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|Battle of the Paracel Islands|
|People's Liberation Army Navy||Republic of Vietnam Navy|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Zhang Yuanpei 张元培司令||Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc|
2 Submarine Chasers
Unknown number of militia
|Casualties and losses|
4 Corvettes damaged
1 Corvette sunk
3 Frigates damaged
The tiny, uninhabited Paracel Islands, called Xisha Islands (西沙群島; Xisha Qundao) in Chinese and Hoang Sa Islands (Quần Đảo Hoàng Sa; Quan Dao Hoang Sa) in Vietnamese, lie in the South China Sea roughly 200 nautical miles from Vietnam. With no native population, the archipelago’s ownership has been frequently in dispute since the early 20th century.
On July 3, 1938, the French who had colonized Indochina in the 19th century invaded the Paracel Islands despite the Chinese protests. This took place shortly after the breakout of the Second Sino-Japanese War, when China was fully engaged in resisting Japan’s invasion. Three days later, on July 6, the Japanese Foreign Ministry also issued a declaration in protest of the French occupation:
The statement of Great Britain and France made respectively in 1900 and 1921 already declared that the Xisha (Paracel) Islands were part of the Administrative Prefecture of Hainan Island. Therefore, the current claims made by An’nan or France to the Xisha Islands are totally unjustifiable.
During the Second World War, the Japanese defeated the French occupying troops and took over the islands. At the end of the war (Asian-Pacific Region), the government of the Republic of China formally regained the Paracels, Spratlys and other islands in the South China Sea in October and November 1946. In the Geneva accords of 1954, Japan formally renounced all of its claims to, inter alia, the South China Sea islands which it had occupied during the Second World War. This arrangement was prepared, observed, and signed by a number of nations, including the People’s Republic of China according to some sources. In 1958, the PRC issued a declaration defining its territorial waters which encompassed the Spratly and Paracel Islands. North Vietnam’s prime minister, Phạm Văn Đồng, sent a diplomatic note to China stating that “We have the honour to bring to your knowledge that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognizes and supports the declaration dated 4th September, 1958 of the Government of China fixing the width of the Chinese territorial waters. The Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam respects this decision.”  although the islands were not within the North Vietnamese jurisdiction nor geography to administer. Therefore, South Vietnam claimed the sovereignty of the islands on the basis of historical cartography from the 19th century .
Despite the ongoing disputed proclamation, the South Vietnamese government continued to maintain a small weather observation garrison on Pattle Island, the largest island in this group. There was no action initiated by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to displace this presence. By 1973, after the Paris Peace Accords, the United States of America significantly reduced and eventually cut off military supplies to its ally. As a result, the ARVN forces’ presence on the Paracels was reduced to a single platoon of soldiers.
On January 16, 1974, six South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer were sent to the Paracels for an inspection tour. They discovered two Chinese “armored fishing trawlers” were laying off Drummond Island supporting troops from the PLA that had occupied the territory. In addition, Chinese soldiers were observed around a bunker on nearby Duncan Island, with a landing ship moored directly on the beach and two additional Kronstad-class guided missile gun boats in the vicinity of the island. The findings were reported back to the regional headquarters in Đà Nẵng and immediately over to Saigon. South Vietnam then decided to counter these Chinese forces, and dispatched several naval vessels to confront the Chinese fleet in the area.
There were four warships from the South Vietnam participated in the battle: three frigates, Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5), Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16), and Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4), , and one corvette, Nhật Tảo (HQ-10). In addition, a platoon of South Vietnamese naval commandos, an underwater demolition team, and a regular ARVN platoon were stationed on the islands.
China had four warships for most parts of the battle: PLAN corvettes # 271, #274, # 389 and # 396; they were very old and small warships with length of 49 meters and width of 6 meters, and had not been well-maintained for years. This force was reinforced by two Kronstad-Class submarine chasers (# 281 and # 282) at the end of the battle. In addition, two PLA marine battalions and an unknown number of irregular militia landed on the islands.
In comparison, the total displacements and weapons of Vietnamese were remarkably more than those of China. There were four ships of each side engaging in the battle. The supporting and reinforcement forces of China’s PLAN did not actually take part during the battle.
On January 16, 1974, Frigate Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16) witnessed a small band of Chinese militia on one of the islands called Robert Island. The militia set up a flag and stelae representing the Chinese sovereignty over the Paracels; they were supported by Chinese warships (#389, #396) and minesweepers (#402, #407). HQ-16 signaled the Chinese squadron to withdraw, but received the same orders in return. Overnight the two forces remained shadowing each other but did not engage.
On January 17, some 30 Vietnamese commandos waded ashore to Robert Island and removed the Chinese flag unopposed. Later on reinforcements from both sides arrived: the frigate Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4) joined the HQ-16; while two PLAN corvettes (#274 and #271) joined the Chinese.
On January 18, frigate Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5) arrived at the scene carrying the commander of the South Vietnamese fleet, Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc. The corvette Nhật Tảo (HQ-10) also took its place, moving in cautiously because she had only one functioning engine at the time.
