Although China may not have been a direct participant in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, Beijing’s economic and material support for Vietnam played a crucial role. Not only did China send troops to Vietnam to help maintain supply lines, but Beijing estimated its support for Hanoi between 1950-1978 exceeded $20 billion. Therefore, Beijing was understandably upset about improving relations between Moscow and Hanoi. In an action that closely paralleled the USSR’s land grabs near the end of the Chinese Civil War, the PRC decided to take possession of the Paracel Islands from South Vietnam immediately prior to the North Vietnamese reunification of the country.
On 19 January 1974, the PLAN gained new visibility when it seized from South Vietnam the Paracel Islands. According to the Chinese version of these events, the conflict originated when the Vietnamese illegally arrested Chinese fishermen during November 1973. This prompted the PRC foreign ministry to announce on 11 January 1974 that Vietnam had invaded its sovereign territory, which is why the operation was labeled a “counter-attack”.
The main battle occurred during the morning of 19 January, when four Vietnamese vessels encountered an equal number of Chinese ships. The battle lasted less than an hour, but resulted in the sinking of one Vietnamese ship, and damage to the other three. While the Chinese ships also sustained damage, none of them sank. Vietnam sustained 53 dead and 16 injured, while the PRC only admitted to 18 dead. In addition to the naval actions, Chinese aircraft from Hainan Island supported marine landings.
Deng Xiaoping was chief of the PLA general staff at the time and oversaw the operation. Considering the distances involved and the time it took to deploy the PLAN ships to the area, the date of the battle-19 January, exactly the twenty-fourth anniversary of the PRC’s recognition of the North Vietnamese government-was clearly not a coincidence, but was intended to send a political signal to North Vietnam, showing Beijing’s displeasure with Hanoi’s close relations with Moscow. On 20 January, these islands were officially annexed by the PRC, and were made an integral part of Guangdong province.
By the end of January 1974, therefore, the PLAN had consolidated control over the Paracel Islands. During February 1974, Mao Zedong tried to use this success to pressure North Vietnam to turn against the Soviet Union, publicly calling for a “third world” coalition against the so-called “first world,” in this case meaning the USSR. Instead, the Vietnamese government criticized China’s presence on these islands and sought even closer relations with Moscow. The USSR also dramatically increased its troop strength along the Sino-Soviet border to more than a million men, and armed these troops with both conventional weapons, including T-72 tanks, and nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, over 70 Soviet ships and some 75 submarines were now stationed in the Pacific. According to one Vietnamese official: “There is a tangibly strong Soviet interest coinciding with Vietnamese interests-to reduce Chinese influence in this part of the world.”
Following the formal reunification of Vietnam, the Communist government in Hanoi openly split with Beijing. On 1 July 1976, Vietnam stated that the Paracel Islands were Vietnamese territory. In response, “China recalled several groups of specialists from Vietnam and delayed work on a number of projects being built with Chinese aid.” Thus, Beijing essentially repeated the Soviet Union’s 1960 mistreatment of China, by attempting to undermine Vietnam’s economic development.
The PRC also pointed to Premier Pham Van Dong’s September 1958 recognition of China’s maritime borders as proof that the government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam had acknowledged China’s sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. While not denying the letter’s existence, the Vietnamese Government issued a statement in August 1979, clarifying that, “the spirit and letter of the note were strictly confined to recognition of China’s 12-mile territorial waters.” Under international law, however, once a country recognizes another country’s sovereignty over territory, it cannot rescind that recognition.
Ever since China’s 1974 naval expedition to take control of the Paracel Islands, Sino-Vietnamese tensions over the islands have persisted. As one Vietnamese scholar has clarified, the Paracels remain “strategically important” to Vietnam, since they are “located on one of the world’s most important sea-lanes.”
On 15 February 1979, Deng declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. To prevent Soviet intervention, China put its troops along the Sino-Soviet border-estimated at one-and-a-half-million-on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from their homes immediately along the Sino-Soviet border.
Meanwhile, the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet deployed two missile destroyers, four missile escort destroyers, 27 patrol boats, 20 submarines, and 604 other vessels. In addition to stationing patrol boats around the Paracels, the 1,000-man garrison manned anti-aircraft guns. The Paracels served both as a buffer area between the PRC and Vietnam, and also potentially as a strategic “area to stage punitive naval strikes against the Vietnamese.” Chinese land and naval forces in the Paracels further provided an important forward “outpost” to observe the Soviet Navy.
But, the PLAN was clearly no match for the Soviet Navy. On 22 February 1979, Colonel N. A. Trarkov, the Soviet military attaché in Hanoi, threatened that the USSR might feel obliged to “carry out its obligations under the Soviet-Vietnam treaty.” Elsewhere, however, Soviet diplomats made it clear that the USSR would not intervene as long as the conflict remained limited. Soviet ships were actively cruising in the South China Sea, under the constant watch of the U. S. aircraft carriers Midway and Constellation. By mutual decision, however, neither China nor the Soviet Union authorized their naval forces to attack.
Most studies of the Chinese naval expedition to the Paracel Islands minimize or overlook completely that it was, in fact, a peripheral campaign in China’s larger conflict with North Vietnam, and by extension with Hanoi’s main ally, the USSR. This peripheral campaign included an attempt by China to assert a measure of sea control, or at the least “sea denial,” by retaining control over the Paracel Islands. Although this Chinese naval threat from the Paracels remained passive, its strategic impact was potent. One result of this naval threat was to convince the Soviet Navy not to lend its support to Vietnam during the Sino- Vietnamese war.
When peace talks opened during April 1979, China immediately demanded that Vietnam recognize PRC sovereignty in the South China Sea, and in particular over the Paracel Islands, but Hanoi rejected this pro- posal. Tensions remained high and, in 1988, a second conflict broke out in the Spratly Islands, as Chinese naval forces drove Vietnamese troops from Johnson Reef.