The Paracel Islands Battle: 40 years later

This Jan.19, it will have been 40 years since China wrested control of the Paracel Islands from Vietnam, then South Vietnam. East of Vietnam and south of China’s Hainan Island, the Paracels remain a sore point between the two neighboring countries, already embroiled in other territorial and maritime disputes.

Prior to the 1974 invasion, occupation of the Paracels was split between China and South Vietnam, the former controlling the set of islands known as the Amphitrite Group, and the latter controlling the cluster known as the Crescent Group.

Until 1973, the US war in Vietnam prevented China from moving against the South Vietnamese-controlled islands for fear of a potential American reprisal. However, not long after America’s disengagement from Vietnam, China was quick to pounce and seize the Crescent Group. The skirmish began and ended almost as soon as it began with China consolidating its control over the Paracels.

What an eventful and fateful year 1973 would prove to be for three countries in Southeast Asia. It was in 1972 when the US normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) with the historic visit of President Richard Nixon to China – after Taiwan (the Republic of China) was expelled from the United Nations and replaced by the PRC following the adoption of UN General Assembly Resolution 2758 the previous year.

At the same time, the US was continuing its withdrawal from Vietnam while transferring war responsibilities to the South Vietnamese government in a process known as “Vietnamization.” On Jan. 27, 1973, the Agreement on Ending the War and Restoring Peace in Vietnam, otherwise known as the Paris Peace Accords, was signed by the US, South Vietnam, and North Vietnam. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords formally brought an end to America’s long and unpopular war in Vietnam, but it also marked the beginning of the end for its South Vietnamese ally.

Despite the presence of the US Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, calls for US assistance by Saigon to repel China’s assault were denied. Revealed in a cable from Washington to the American embassy in Saigon were orders to advise the South Vietnamese government to undertake minimal steps for self-defence and avoid further confrontation against China.

It was perhaps well within the realm of possibility for South Vietnamese forces to retake its territories in the Paracels with some American support. However, concerns over igniting a much larger conflict in Southeast Asia involving China, to say nothing of America’s fatigue in Vietnam, guaranteed that China’s new possessions in the South China Sea would not be contested.

America’s abandonment of South Vietnam was fully realized a little more than a year later when it abstained from defending its ally from a North Vietnamese invasion, concluding with the capitulation of Saigon and, finally, the unification of Vietnam. That famous photograph by Hubert van Es of an American helicopter atop a rooftop collecting South Vietnamese evacuees as North Vietnamese forces rolled into Saigon would forever mark an inglorious end to a war that should never have lasted as long as it did, and ended the way it did.

Finding the will to act Forty years after the battle, the world has much changed, although the dispute remains ongoing and volatile. Territorial and maritime disputes throughout Asia-Pacific, already delicate, are made worse by China’s rise and increasing assertiveness, which has been seen by many countries in the region as a sign of worst things to come.

Cable-cutting incidents in the South China Sea, a passport kerfuffle, a standoff over the Scarborough Shoal, and the establishment of an air defence and identification zone in the East China Sea have all contributed to heightening tensions in the Pacific.

America’s pivot to the region can and has largely been understood as a reaction to China’s rise, although to what effect Washington hopes its rebalancing strategy will have in Asia-Pacific remains to be seen. Thus far, the United States has avoided wading into the muck that are the maritime and territorial disputes, repeating as always a need to resolve the disputes peacefully and protect freedom of navigation on the high seas.

Just as China’s neighbors must accommodate China’s rise, so too must China accommodate its neighbors. Engaging and/or giving the appearance of aggression will only sow discord and make it that much more difficult to find peace in the Pacific.

Although America’s presence in the Pacific will give pause to anyone who attempts to deny this freedom of navigation, without clear and defined objectives to pursue in the region, the US will find itself spinning its wheels more often than not.

What does Washington want? How will it achieve these goals? Regardless, before America’s leaders can set forth any objective, there must first be political will. There must be a political and public appetite to act -- this, above all else, will prove most difficult and fickle, susceptible to change at the drop of negative poll numbers. Just as the American public lost its appetite for war in Vietnam (and most recently Iraq and Afghanistan), so too can it lose the appetite to intervene once more in a faraway corner of the world.

It is, of course, another discussion entirely on whether Washington should intervene in the affairs of other countries – a discussion best left to the American people and their elected officials – however, given that the South China Sea, serving as the setting for some of these maritime and territorial disputes, is a vital trade route through the Pacific, the US is best served by taking a leadership position in the disputes and resolving them peacefully and permanently.

(Khanh Vu Duc is a lawyer and part-time law professor at the University of Ottawa - Civil Law Section. His research covers Vietnamese politics, international relations and international law.

Duvien Tran is a special research associate at the VDK Law Office in Ottawa, focusing on foreign policy, strategic planning, and South China Sea security issues.)