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With U.S. troops gone from South Vietnam, China made a move at sea in 1974, and the ripple effects are still being felt.

On Jan. 11, 1974, South Vietnamese officials received reports of Chinese activity on two of their islands in the Paracel Island chain. Two days later, naval headquarters ordered frigates Lý Thường Kiệt HQ-16 and Trần Khánh Dư HQ-4 to investigate.

HQ-16 arrived off Robert Island on Jan. 16 and found it occupied by Chinese “fishermen” from two boats anchored offshore. The ship’s commander ordered the Chinese to depart and fired warnings shots to make sure they understood his intentions. He then shelled and destroyed the Chinese flags and a fish-processing site the supposed fishermen had placed there six days earlier. HQ-4 arrived Jan. 17 and put a 40-man South Vietnamese SEAL unit on Robert Island and nearby Money Island to remove the Chinese flags. On Jan. 18, the two frigates rammed a Chinese fishing trawler, No. 407, forcing the heavily damaged craft to leave the area. South Vietnamese frigate Trần Bình Trọng HQ-5 and minesweeper Nhật Tảo HQ-10 arrived later.

Saigon believed it had blocked Beijing’s latest attempt in a six-month intimidation campaign to take the western half of the Paracel chain. Armed Chinese fisherman had all but driven South Vietnamese fishermen from the area, and at least two Chinese fishing boats had been caught operating in waters claimed by South Vietnam. The latest Chinese activity, however, was the start of a new phase in an effort to seize all of the Paracels. This time the “fishermen” were members of the People’s Maritime Militia, a paramilitary arm of the Chinese navy.

The two fishing boats off Robert Island reported to China’s South Sea Fleet headquarters. On Jan. 16, the fleet ordered two Hainan Island-based Kronstadt-class subchasers to rush Maritime Militia to the scene, officially to protect fisherman but more likely as part of a force buildup. China also ordered the deployment of two ocean-going minesweepers. Beijing had decided to solve the Paracel Islands territorial dispute by force if the opportunity presented itself.

A poster leaves no doubt about Vietnam’s position on the Paracels.

The Paracel Archipelago consists of 130 coral islands, reefs and banks distributed across 5,800 squares miles of maritime area almost equidistant from China’s Hainan Island (162 nautical miles) and Vietnam’s port of Da Nang (200 nautical miles). The total land area is about 3 square miles. Most of the islands are grouped in the northeast Amphitrite Group or the western Crescent Group, which are separated by 39 nautical miles. The Amphitrite Group’s Woody Island, about 530 acres, is the largest of the Paracel islets.

Although both Vietnam and China trace their claims on the Paracel Islands to long-ago imperial dynasties, the roots of the modern Sino-South Vietnamese dispute lie in the 1930s and France’s colonial ambitions. France, a colonial power in Vietnam since 1858, established its claim on the Paracels and the nearby Spratly Islands in 1932 but wasn’t initially concerned about actually occupying them. That changed in 1937 as Japan’s war with China—started in 1931 with Japan’s seizure of Manchuria—escalated when the Japanese pushed farther into China. The French, concerned that either China or Japan might seize the islands, put a Franco-Vietnamese garrison of about 100 men on Woody Island in 1938 as a buffer to extend the defensive perimeter of France’s Indochina colonies.

British authorities encouraged the French move because it also extended the defense perimeter of Britain’s Malaya colony. Both nations believed Japan’s war with China was merely a preliminary step toward seizure of European colonies in Southeast Asia. But instead of deterring a Japanese move into the South China Sea, the French occupation of the Paracels provoked Japan, which landed a small naval infantry unit on Woody Island in 1938 just months after the French occupation. The French garrison surrendered without a fight. Japan annexed the Paracel and Spratly islands in 1941, claiming they were part of Japanese-occupied Taiwan.

After the U.S. atomic bomb drops on Aug. 6 and 9, 1945, Japan started removing its forces from the islands, completing the withdrawal by the end of August. The Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang government occupied the Amphitrite Group two months later and put a garrison on Woody Island in January 1946. France, after failing to drive the Nationalist Chinese from the Amphitrite Group in a naval show of force, laid claim to the Crescent Group and landed a Foreign Legion platoon on the group’s Pattle Island to deter Chinese occupation.

The Nationalist Chinese government reiterated its claim to the entire South China Sea in 1947, issuing a map that placed its territorial claims inside a “nine-dash line” on the outer edge of the sea. In 1949, Communist Chinese forces drove the Nationalist Chinese government to Taiwan. Japan relinquished its claims to all South China Sea islands at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference but did not surrender its control specifically to any other claimant, leaving the islands’ ownership unresolved. The Communist People’s Republic of China assumed the Nationalist government’s South China Sea claims as its own.

