US’s role in China’s invasion of Paracel Islands of Vietnam 45 years ago

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Forty five years ago, in Jan 1974, China attacked and occupied the Paracel Islands of Vietnam. The incident took place when Vietnam was still being divided with southern Vietnam under the administration of the Republic of Vietnam headed by Nguyen Van Thieu, a close ally of the United States. The Paracel Islands was under the effective control of Nguyen Van Thieu administration. The question is why the Republic of Vietnam, a close ally of the US fought the Paracel battle alone and lost it to China’s hands. It is necessary to revisit history to learn the lesson about friends and allies.

History provides the following facts:

On Jan 11, 1974, the Chinese government made a declaration condemning the Republic of Vietnam on “intruding Chinese’s land”, stating that “all islands in the South China Sea – Dongsha, Xisha, Nansha and Zhongsha are China’s soil”.

On Jan 12, 1974, the Republic of Vietnam made a declaration objecting China's ill-founded position, stating that the Paracel belong to Vietnam, and also detected that China had approached several islands in western Paracel, namely Robert Island, Money Island, Duncan Island and Drummond Island and put its flags on those.

On Jan 15, 1974, China deployed a powerful navy force, including armed fishing vessels heading to the Paracel.

On Jan 16, 1974, the Republic of Vietnam administration held a press conference unveiling Chinese plot and acts of aggression in the western islands of the Paracel of Vietnam, calling the international community to denounce China’s act of invasion.

On Jan 17, 1974, the Republic of Vietnam administration deployed warships and navy forces to protect Robert Island, Money Island, Duncan Island and Drummond Island, only to clash with the Chinese navy.

On Jan 19, 1974, Vice Admiral Ho Van Ky Thoai ordered to open fire against China. The battle was fierce with the balance of force in China's favor. After an hour of fighting, 2 Chinese ships were sunk and another 2 on fire but its force still overpowered the Vietnamese side. Nhat Tao ship from the Vietnamese side was sunk and others were all broken with a death toll of 74 including Commanding Officer Nguy Van Tha. China then occupied all islands in the Paracel. On the same day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Vietnam held a press conference condemning the violent invasion of the Paracel of Vietnam.

After the incident, on Jan 20, 1974, the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Vietnam, Vuong Van Bac briefed the situation to Graham Martin, the US Ambassador to Saigon and urged the US, as a friendly nation and ally and as a party to the 1973 Paris Peace Accords on the Vietnam War, to give some forms of material and political assistance. But the US remained silent.

On Jan 21, 1974, the Republic of Vietnam sent a Note Verbale to parties to the Paris Peace Accords, urging them to condemn and demand China to stop the invasion of Vietnam’s territory.

On Jan 22, 1974, President Nguyen Van Thieu wrote to President Nixon to inform the latter of the incident. Assistant Secretary of State Arthur Hummel responded that the US was not concerned over the Paracel issue.

The US remained idle while its decades-long close ally was on a knife-edge being snatched of a part of its territory. Was the US short-sighted and felt detached when the Vietnam War seemed to go to an end after the Paris Accords and therefore, the US no longer wanted to get involved?

It is necessary to revisit history again.

In 1972, an event considered as “a turning point in world history” took place, i.e. the US and China issuing the “Shanghai Joint Communiqué”, normalizing bilateral relations. The joint communiqué came out during President Nixon's visit to China from Feb 21-28, 1972 at the invitation of Chinese President Mao Zedong. The communiqué itself did not either mention the Vietnam War or the relations between the US and the Republic of Vietnam and between China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. But it did mean that Vietnam was not mentioned behind National Security Advisor Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy and in the secret exchanges between Chairman Mao Zedong, Premier Zhou Enlai and President Nixon. Then Kissinger and Nixon admitted themselves in their memoirs. That said, when meeting with Premier Zhou, Nixon said: “If any leader from North Vietnam and I agreed on a ceasefire and returning US war prisoners, all the US troops would be ordered to return home in 6 months”. It is clear that the US did consider the option of withdrawal from the Vietnam War. What is the benefit and role of China in this? When the US withdraws its troops from Vietnam, how China will react to gain most? The problems of South China Sea, Spratly and Paracel that China paid special attention to now had the solution.

Not long after Nixon’s visit to Beijing, the Paris Accords were signed. The US committed to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. What China longed for was imminent. It is the time.

But China was still wondering whether the US was sincere or it would react when China took action. In 1973, China sent a high-level military delegation to the US to assure US ignorance of Chinese action. The most noticeable exchange was the one between the Chinese Head of Delegation and an official of the US’s National Security Council, a hawk and anti-communist who masterminded and who later became National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter. The Chinese Head of Delegation asked how the US would react if China takes action at the Paracel. The official remained silent. The Chinese Head of Delegation repeated the question and again silence. The Chinese Head of Delegation came back home happily, understanding that “silence means consent”.

After the meeting, the US President asked the official the reason why he remained silent when China asked about the matter of the Paracel, he replied: “Sir, I know for sure that China will invade the Paracel. Let them do it. By so doing, we would have them both choked with a chicken bone for 30 years. Trust me!”

The battle of Paracel took place as it was. The US was by no means to be seen.

Until now, it has been 45 years, not 30 years, the problems of Paracel, Spratly in particular and the South China Sea in general have always been a hotspot. It does not only involve China and Vietnam, but also other countries in the region. Nguyen Van Thieu seemed so naive believing in the Dec 31, 1971 letter of President Nixon prior to his visit to China, writing that: “You can trust me absolutely that I will not make an agreement with Beijing if it would infringe upon other countries’ interest, or on the matter related to other countries… You can continue to count on the US support of your effort to bring about peace for Vietnam and build a prosperous country for the Vietnamese people”, that’s why Thieu expressly sent a letter on the Paracel incident to Nixon. That shows how malicious and shifty the US is.

Today, the US warships can be seen sailing through the South China Sea, which once again ignites a light of hope for some in the region that the US is going to “help”. They expect that the US will gallantly protect the vulnerable and even seek for an ally partnership as “more friends, less foes”. It seems to be a good scene, but the sea battle where China took over the Paracel and the US’s role behind were lessons learnt in flesh and bone.