Key point: The Type 59 was an important step for China's domestic tank industry and became a mainstay for its ally North Korea.
While the United States, Germany, and the Soviet Union all maintained robust tank development programs during the Cold War, China lagged behind significantly until the very end. For the majority of the Cold War, China’s primary front line tank was the Type 59, a variant of the T-54 first built on license from the Soviet Union. But how did this old workhorse evolve? Who still uses them today?
The story of the Type 59 begins in the 1950s. The People’s Republic of China got involved in the Korean War and began acquiring tanks from the Soviet Union under the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty. The majority of armored fighting vehicles coming in at this time were from the WWII era: IS-2s, T-34/85s and various assault guns. Outdated, but still effective for the time period.
This was not good enough, as logically China wanted to have its own tank production capability, as well as more modern tanks. In 1955 they received their first T-54s and T-54As, however, the Chinese military leadership negotiated with the Soviets to acquire blueprints and assembly know-how.
China’s first tank factory, Inner Mongolian Machinery Factory No. 617, was set up in 1956 with Soviet assistance. It produced its first T-54A in 1958 with Soviet parts. The Chinese-built T-54A design was officially adopted into PLA service in 1959, hence the name Type 59.
The basic Type 59 served for almost two decades with very little modification. It was provided to Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and it later fought Vietnam during the Sino-Vietnamese was in 1979. That experience lead China to take a hard look at its tank fleet and procure upgrades. China attempted to create some more modern tanks based off the Type 59 such as the Type 69 (following the Chinese capture and reverse engineering of a Soviet T-62 captured during the 1969 Sino-Soviet border skirmish), but these tanks did not see wide service until later.