Battle of the Paracel Islands

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Battle of the Paracel Islands
Paracel Islands-CIA WFB Map-2.JPG
Date January 19-20, 1974
Location Paracel Islands
Result Chinese victory
China establishes control over Crescent Group of the Paracels; China controls the entire Paracels
 China  South Vietnam
Commanders and leaders
China Zhang Yuanpei (张元培)
China Wei Mingsen (魏鸣森)
Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc
4 Corvettes
2 Submarine Chasers
Marine battalions
Unknown number of militia
3 Frigates
1 Corvette
Commando platoon
Demolition team
Militia platoon
Casualties and losses
18 killed
4 Corvettes damaged
53 killed
16 injured
48 captured
1 Corvette sunk
3 Frigates damaged

The Battle of the Paracel Islands was a military engagement between the naval forces of the People's Republic of China and those of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in the Paracel Islands on January 19, 1974. The battle was an effort of the Republic of Vietnam Navy to expel the People's Liberation Army's naval vessels from the vicinity of some of the Paracels.

As a result of the battle, China established permanent control over the Crescent Group of the Paracel Islands, completing its objective to assert its claim based on the "Nine-dotted line" that includes the majority of the South China Sea.[1]


The Paracel Islands, called Xisha Islands (西沙群島; Xīshā Qúndǎo) in Chinese and Hoang Sa Islands (Quần Đảo Hoàng Sa) in Vietnamese, lie in the South China Sea lie approximately equidistant from the coastlines of China (PRC) and Vietnam (~200 nautical miles). With no native population, the archipelago’s ownership has been in dispute since the early 20th century.

On July 3, 1938, the French, who had colonised Indochina in the 19th century, occupied the Paracel Islands. The Nationalist Government of China, then engaged in the Second Sino-Japanese War, registered a formal protest.[2] Three days later, the Japanese Foreign Ministry also issued a declaration in protest of the French occupation.[3]

During the Second World War, the Japanese defeated the occupying French troops and took control of the islands. At the war's end, the government of the Republic of China gained 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 claims inter alia to the South China Sea islands it had occupied during the war.[4][5][not in citation given]

At the San Francisco Conference of 1951, in response to the Soviet Union delegation's request to revise the text of the Treaty to recognise the islands group of Paracels and Spratlys as the People's Republic of China's territories, 48 out of 51 delegations voted against.[citation needed]

The People's Republic of China (PRC) gained control of the Amphitrite Group of the Paracels in 1950, while South Vietnam controlled the Crescent Group from 1954 in the aftermath of the First Indochina War.[6] In 1957, the People's Republic of China transferred control of White Dragon Tail Island, then part of Guangdong province, to North Vietnam, to aid its ally in the Vietnam War. One year later, North Vietnam recognized China's claim to the Spratlys and Paracels, renouncing its own to them.[6][7][8] though South Vietnam did not accept this renunciation.[9] During the 1960s, however, the Republic of Vietnam Navy (ROVN) drove Chinese fishermen from the Paracel Island. The PRC could not effectively respond because the ROVN had significant air and naval support from the United States.[6]

To focus on its war with the North, South Vietnam by 1966 had reduced its presence on the Spratlys to only a single weather observation garrison on Pattle Island. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) made no attempt to remove this presence.[6] In 1973 after the Paris Peace Accords, the United States significantly reduced and eventually cut off military supplies to its ally, South Vietnam. The ARVN military presence on Pattle Island was reduced further to a single platoon of soldiers. Despite the lack of effective control, South Vietnam signed offshore oil exploration contracts with Western companies in the Gulf of Tonkin, northwest of the Paracels.[6]


On January 16, 1974, six South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer on the frigate Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16) were sent to the Paracels on an inspection tour. They discovered two Chinese “armored fishing trawlers” laying off Drummond Island to supporting from the PLA that had occupied the island. Chinese soldiers were also observed around a bunker on nearby Duncan Island, with a landing ship moored on the beach and two additional Kronstad-class guided missile gunboats in the vicinity. This was promptly reported to Saigon,[10][11] and several naval vessels were sent to confront the Chinese ships in the area. The South Vietnamese Navy frigate signaled the Chinese squadron to withdraw, and in return received the same demand. The rival forces shadowed each other overnight, but did not engage.

