Last month’s Asia Security Summit in Singapore was dominated by rhetoric and reviews alike on the thickening South China Sea plot. Its highlight was US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s unflinching – yet indirect – stance against the recent dredging efforts of the Chinese. Naturally, strategists continue to submit gloomy premonitions about the dispute. In doing so, the Battle of the Paracel Islands of 1974 – which infamously pitted the Republic of Vietnam (ROV) against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a naval clash over the disputed archipelago – is often reminisced as ominous evidence of how volatile the intersection of territorial assertions in the South China Sea is. However, the observation that the incident arguably commenced the political polluting of the maritime region in question often escapes the spotlight. Ruminating over how the conflict evolved may lead to an ironic conclusion: is the reckless present-day standoff in the South China Sea a by-product of a botched American military withdrawal somewhere in the past?
The Paracel archipelago, albeit worth about 3 square miles of land area, traces its name and strategic worth to the colonial heydays of the Portuguese. If a sea-facing isosceles triangle is drawn between Hainan – the PRC’s southernmost province – and Vietnam, the islands fall on the apex point. For good reason, the archipelago stands as a focal point of the boiling South China Sea quarrel. While the ‘historic ownership’ of the Paracel islands may be a debate for another day, the history of their role in the dispute is not old. As the Japanese surrendered in 1945, China’s Kuomintang administration raked the archipelago into its map with a u-shaped ‘eleven-dot line,’ facing no serious external objections.
Following the Communist takeover of China, Zhou Enlai quietly inherited the claim with a revised ‘nine-dot line’ in 1953. Five years later, in a bid to blockade American naval assistance to a militarily defiant Taiwan, Beijing flagged its ‘Declaration of Territorial Sea.’ The territorial waters of the PRC were openly delineated around the Paracel islands. Curiously, the ROV – despite being an American client amidst the spiraling Vietnam War, did ‘not explicitly reject’ the document. Thereon, the Chinese did not make any significant official assertions regarding the archipelago – or penetrations into it – till 1971.
At the height of the Cold War, 1971 marked a rollercoaster ride for American relations vis-à-vis Asia. The leaked ‘Pentagon Papers’ exposed the notoriety of the US’s Indochina policy, further invigorating domestic obloquy against the American hand in the Vietnam War. And the US saw an erosion of its standing in South Asia. With Soviet backing, India managed to liberate Bangladesh, chopping off Pakistan’s eastern half.
Soon after, Pakistan left SEATO, nearly ending the US-led security umbrella. The pessimism was outweighed by the euphoria around a historic episode of sportsmanship between American and Chinese ping-pong athletes. The ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that followed peaked with the welcoming of the first US delegation to the PRC since 1949, and the reciprocal termination of a 20-year-old American embargo on China. Till then, the Chinese had only conducted geological and topological surveys of the Paracel islands. In the backdrop of the Sino-American thaw, by 1971, they were seen erecting military installations on the archipelago.
Within two years, the ROV awarded 8 contracts to various enterprises for offshore exploration in the South China Sea. In November 1973, a collision between a policing boat from the ROV and a fishing vessel from the PRC worsened matters beyond repair. Protesting against the detention of its fishermen by the ROV, in January 1974, the PRC made it official with a foreign ministry statement: Mainland China claimed territorial and maritime rights on its islands in the South China Sea. Days later, another attempt by Chinese fishermen to enter the Paracel islands was met with gunfire from the ROV Navy. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) retaliated by dispatching six of its vessels to the zone. The consequent naval face-off resulted in nearly 300 casualties, and angered the Chinese into hastening the military fortification of the archipelago. Noticeably, despite erupting at the height of the Cold War, the Battle of the Paracel Islands did not escalate into an international political debacle. Why? This is where the Americans come in.
The year 1973 included crucial milestones of Cold War history. Abiding by the Paris Peace Accord – which mandated a ceasefire in the Vietnam War – the US withdrew from the Indochina within months. Amidst the vacuum, the Viet Cong resumed hostilities against a stranded ROV. In March, Richard Nixon hinted at intervening, only to be discouraged by the US Senate with the enactment of the Case-Church Amendment.
By October, an oil shock crippled the ROV’s economy, and justified the American disinterest. Thus, before the Battle of the Paracel Islands could occur, the Paris Peace Accord was rendered obsolete, and the US had disavowed any responsibility in the region. During the skirmish, the ROV Navy begged the US Seventh Fleet for help, but in vain. As Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, Gerald Ford visited the PRC to strengthen Sino-American ties. The ROV’s former guardian, quite ironically, embraced its arch opponent. As Lord Palmerstone would have seen it, ‘in politics, there exist no permanent friends, but only permanent interests.’
Nonetheless, the unabashed Machiavellian impingement of national interest on American foreign policy has often come back to haunt the world. Amidst the ghosts of the Vietnam past, arguably lurks the South China Sea logjam, and it could well prove to be lethal. Having switched partners between 1971 and 1974 in its desperation to end the Vietnam War, the US could neither foresee nor check the floodgates that the Battle of the Paracel Islands opened. Learning from the fiasco and building on the freshly bagged American trust, Deng Xiaoping led a massive expansion of Chinese presence across the South China Sea through the 1980s, with added focus on the Spratly islands. In 1987, flaunting its supremacy, the PLAN conducted its first combat patrol of the entire sea. A year later, the Johnson South Reef Skirmish – the second Sino-Vietnamese armed conflict in the South China Sea – saw the PLAN decisively rout the Vietnamese Navy