese troops to make up the territory lost to the communists in the first stage of the campaign. Burmese troops could not check the nationalist advance and in the evening of 18 January 1961, Burmese liaison officers asked Chinese communists for help on the order given by their government. Communists decided to mobilise over 5,800 troops to launch the second stage of the campaign in late January to attack nationalists beyond the redline. The communists and the Burmese government reached a deal to allow the communist force to operate another 50 km further beyond the redline to engage the three thousand nationalist troops in Suoyong (索永) and Mengbailiao (孟白了) regions. To better coordinate their actions, communists established their frontline headquarters in Fohai (佛海), with the deputy commander Cui Jiangong (崔建功) of the 13th Army as the commander, chief-of-staff Liang Zhongyu (梁中玉) of the 14th Army and deputy director of the political directorate Duan Siying (段思英) as deputy commanders.
Communist 117th Regiment leading the 2,966 strong attacking force was tasked to attack the surviving units of the nationalist 4th Army, the 2nd Division, the 9th Division, the 10th Division, the 11th Division, the 7th Group of the Training Column, the Heavy Weaponry Group totalling over 1,200. Another communist force consisted of the 10th Regiment and the 11th Regiment of the Border Defence of Simao Military Sub-region totalled 1,420 was tasked to attack the surviving nationalist forces totalling more than 680, including surviving forces of the nationalist general headquarters in Suoyong (索永), the headquarters of the 2nd Army in Baka (八卡), the headquarters of 1st Army at Daling (大棱) River Crossing point, the 3rd Division, the 8th Division, and Zhongka (中卡) Squadron. The largest communist force totalling 3,012 headed by the communist 118th Regiment was tasked to attack the surviving units of nationalist totalling over 1,200, including those from southern frontline command headquarters, garrison regiment, Training Column (without its 7th Group), 2nd Group of the Training Column, 35th Regiment of the 3rd Army, and Officer Training Regiment.
On 25 January 1961, all communist units began their assault by crossing the redline, and attacking the regions to the north and west of the Mekong River. Nationalist commander-in-chief Liu Yuanlin (柳元麟) realised the communist objective and immediately ordered a general retreat toward Burma–Laos border on the very same night under the cover of darkness, abandoning the base they had controlled for more than a decade. By the next day, nationalist strongholds including Baxili, (巴西里), Suoyong (索永), and Mengbailiao (孟白了) fell into the communist hands, and the nationalist rear-guards in charge of covering the retreat of the main force were destroyed. The communist force subsequently performed search and destroy operations to exterminate the surviving nationalists in the newly taken region, and succeeded in killing the nationalist Colonel Li Zixiong (李自雄), the director of the political directorate, and Colonel Bai Xianglin (白湘麟), a regimental commander. However, due to numerous problems, except for the communist force of Simao Military Sub-region which reached Baxili, (巴西里), its planned destination on time, all other communist forces failed to reach their planned destination on time, resulting in only killing 274 nationalist troops. In addition to successfully escaping to their new destination several hundred kilometres away in the border region of Burma-Laos-Thailand, the retreating nationalists also successfully managed to carry most of the equipment, supply and wounded with them in their escape. On 09 February 1961, the second stage concluded when all communist units withdrew back to China, marking the end of the campaign.
The communists succeeded in driving the nationalists from their base they held for more than a decade, thus returning the control of an area above thirty thousand square kilometres with population over a hundred thousand to Burmese government. However, the campaign also revealed serious and huge shortcomings of the communist troop in jungle warfare, and due to these problems revealed later in the communist post-war analysis, most of the retreating nationalists were able to successfully escape to Laos-Thailand border several hundred kilometres away, and forming the new base that survived until this day. For the nationalists, despite losing their thirty thousand square kilometres sized base with a population of over a hundred thousand they had held for more than a decade, they nonetheless managed to retain most of their troops (around 90%) and equipment to successfully escape and establish new bases in the new area. However, the new area was far less fertile than the land in their original base they had lost, and this forced the nationalists in the new base to be increasingly dependent on opium production and trade, and most of their area of control eventually became part of the infamous Golden Triangle.