On January 17, about 30 South Vietnamese commandos waded ashore on Robert Island unopposed and removed the Chinese flag they found flying. Later, both sides received reinforcements. The frigate Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4) joined the Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16), while two PLAN corvettes (#274 and #271) joined the Chinese.

On January 18, the frigate Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5) arrived carrying the commander of the South Vietnamese fleet, Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc. The corvette Nhật Tảo (HQ-10) also reached the islands, moving cautiously because she had only one functioning engine at the time.

Balance of forces[edit]

Four warships from the South Vietnam Navy thus participated in the battle: the frigates, Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5),[1] Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16),[2] and Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4), [3], and the corvette Nhật Tảo (HQ-10).[4] A platoon of South Vietnamese naval commandos, an underwater demolition team, and a regular ARVN platoon were by now stationed on the islands.

China also had four warships on hand: the PLAN corvettes # 271, #274, # 389 and # 396. These were old and small warships with an average length of 49 meters and width of 6 meters, and they had not been well-maintained. However, they were reinforced by two Kronstad-Class submarine chasers (# 281 and # 282) by the end of the battle. In addition, two PLA marine battalions and an unknown number of irregular militia had been landed on the islands.

Four ships took part from each side, but the total displacements and weapons of Vietnamese ships were superior to those of China. The supporting and reinforcement forces of China’s PLAN did not take part in the battle.

Military engagement[edit]

In the early morning of January 19, 1974, South Vietnamese soldiers from the HQ-5 landed on Duncan Island and came under fire from Chinese troops. Three Vietnamese soldiers were killed and more injured. Finding themselves outnumbered, the Vietnamese ground forces withdrew by landing craft, but their small fleet drew close to the Chinese warships in a tense standoff.

At 10:24 a.m., the Vietnamese warships HQ-16 and HQ-10 opened fire on the Chinese warships. HQ-4 and HQ-5 then joined in. The sea battle lasted about 40 minutes, with vessels on both sides sustaining damage. The smaller Chinese warships managed to maneuver into the blind spots of the main cannons on the Vietnamese warships and succeeded in damaging all four Vietnamese ships, especially the Nhật Tảo (HQ-10), which could not retreat because her last working engine was disabled. The crew was ordered to abandon ship but her captain, Lt. Commander Ngụy Văn Thà, remained on board and went down with his ship. HQ-16, severely damaged by friendly fire from the HQ-5, was forced to retreat westwards. HQ-4 and HQ-5 also joined in the retreat.

The next day, Chinese jet fighters and ground-attack aircraft from Hainan bombed the three islands, and an amphibious landing was made. The South Vietnamese Marine garrison on the islands was forced to surrender, and the damaged navy ships retreated to Đà Nẵng.

During the battle, the Vietnamese fleet detected two more Chinese warships rushing to the area. China later acknowledged these were the Hainan-Class submarine chasers #281 and #282. Despite South Vietnamese reports that at least one of their ships had been struck by a missile, the Chinese insisted what the Vietnamese saw were rocket-propelled grenades fired by the crew of #389 and that no missile-capable ships were present. The reason the Chinese ships closed in was because they had no missiles. The South Vietnamese fleet also received warnings that U.S. Navy radar had detected additional Chinese guided missile frigates and jet fighters on their way from Hainan. South Vietnam requested assistance from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but the request was denied.