South Vietnam, however, occupied the Crescent Group in 1954 and placed a small garrison on three islands. Communist China took possession of the Amphitrite Group and Woody Island in 1956. Chinese fishermen landed on the Crescent Group’s Duncan Island in 1959, but the South Vietnamese government evicted them.

As the fighting in the Vietnam War escalated, Saigon—confident of American naval support—withdrew its island garrisons. By 1967, the South Vietnamese presence had been reduced to a single weather service station. China seemed to accept the status quo.

Two developments in the 1970s changed the dynamics in the South China Sea. Reports of potential oil deposits in the region surfaced in mid-1972, and the Paris Peace Accords of January 1973 ended U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. Asian leaders suddenly saw the South China Sea disputes as not just a political and administrative matter but also as an economic development issue. Mao Zedong’s inner circle calculated that the probable economic rewards outweighed the risks of a possible military confrontation. Moreover, those risks were diminishing.

Mao recognized that an American government withdrawing from South Vietnam lacked the will to risk another conflict and wanted China’s support against an increasingly assertive Soviet Union. The Chinese leader concluded that the Saigon regime had little prospect of U.S. support and its days were numbered. His inner circle also knew that North Vietnam still needed Chinese assistance in its drive to conquer the South, and Hanoi’s other ally, the Soviet Union, did not have forces on the scene to interfere with China’s actions in the islands. Mao ordered a series of steps to pressure South Vietnam to abandon the Paracels.

Oblivious to Beijing’s intentions, Saigon declared its administrative control over the Crescent Group in August 1973 and one month later authorized contracts to explore the surrounding waters for oil. The first incursions of the Chinese fishing fleet had occurred in late July. Many of the “fishermen” were armed, and at least one of the boats had improvised armor, but they retreated whenever South Vietnamese naval units arrived. Saigon placed small platoon-strength garrisons on three of the islands.

In October, Chinese fishing trawlers 402 and 407 landed crewmen on Duncan Island, establishing a supply point with shelters and planting Chinese flags around the island. South Vietnam seized several Chinese fishing boats in November and arrested their crews. The men were taken to Da Nang where they made televised confessions of wrongdoing and crimes against the Vietnamese people before being released. But Chinese fishing boat attacks on South Vietnamese fishermen continued. Meanwhile, Mao had ordered his navy to prepare for military actions in support of China’s fishermen.

On Jan. 10, 1974, a group of those fishermen had begun to process their catch on Robert Island in the Crescent Group. The fishermen themselves had been seen three days earlier by South Vietnamese fishing craft that fled the scene but couldn’t make contact with South Vietnamese authorities until the crew reached Da Nang on Jan. 11. Beijing issued a statement the same day reiterating its indisputable sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands as well as Macclesfield Bank, a submerged atoll about 70 nautical miles east of the Paracels.

Recognizing the implications, Saigon dispatched frigates HQ-16, HQ-4, HQ-5 and the SEAL-carrying minesweeper HQ-10 to Robert Island. Two of the frigates were converted World War II seaplane tenders with the seaplane-support equipment removed, and the third was a converted destroyer escort. All were in poor condition, suffering a variety of engineering and weapons problems that limited their speed and firepower.

After their arrival on Jan. 16, the South Vietnamese vessels quickly drove off the Chinese fishermen. Trawler 407 reported HQ-16’s arrival to the Maritime Militia headquarters in Yulin on Hainan Island the morning of the 16th. The message reached Beijing a few hours later.

That evening, the Chinese navy’s South Sea Fleet sent two Kronstadt-class subchasers, 271 and 274, to pick up a Maritime Militia company of four 10-man “platoons” on Woody Island and take them to the Crescent Group. Beijing tried to rush reinforcements to the scene, but like their South Vietnamese counterparts, the Chinese navy’s warships were in bad shape.

China’s Cultural Revolution, a purge of anti-socialist influences and Mao’s opponents, had all but demolished the country’s shipyards. More than 2 million scientists, engineers, educators, skilled workers and administrators were imprisoned or killed, including those who built and maintained the country’s ships and the rail systems that delivered material to the shipyards.

