January 19, 1974 – China gains control over all the Paracel Islands after a military engagement with South Vietnam

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Battle of the Paracel Islands

Battle of the Paracel Islands

The Battle of the Paracel Islands was a military engagement between the naval forces of China and South Vietnam in the Paracel Islands on January 19, 1974. The battle was an attempt by the South Vietnamese navy to expel the Chinese navy from the vicinity.

As a result of the battle, the PRC established de facto control over the Paracels.

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 support a detachment of PLA troops who 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 Kronstadt-class submarine chasers in the vicinity. This was promptly reported to Saigon, 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 unopposed on Robert Island 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 PLA Navy minesweepers (#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 it had only one functioning engine at the time.

In the early morning of January 19, 1974, South Vietnamese soldiers from Trần Bình Trọng landed on Duncan Island and came under fire from Chinese troops. Three South Vietnamese soldiers were killed and more were wounded. Finding themselves outnumbered, the South 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 South Vietnamese warships Lý Thường Kiệt and Nhật Tảo opened fire on the Chinese warships. Trần Bình Trọng and Trần Khánh Dư then joined in. The sea battle lasted about 40 minutes, with vessels on both sides taking damage. The smaller Chinese warships managed to maneuver into the blind spots of the main cannons on the South Vietnamese warships and damaged all four South Vietnamese ships, especially Nhật Tảo, which could not retreat because her last working engine was disabled.

The crew was ordered to abandon ship, but her captain, Lieutenant Commander Ngụy Văn Thà, remained on board and went down with his ship. Lý Thường Kiệt, severely damaged by friendly fire from Trần Bình Trọng, was forced to retreat westwards. Trần Khánh Dư and Trần Bình Trọng soon joined in the retreat.

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

During the battle, the South 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 South Vietnamese saw were rocket-propelled grenades fired by the crew of #389 and that no missile-capable ships were present, and the Chinese ships closed in 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 aircraft on their way from Hainan.

South Vietnam requested assistance from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, but the request was denied.

Following the battle, China gained control over all of 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. The remote islands had little value militarily, but diplomatically the projection of power was beneficial to China.

After the reunification of Vietnam in April 1975, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam publicly renewed its claim to the Paracels, and the dispute continues to this day. Hanoi has praised the South Vietnamese forces that took part in the battle.

Tony Simon

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