Letter from South Vietnam's General Staff of the Republic of Vietnam Military Forces, dated 02-18-74, concerning the Battle of the Paracel Islands

Following the battle, China gained control over all the Paracel Islands. South Vietnam protested to the United Nations, but China, having veto power on the UN Security Council, blocked any efforts to bring it up.[12] The remote islands had little value militarily, but diplomatically the projection of power was beneficial to China.[13][14]

Vietnamese casualties[edit]

The South Vietnamese reported that the warship HQ-10 was sunk and the HQ-16 heavily damaged, while the HQ-5 and HQ-4 were both slightly damaged. 53 Vietnamese military, including Captain Ngụy Văn Thà of HQ-10, were killed, and 16 were injured. On January 20, 1974, the Dutch tanker, Kopionella, found and rescued 23 survivors of the sunken HQ-10. On January 29, 1974, Vietnamese fishermen found 15 Vietnamese soldiers near Mũi Yến (Qui Nhơn) who had fought on Quang Hòa island and escaped in lifeboats.[5][clarification needed]

After their successful amphibious assault on January 20, the Chinese held 48 prisoners, including an American advisor[6]. They were later released in Hong Kong through the Red Cross.

Chinese casualties[edit]

According to South Vietnam, China's corvette #271 sank, #396 ran aground, and #274 and #389 were both heavily damaged. The Western press reported at least one Chinese ship had been sunk.[clarification needed]

China claimed that although all of its ships had been hit numerous times, none of them sank. China said its warships #271 and #389 had suffered speed-reducing damage to their engines, but they both returned to the port safely and were 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 by an engine room explosion; the captain managed to run it aground and put out the fire with the help of the minesweepers. It was towed back to its base. China confirmed 18 deaths among its forces, though the Vietnamese estimates were much higher.

According to the Chinese, the heavy smoke reported around #271 and others was not the result of damage but a deliberately laid smokescreen, though this has been viewed with skepticism.[who?] The reluctance of the Chinese military to release further details or evidence left the issue clouded. The Chinese squadron left the pursuit of the Vietnamese to their reinforcements, which suggests they were unable to continue.


A potential diplomatic crisis was averted when China quietly released the American prisoner taken during the battle. Gerald Emil Kosh, 27, a former U.S. Army captain, was 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.[15]

The leaders of North Vietnam gave a glimpse at their worsening relationship with China by conspicuously not congratulating their allies. An official communique issued by the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam mentioned only its desire for a peaceful and negotiated resolution for any local territorial dispute. In the wake of the battle, North Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyễn Cơ Thạch told the Hungarian ambassador to Hanoi that "there are many documents and data about that the islands in question are Vietnamese." Other North Vietnamese cadres told the Hungarian diplomats that in their view, the conflict between China and the Saigon regime was but a temporary one; later, they said, this issue will be a problem of the whole Vietnamese nation.[16] After the forced reunification of Vietnam in May 1975, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam publicly renewed its claim to the Paracels, and the dispute continues to this day.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Security Implications of Conflict in the South China Sea: Exploring Potential Triggers of Conflict A Pacific Forum CSIS Special Report, của Ralph A. Cossa, Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1998, trang B-2
  2. ^ Nhân Dân No. 1653, September 22, 1958 [7]
  3. ^ Dyadic Militarized Interstate Disputes Data (DyMID), version 2.0 tabulations
  4. ^ Hải Chiến Hoàng Sa, Bão biển Đệ Nhị Hải Sư, Australia, 1989, page 101
  5. ^ DyMID
  6. ^ This warship is formerly USCGC Chincoteague (WHEC-375), and was transferred to South Vietnam and renamed RVNS Tran Binh Trong (HQ-5). It was later transferred to the Philippines and renamed RPS Andres Bonifacto (PF-7) in 1975 when South Vietnam fell.
  7. ^ This warship is formerly USS Bering Strait (AVP-34), and was transferred to South Vietnam and renamed RVNS Ly Thuong Kiet (HQ-16). It was later transferred to the Philippines and renamed RPS Diego Silang (PF-9) in 1975 when South Vietnam fell.
  8. ^ This warship is formerly USS Forster (DE-334), loaned to South Vietnam on September 25, 1971 and renamed Tran Khanh Du (HQ-4). Captured by North Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon and was renamed Dai Ky (HQ-03).
  9. ^ This warship is formerly USS Serene (AM-300), and was transferred to South Vietnam January 24, 1964. It was re-designated as RVNS Nhut Tao (Nhật Tảo).
  10. ^ Counterpart, A South Vietnamese Naval Officer's War Kiem Do and Julie Kane, Naval Institute, Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998, chương 10.
  11. ^ Thế Giới Lên Án Trung Cộng Xâm Lăng Hoàng Sa Của VNCH. Tài liệu Tổng cục Chiến tranh Chính trị, Bộ Tổng tham mưu QLVNCH, Sài Gòn, 1974, trang 11.
  12. ^ 西沙海战――痛击南越海军, Xinhua, January 20, 2003, online
  13. 西沙海战详解[图], online.