In the early morning of January 19, 1974, Vietnamese troops from the HQ-5 landed on Duncan Island and came under fire from Chinese troops after opening fire first on the Chinese while advancing toward the shores. Three Vietnamese soldiers were killed and two others were injured. Outnumbered, the Vietnamese ground forces withdrew by landing craft, but their small fleet itself drew up close to the Chinese warships in a tense standoff.
At 10:24 a.m., Vietnamese warships HQ-16 and HQ-10 opened fire against the Chinese warships. Then, HQ-4 and HQ-5 did the same. The ensuing sea battle lasted for about 40 minutes, with numerous vessels on both sides sustaining damage. The small Chinese warships maneuvered into the blind spots of the main cannons on the larger Vietnamese warships and succeeded in damaging all four Vietnamese ships, particularly the HQ-10. The Nhật Tảo (HQ-10) could not retreat because her last working engine was disabled in the battle; the crew was ordered to evacuate, but her captain, Lt. Commander Ngụy Văn Thà, remained and went down with his ship. HQ-16, severely shot by a friendly ship, the HQ-5, was forced to retreat westwards. Meanwhile, HQ-4 and HQ-5 were also forced to retreat.
The next day, Chinese jet fighters and ground-attack aircraft from Hainan bombed the three islands, and were followed up with an amphibious landing force. The South Vietnamese Marine garrison on the islands was captured, and the naval force retreated to Đà Nẵng.
While the battle was going on, the Vietnamese fleet detected two Chinese reinforcing warships rushing to the area; China later acknowledged that these were the Hainan-Class submarine chasers #281 and #282. Despite South Vietnamese reports that at least one South Vietnamese craft had been struck by a missile, the Chinese insisted that what the Vietnamese saw were RPGs fired by the crew of #389 and that no missile-bearing ships were involved in the battle. In addition, the South Vietnamese fleet also received warnings from the United States that their naval radar had detected additional Chinese guided missile frigates and jet fighters on their way from nearby Hainan. South Vietnam requested assistance from the US Seventh Fleet, but the request was rejected.
As a result of the battle, China established control over all of the Paracel Islands. South Vietnam protested to the United Nations, but China with the veto power on the UN Security Council blocked all efforts to bring up the matter. The President of the Security Council, Gonzalo Facio Segreda, publicly advised South Vietnam to give up, because they simply “could not muster the votes.” Although the remote islands held little value militarily, diplomatically the projection of power was certainly beneficial to China in the region.
The Vietnamese claim of her own casualties was agreed to by the Chinese. According to its claim, warship HQ-10 was sunk, HQ-16 was heavily damaged, HQ-5 and HQ-4 were both lightly damaged. 53 Vietnamese soldiers including Captain Ngụy Văn Thà of HQ-10 were killed, 16 others were injured. On January 20, 1974, the Dutch tanker, Kopionella, rescued 23 survivors of HQ-10. On January 29, 1974, Vietnamese fishermen found a group of 15 Vietnamese soldiers near Mũi Yến (Qui Nhơn) who had participated in the combat on Quang Hòa island and escaped on lifeboats.[clarification needed]
According to South Vietnam, corvette #271 sank, #396 ran aground, and #274 and #389 were both heavily damaged. The Western press also reported at least one Chinese vessel had been sunk.
According to China, although all Chinese ships were hit numerous times, none of the vessels sank. China said warships #271 and #389 suffered speed-reducing damage on the engines, but they returned to the port safely and were rapidly repaired. Warship #274 was damaged more extensively and had to stop at Yongxing Island for emergency repair; it returned to Hainan under its own power the next day. Warship #396 was damaged the most with an engine room explosion; it managed to run aground and put out the fire with the help of the minesweepers, and was towed back to its base. The Chinese confirmed 18 deaths among their various forces; Vietnamese estimates were markedly higher.
According to the Chinese, the heavy smoke reported around #271 and others was not the result of damage but a deliberately laid smokescreen, although this explanation had been viewed skeptically.[who?] The reluctance of the Chinese military to release further details or evidence had left the issue clouded. In any case, the Chinese squadron left the pursuit of the Vietnamese to their reinforcements (ships #281 and #282, among others), and this gave the impression that they were unable to continue.
A potential diplomatic crisis was averted when China quietly released an American prisoner taken during the battle. Gerald Emil Kosh, 27, was a former US Army captain captured with the Vietnamese on Pattle Island. He was described as a “regional liaison officer” for the US Embassy, Saigon on assignment with the South Vietnamese Navy. China released him from custody on January 31 without comment.
North Vietnam gave a glimpse at its worsening relationship with China by conspicuously not congratulating their erstwhile allies; official statements mentioned only a desire for “a peaceful solution”. Indeed, after the reunification of Vietnam in 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam publicly renewed their claim to the Paracels, and this dispute continues to the present day.