Aftermath and Legacy
The opportunity to fight a campaign in an unfamiliar terrain and environment exposed the communists to many problems that were nearly impossible to detect during peacetime. The communists concluded that the fighting capability of their troops had significantly decreased just merely a decade after the nationalists had been driven from mainland China. Furthermore, the old experience that helped them to secure the victory over the nationalists in mainland China was completely ill-suited for the modern jungle warfare and many problems urgently needed to be addressed, including:
|The Complete Lack of Understanding of the Local Environment||There were numerous rivers, valleys, steep slopes, high mountain peaks in the rugged terrain, while the roads were nearly non-existent. The jungle was dense and the local area was infected with disease. These factors were overlooked in the communist planning which was based on much easier mountainous terrain in China. As a result, none of the communist units were able to reach their destination on time during the first stage, while during the second stage, the average speed the communist force achieved in the jungle was only 300 metre per hour.|
|Inability to Cross Rivers Rapidly||The only training hastily put together was some swimming lessons for the troops, which proved to be far less adequate than what was needed. The slow speed of river cross was a major factor that prevented communist sieges which were supposed to encircle the nationalists, but could not form in time and thus allowing the retreating nationalist troops to escape successfully.|
|Application of Outdated Experience||Officers of the World War II and Chinese Civil War era applied their past guerrilla experience to the modern conventional jungle warfare which prevented communists from achieving their goals. For example, not only the communist force lacked maps of the local region, many commanders did not know how to read modern maps when they were available. As a result, troops were completely lost in the jungle after travelling only a short distance from the border, and the earlier battle experience they had (from a decade ago) was not helpful to remedy the experience gaps of jungle warfare.|
|Disorganised Formation||Many officers were hastily sent to units they had never seen and thus didn’t know the true strength and weakness of the units they commanded in the campaign. As a result, some orders were simply beyond the unit’s ability to achieve while other orders restricted the full combat potential of the units.|
|Lack of Necessary Equipment Needed for Jungle Warfare||The standard Soviet-type gear was completely ill-suited for jungle warfare and there was the need to deploy new equipment including for river crossing, road building and medical gear for jungle warfare, but such equipment did not exist. This was the primary cause that non-combat casualties were several times higher than combat casualties.|
|Poor Tactics||Most tactics devised by the staff officers were derived from mountainous warfare tactics developed in the arid region in China, which proved to be inadequate in the humid jungle warfare. Combined with the lack of equipment, the knowledge of the enemy was poor if not non-existent, resulting in miscommunications such as overestimation of enemy strength.|
|Inability to Take Initiatives||Due to the relative peacetime after the war, some officers lost their original tenacity and ability to take initiatives: when encountering the enemy force, these officers took much more prudent approach of securing their own position first and wait for reinforcement instead of promptly attacking the enemy. However, most of the supposed formidable enemy strength turned out to be exaggerated due to miscommunications, lack of equipment, and poor tactics mentioned above. In fact, there were occasions where the commanders refused to follow the order to pursue the retreating enemy after the order was given twice, believing the erroneous intelligence that greatly exaggerated the enemy strength.|
The communists were shocked by the shortcomings exposed in the campaign. The deputy chief-of-staff and the future Chinese defence minister in the 1980s, Zhang Aiping, and the commander-in-chief of Kunming Military Region and the future Chinese defence minister in the 1990s, Qin Jiwei (秦基伟), were sent to lead a team to establish new training and tactics based on the experience gained in the campaign to correct the problem. As a result, the military of both the Kunming Military Region and Guangzhou Military Region was drastically upgraded and improved in a very short time after massive efforts were implemented. The improvements later proved to be vital when Chinese troops were deployed to North Vietnam and Laos during the Chinese involvement in the Vietnam War.