Archive for May 18, 2010

Our Islands: The Battle for Hoàng Sa, 1974

Posted in Modern History with tags , , , on May 18, 2010 by Ian Pham

On January 16, 1974, 200 miles off the coast east of Da Nang, a group of Vietnamese islands known as the Paracel (Hoàng Sa) Islands were approached by Chinese naval ships who showed signs of aggression.  In response to the Chinese threat, the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) ordered in their own troops, resulting in a three-day stand-off between China and South Vietnam.  President Nguyen Van Thieu of South Vietnam advocated a peaceful negotiation with the Chinese Navy. Unfortunately, reaching out to China turned out to be futile, their intentions to take the islands were quite clear.  By January 19, after communication attempts by South Vietnam proved to be impossible, the South Vietnamese Navy opened fire on the Chinese aggressors, quickly sinking one of their ships, killing a Chinese commander and several high ranking officers.

This confrontation quickly escalated into a large scale naval battle between the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Vietnam.  The Chinese military greatly outnumbered that of the South Vietnamese.  After 35 minutes of intense naval combat, both sides retreated to their respective bases.  The Chinese army suffered immense damage to their forces, the Vietnamese as well.  Several days after the battle, the People’s Liberation Army (China) returned to the islands with a larger fighting force, eventually succeeding their invasion.  The South Vietnamese Navy no longer had the resources to go on fighting, exhausting all of their ships in the previous confrontation.  As a result, the Paracel Islands fell into the hands of the Chinese.

Although the Chinese accomplished their objective, it is important to consider the challenge that South Vietnam was faced with.  The Vietnamese Navy only had four warships at their disposal compared to the eleven warships wielded by the Chinese, this excludes the reinforcements sent by the Chinese on the following days.  When one looks at these numbers, it is obvious that the odds were not in favour of the Republic of Vietnam.  The Vietnamese soldiers understood this, but were willing to fight nonetheless.  The United States, who were no longer serving in Vietnam by this time, believed that the South should have quietly retreated while China advanced on the islands.  This did not happen.  Faced with the impossible task of fighting off the enormous state of China and at the same time dealing with the invaders from the North, the democratic South Vietnam did everything in their power to fight the opposing forces.  The soldiers of South Vietnam courageously fought to the end, fully aware of the impossible odds.