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Paracel (Xisha) Islands - 1974

China and Vietnam have clashed militarily on three occasions: in 1974 Chinese troops ejected South Vietnamese forces from the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea; in 1979 the Chinese army launched a punitive attack into northern Vietnam in response to Hanoi's invasion of Cambodia; and in 1988 Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces clashed in the South China Sea over the disputed Spratly Islands. Since then, diplomatic relations have been normalized, but tensions over the South China Sea remain high.

Vietnamese claims are based on history and the continental shelf principle. Vietnam claims the entire Spratly Islands (Truong Sa in Vietnamese) as an offshore district of the province of Khanh Hoa. Vietnamese claims also cover an extensive area of the South China Sea, although they are not clearly defined. In addition, Vietnam claims the Paracel Islands (the Hoang Sa in Vietnamese), although they were seized by the Chinese in 1974. The Vietnamese have followed the Chinese example of using archaeological evidence to bolster sovereignty claims. In the 1930's, France claimed the Spratly and Paracel Islands onbehalf of its then-colony Vietnam. Vietnam has since occupied 20 of the Spratly Islands to enforce its claims.

In the 19th and early 20th century, China asserted claims to the the Paracel (Xisha) Islands and Spratly (Nansha) Islands. During World War II, the islands were claimed by the Japanese. In 1947, Chinaproduced a map with 9 undefined dotted lines, and claimed all of the islands within those lines. A 1992 Chinese law restated its claims in the region. In May 1996 China issued a "Declaration on the Baselines of the Territorial Sea" which established straight baselines for most of the Chinese coastline and the Paracel Islands. Vietnam also claims the Paracel Islands, and protested this and other Chinese claims to the UN in June 1996. These straight baseline claims are not recognized by the US, which protested the claim in 1996 and conducted operational assertion in 1997.

The clash in the Paracels in 1974 was ostensibly precipitated by a bold and all-encompassing claim to the Spratly Islands by South Vietnam in September 1973. Saigon consolidated its authority over the Spratlys by incorporating the Islands into the administrative system of the Republic, and then sent hundreds of troops to Spratly and Namyit Island, two of the largest islands in the Spratlys archipelago. Four months after the formal annexation, China denounced Vietnam's decree as a "wanton infringement of China's territorial integrity and sovereignty," and formally reasserted its claim over all the islands and resources of the South China Sea. In early January 1974 Beijing threatened Saigon with military action if its forces were not withdrawn from the Spratlys.

From 11-15 January 1974, Chinese forces underscored its en toto claim by planting flags on several islands in the western Crescent Group of the Paracels, which were lightly defended by Republic of Vietnam (RVN) troops. In response, Vietnam naval units were ordered to the Paracels to reinforce RVN holdings there. Claiming RVN naval units harassed and killed Chinese fishermen-militia working in the area, China also dispatched a naval task force to the area. Over the next four days, RVN naval units operating around the five main islands in the Crescent Group became increasingly hostile to Chinese vessels in the area. Vietnamese frigates repeatedly attempted to muscle Chinese vessels out of the area and even tried to ram one Chinese fishing boat on 16 January.

On January 19, People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops landed on Duncan Island and forced a small RVN contingent to withdraw. This skirmish rapidly escalated into a naval engagement as RVN combatants became more desperate to repel the Chinese. An hour after RVN troops were repulsed from Duncan Island, an RVN frigate reportedly tried to ram a Chinese minesweeper. Two hours later, all four South Vietnamese ships opened fire on the PLAN units in the area. During the ensuing fracas an RVN escort ship (probably a corvette) was sunk and the three Vietnamese frigates were damaged. Chinese losses included one heavily damaged minesweeper and a slightly damaged subchaser. The day after the naval skirmish, PLA Navy (PLAN) units delivered hundreds of PLA soldiers to the islands. These landings were coordinated with strikes by Hainan-based MiG fighter-bombers, against which RVN forces had little defense. The small RVN garrisons were quickly overcome and soon the PLA secured the entire archipelago for China.

From a tactical perspective, the outcome should have been predictable. The Paracels operation was authorized by chairman of the Chinese Central Military Commission and the Premier. The Minister of Defense and Deng Xiaoping personally supervised the operation. These men had at their disposal all the resources of the three fleets and naval aviation wings. The tactical initiative lay with the PLA. In fact, a close examination of the fighting and manner of employment of Chinese naval and air units suggests the Chinese were unprepared for an engagement with the Vietnamese task force. The Chinese appeared to suffer from a lack of coordination and an inability to respond to contingencies. Though command and control was maintained by the Canton Military Region Headquarters, which reportedly had a trained battle operations staff, naval infantry units disguised as fishermen were conducting reconnaissance and participating in firefights without adequate reinforcements. The only Chinese naval units in the region were a few small, lightly armed combatants and auxiliaries (the total displacement tonnage of the four PLAN units was less than one Vietnamese frigate).

Despite the escalatory nature of the conflict in which the Chinese literally had days to respond to growing Vietnamese agitation, larger and more capable naval units were not deployed to the region. The Chinese did not even launch Chinese attack aircraft to assist the PLAN minesweepers and subchasers under attack on 19 January, even though the naval engagement lasted over an hour and a half. Although the PLAN sent two Chinese fishing boats to the Crescent Group to act as bait to entice the South Vietnamese to fire the first shot, the Chinese probably expected the Vietnamese to fold early and quickly relinquish their tenuous grip on the islands before a clash would escalate. Indeed, the apparent lack of coordination on the Chinese side may be rooted in assumptions made in Beijing that China could coerce Vietnam to abandon its positions without a major fight. In fact, available evidence indicates Beijing regarded the Paracels as a political fight and issued orders to the PLA to "adhere to struggle by persuasion and never to fire the first shot." The Chinese probably were surprised by the strong Vietnamese reaction because they had planned on fighting the battle mainly on a political front.

Still, the PLA recovered sufficiently from their malaise to muster enough air and naval strength to sweep through the Crescent Group the day after the naval clash. Air power and naval gunfire was used to suppress defenses in landing zones, utilizing lessons learned from previous amphibious operations against Hainan and Quemoy in 1949-50, Yikiangshan and the Tachens in 1954-55 and Quemoy again in 1958. The initial contingent of subchasers and minesweepers finally was augmented by as many as five destroyers and frigates.

China also decided to exploit its clear advantage in the air. Airbases on Hainan were not only closer to the Paracels, but a Chinese radar site capable of providing early warning was established on Woody Island. Hainan-based fighter-bombers (possibly MiG-21 FISHBEDs) had enough fuel to perform multiple target runs before returning to base. Almost all of Vietnam's F-5 fighters, on the other hand, were based far afield at Tan Son Nhut airfield near Saigon. None of Vietnam's air force fighter pilots had seen air-to-air combat and few had any experience working with the controllers at the Tactical Air Control Center North, outside Danang, which would have directed the fighters. The skies over the Paracels went uncontested, allowing the PLA to land troops in a virtually hostile-free environment.

In the final analysis, the PLA showed that it could successfully execute a combined arms operation. Though it was initially unprepared for stiff Vietnamese resistance, it recovered in time to apply maximum force against an objective far from the Chinese mainland and achieve a victory for the motherland.




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