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The Flash War of '74: China and Vietnam's South China Sea Showdown

While Asia watchers the world over debate China’s latest moves to transform the status-quo in the South China Sea one fake island at a time, we must remember the starting point of Beijing’s quest for dominance in this vital body of water: a brief and bloody battle with Vietnam in 1974 over the Paracel Islands. History clearly shows that it was this fast-paced and intense clash which set events into motion, a battle between Asian powers that is not very clearly understood—until now.

Thanks to the great work of scholar Dr. Toshi Yoshihara, a Professor at the United States Naval War College and one of the world’s best China defense watchers, we now have a much greater understanding of this brief struggle thanks to his recently published research, what he calls “a first cut at an important but largely underappreciated episode in China’s march to the seas.” The good professor also shares important details on how this battle likely influenced current Chinese tactics, laying out in stunning detail “how Chinese strategists tailored their tactics so as to coerce, deter and defeat a rival claimant in the South China Sea.”

Indeed, Yoshihara’s recent piece for the always impressive Naval War College Review titled The 1974 Paracels Sea Battle: A Campaign Appraisal, is a must read for those who want to know more about this brief conflict along with relevant lessons that apply today’s South China Sea showdown. As Yoshihara explains:

“The conflict and its aftermath. . . left an outsize and lasting legacy in Asian international relations. The territorial dispute that gave rise to fighting forty years ago remains unresolved and continues to stoke Sino-Vietnamese enmity. When Beijing placed an oil rig in waters close to the Paracels in May 2014, violent protests targeting Chinese businesses broke out across Vietnam. At sea, Vietnamese maritime law enforcement vessels sought to break the security cordon formed around the rig by Chinese civilian, paramilitary, and naval vessels. Amid the standoff, bilateral relations plunged to new lows. The contest, then, is far from over; and the passions the dispute still stirs up trace back to 1974.”

But there is much more to the piece, twenty-four pages in all, than that—a comprehensive and far reaching work to say the least. He begins by reviewing the geographic setting as well as the historical context of the dispute. Yoshihara then recounts prior moves in this disputed area that brought China and South Vietnam to eventual blows. He then describes the battle in an epic style along with its aftermath—using mostly hard to come by Chinese sources which color most of his research. These sources craft an interesting narrative of the battle, taking a strong look at China’s civil-military relations, operational performance of Beijing’s navy and most important of all, the role of China’s paramilitary forces. Finally, he closes out the piece by offering thoughts about how the battle may inform China’s future strategy in the South China Sea and its implications for stakeholders in maritime Asia.

While a complete deep dive illustrating every detail that is worth reading in this excellent long-form article is a tough task in a blog such as this, I offer here five big highlights Asia hands should keep in mind from Yoshihara’s work:

 

1. Some of the Tactics the Chinese Used in the Battle were Very Innovative

“The commanders received orders to ‘speed forward, fight close, and hit hard.’  The smaller, faster, and nimbler Chinese vessels purposefully sought close combat (贴身战, literally, “stick-to-body combat”) against the larger, lumbering, and slower-firing RVN units. The tactic was to draw so near that the enemy’s main deck guns would overshoot their targets. By fighting while sheltering in these blind spots, the Chinese effectively nullified the superior range and lethality of the enemy’s firepower. The PLAN commanders chose a knife fight against an adversary expecting a gunfight.”

 

2. After Vietnam’s defeat on the water and on the islands themselves, they briefly considered escalating the conflict, seeking American help

“Stung by the defeat, Saigon threatened to escalate. The South Vietnamese navy reportedly sent two destroyers to reinforce Da Nang and directed six warships to head toward the Paracels. The RVN high command also alerted all ground, naval, and air forces to heighten readiness for war. President Nguyen Van Thieu, who arrived in Da Nang to oversee his forces personally, allegedly ordered the South Vietnamese air force to bomb Chinese positions on the Paracels—before rescinding the decision. At the same time, Saigon requested assistance from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but to no avail.”

 

3. Paramilitary assets mattered—and could matter again in a future South China Sea clash:

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