Consequently, the Chinese navy’s best warships, the Type 065 destroyers, were unable to get underway at all. The 271 was fresh out of the yards and had to yet to finish its sea trials, while the 274’s diesel engines’ poor condition precluded speeds above 18 knots. Still, they were faster and better armed than the South Vietnamese vessels. Two Shenyang J-6 fighter planes (Chinese copies of the Soviet MiG-19) provided air cover for the subchasers but lacked the range to remain overhead after the ships arrived on scene the evening of Jan. 17.

At dawn on Jan. 18, the Chinese ships landed one Maritime Militia platoon on Drummond Island, another on Palm Island and two platoons on Duncan Island. Those troops spent the day digging in and placing mines and booby traps in front of their positions. Two Guangzhou-based Type 10 ocean minesweepers, 389 and 396, were ordered to reinforce Kronstadt subchasers 271 and 274. They arrived late in the morning.

China’s only other operational warships, two Hainan-class subchasers, had to deploy from Shantou, more than 476 nautical miles away. They sped toward the Paracels at top speed, refueling in Zhajiang, south of Hong Kong, and in Yulin. The Chinese ships were instructed to support the Maritime Militia trawlers with the following rules of engagement: Don’t stir up trouble. Don’t fire the first shot. But if combat erupts, win it.

In the early morning of Jan. 19, the flotilla leader organized his ships into two groups—four in the forward group, led by the Kronstadt subchasers, and the rear group, formed of the Hainan-class subchasers, once they arrived. He was ordered to respond to any threat to the militia fishing trawlers and support the fishermen on the islands if required.

The South Vietnamese also organized into two groups. The first consisted of frigates HQ-4 and HQ-5. They circled around Money and Antelope islands from the south and approached Duncan Island. The second group, minesweeper HQ-10 and frigate HQ-16, cut across the Crescent Group lagoon from the northwest.

The two Chinese Kronstadt subchasers positioned themselves to monitor the HQ-4 and HQ-5, while the Type 10 minesweepers shadowed HQ-10 and HQ-16. The captain of the HQ-16, seeing what he believed to be an opening, accelerated past the Chinese minesweepers, and 14 South Vietnamese SEALs were launched in two rubber boats to retake Duncan and Palm islands. HQ-16 rammed and heavily damaged minesweeper 389, whose crewmen fired their small arms at HQ-16’s bridge and forward gun mount, killing or wounding most of the sailors there. The fighting that followed went almost entirely China’s way.

The SEALs, with their intended naval support now entirely engaged against the Chinese ships, went ashore in daylight to face the larger, dug-in enemy on both Duncan and Palm islands. They were quickly repelled. The SEALs withdrew to their boats under heavy fire as the South Vietnamese naval units formed a line abreast and advanced toward the Chinese formation, firing on the enemy’s pilot houses and maneuvering to turn the engagement into a battle of long-range guns. Unfortunately for the South Vietnamese, their lack of speed meant the faster Chinese ships would get to determine the range at which the battle would be fought, and the Chinese flotilla leader ordered, “Speed forward, fight close and hit hard.” Knowing his ships were ill-equipped and outgunned for a long-range duel, he had decided to employ “knife fight” tactics. Within 10 minutes the combat, which had been taking place at a range 2 to 3 miles, dropped to just a few hundred yards.

The Kronstadt subchasers concentrated their fire on HQ-4, while the Type 10 minesweepers focused their 37 mm cannon fire on HQ-16, targeting the pilot house, combat information center and radars. Heavily damaged, HQ-16 withdrew. The minesweepers then shifted fire to HQ-10, striking its aft magazine. The resultant explosion crippled the ship’s forward engineering plant.

The minesweepers got within 10 yards of HQ-10, and by then the South Vietnamese ship’s remaining cannons could not engage the lower-lying, smaller enemy vessels that were moving in close to the hull. The Chinese crews raked the main deck and pilot house with small-arms fire, killing the ship’s captain and most of the navigation team.

The battered HQ-16 tried to come to HQ-10’s aid but was driven off by Chinese fire. It retreated to the southeast as HQ-4 and HQ-5 withdrew to the south. China’s two Hainan-class subchasers arrived shortly after noon on Jan. 19 and opened fire on the HQ-10, sinking it by 1 p.m.

Meanwhile, Beijing was worried that Saigon might dispatch reinforcements to South Vietnam’s remaining garrisons, containing a pair of infantry platoons on Robert, Pattle and Money islands and the surviving SEALs. China’s South Sea Fleet scrambled, putting together a patchwork force of all units that could get underway: a frigate, five torpedo boats and eight small patrol boats. Organized into three amphibious transport flotillas, the ships boarded nearly 500 troops in three infantry companies, a people’s militia company and an armed reconnaissance group.