  1. ^
  2. ^ Ellis, Bruce (2011). "China's 1974 naval expedition to the Paracel Islands". Naval Power and Expeditionary Warfare: Peripheral Campaigns and New Theatres of Naval Warfare. Taylor & Francis. 
  3. ^ "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." Myron H. Nordquist, John Norton Moore, University of Virginia, "Security flashpoints: oil, islands, sea access and military confrontation", p181
  4. ^ Nordquist, Myron H.; Moore, John Norton; Policy, University of Virginia. Center for Oceans Law and (1998). Security Flashpoints: Oil, Islands, Sea Access and Military Confrontation ; [twenty-first Annual Seminar Held at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York City from February 7 - 8, 1997]. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. ISBN 90-411-1056-9. 
  5. ^ Nordquist, Myron H.; Moore, John Norton; Policy, University of Virginia. Center for Oceans Law and (1998). Security Flashpoints: Oil, Islands, Sea Access and Military Confrontation ; [twenty-first Annual Seminar Held at the UN Plaza Hotel in New York City from February 7 - 8, 1997]. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers. p. 595. ISBN 90-411-1056-9. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Frivel, M. Taylor. "Offshore Island Disputes". Strong Borders, Secure Nation: Cooperation and Conflict in China's Territorial Disputes. Princeton University Press. pp. 267–299. 
  7. ^ “We have the honour to bring to your knowledge that the Government of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam recognizes and supports the declaration dated September 4, 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.” 1958 diplomatic note from Pham Van Dong
  8. ^ King C. Chen, "China's war with Vietnam, 1979: issues, decisions, and implications", p45
  9. ^ King C. Chen, "China's war with Vietnam, 1979: issues, decisions, and implications", p43, 44
  10. ^ Thomas J. Cutler, The Battle for the Paracel Islands, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD. Retrieved on 4-24-2009.
  11. ^ Monique Chemillier-Gendreau, Sovereignty Over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, p.3, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2000. ISBN 90-411-1381-9. Retrieved on 4-24-2009.
  12. ^ New York Times, "Peking Reports Holding U.S. Aide". 1/26/74.
  13. ^ New York Times, "Saigon Reports Clash with China". 1/19/74.
  14. ^ New York Times, "Saigon Says Chinese Control Islands, But Refuses to Admit Complete Defeat". 1/21/74.
  15. ^ The World: Storm in the China Sea - TIME
  16. ^ Balázs Szalontai, Im lặng nhưng không đồng tình. BBC Vietnam, March 24, 2009: .
  17. ^ For an overview of Hanoi's reactions to the Chinese occupation of the Paracels in 1974-1975, see also Chi-kin Lo, China's Policy toward Territorial Disputes. The Case of the South China Sea Islands (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 86-98.

Further reading[edit]

  • New York Times, "Saigon Reports Clash with China". 1/19/74.
  • New York Times, "Saigon Says China Bombs 3 Isles and Lands Troops". 1/20/74.
  • New York Times, "Saigon Says Chinese Control Islands, But Refuses to Admit Complete Defeat". 1/21/74.
  • New York Times, "U.S. Cautioned 7th Fleet to Shun Paracels Clash". 1/22/74.
  • New York Times, "23 Vietnamese Survivors of Sea Battle Are Found". 1/23/74.
  • New York Times, "Peking Reports Holding U.S. Aide". 1/26/74.
  • New York Times, "American Captured on Disputed Island is Freed by China". 1/31/74.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 16°30′N 111°38′E / 16.500°N 111.633°E / 16.500; 111.633