The flotilla deployed in the order its ships could get underway. The first flotilla consisted of four patrol boats and Maritime Militia trawlers 402 and 407, carrying a single 100-man infantry company. The second flotilla carried one infantry company and an amphibious reconnaissance team spread out on four patrol craft and minesweeper 389. The frigate Nanning, a former Japanese destroyer escort, constituted the third flotilla with one infantry company aboard and was designated the command ship for the operation.

The first flotilla assaulted Robert Island, shelling the defenders to drive them away from the beach and then landed the infantry using rubber boats and sampans. The island fell in about 10 minutes. The second flotilla attacked Pattle Island, driving its 30 defenders toward the center of the island where they surrendered after an hour of fighting. In the Pattle Island battle, the Chinese also captured the major commanding South Vietnam’s garrisons in the Paracels and an American adviser from the U.S. Embassy. The SEALs on Money Island abandoned their positions before the Chinese navy initiated its assault and avoided capture for several days.

By late evening Jan. 20, all of the Paracel Archipelago was in Chinese hands. More than 100 South Vietnamese had been killed or wounded, and 48 South Vietnamese soldiers and an American liaison officer were captured, compared with 18 Chinese dead and 67 wounded.

It was an overwhelming victory for the Chinese navy: One South Vietnamese minesweeper sunk and three frigates heavily damaged versus two Chinese subchasers, one minesweeper and a fishing trawler heavily damaged.

China spent the next two weeks increasing its naval presence around the islands and strengthening their defenses, including the deployment of a Romeo-class submarine and three Chengdu-class guided missile frigates equipped with Styx anti-ship cruise missiles.

Tactically, the South Vietnamese naval units outgunned their Chinese opponents, but a lack of functioning fire-control radars meant they had to fire over open sights, greatly reducing their prospects for hitting fast targets like the Chinese patrol craft. Although the poor condition of both combatants’ ships precluded action at full speed, the Chinese boats enjoyed a 7- to 10-knot advantage that enabled them to dictate the range of the engagements.

Once they closed within a half-mile of the South Vietnamese ships, the Chinese vessels’ rapid-firing light weapons and better agility gave them a significant advantage. The battle became decisive at about 200 yards. South Vietnam’s command, navigation and communications spaces faced accurate close-range fire, and its heavy guns were useless at that range. The country’s ships had no choice but to withdraw, leaving the island garrisons without the naval gunfire support they needed.

South Vietnam threatened retaliation but recognized the balance of naval power favored China. Moreover, Saigon had more pressing concerns. Its intelligence services were tracking North Vietnamese supply and troop movements into Laos and eastern Cambodia. The force buildup along South Vietnam’s border was a troubling sign of Hanoi’s intentions.

At the time, Hanoi protested Beijing’s moves, but took no action. Communist North Vietnam still needed China’s support to reconstitute its forces for the final assault to take control of South Vietnam. After unifying the country in April 1975, Hanoi quickly occupied the islands held by South Vietnam in the Spratly chain. In the postwar years, Vietnam has continued to protest China’s seizure of the Paracel Islands and maintains its claim to those islands and much of the Spratly Islands as well. Vietnam, however, has never attempted to retake the Paracel Archipelago. It suffered naval defeats in the 1980s when China attacked three Vietnamese-controlled reefs in the Spratly Islands.

In those engagements and more recent actions, Beijing has repeated the tactics it employed in 1974 in the Paracels. First, fishing boats enter the disputed area, some of which are armed Maritime Militia trawlers that drive away the competition. Chinese Coast Guard vessels are positioned nearby to come to the trawlers’ aid if required, while farther back is a small naval task group standing by to support the Coast Guard, if necessary. Neither the Chinese Coast Guard nor the naval units will fire the first shot, but if fighting breaks out, they fight to win. China has also established a military airfield on Woody Island and stationed troops on several recently seized atolls in the Spratly Islands.

Vietnam has responded by arming its fishing boat crews and establishing military partnerships with India and Japan—and is seeking more military cooperation with its former enemy, the United States. With six other nations disputing China’s claims, the South China Sea has become a “hot spot” and triggered a regional arms race that some fear may spark a new war.

Carl O. Schuster is a retired Navy captain with 25 years of service. He finished his career as an intelligence officer. Schuster, who lives in Honolulu, is a teacher in Hawaii Pacific University’s Diplomacy and Military Science program.

First published in Vietnam Magazine’s June 2017 issue.