Vietnam denounces China’s occupation of islands in 1974

50 years after the naval clash that killed 75 South Vietnamese soldiers, Hanoi condemned Beijing’s use of force.
By RFA Staff
2024.01.22
Vietnam denounces China’s occupation of islands in 1974 An anti-China protester holds up a poster bearing an image of South Vietnamese naval captain Nguy Van Tha, who was killed during a naval clash with China at the Paracels islands, during a gathering to mark the 40th anniversary of the Chinese occupation of the disputed Paracels islands in the South China Sea, in Hanoi, Jan. 19, 2014.
REUTERS/Kham

On the 50th anniversary of the naval battle that resulted in China taking over the entire Paracel archipelago in the South China Sea, Hanoi said such use of force was “in serious violation of international law.”

The so-called Battle of the Paracels took place on Jan. 19, 1974, between the Chinese and South Vietnamese naval forces, as the latter tried to regain control of the islands, a cluster of islets east of Vietnam and south of China.

The Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam at the time – separately from the communist North – claimed sovereignty over the Paracel islands as part of French Indochina but only had a small presence there.

Towards the end of the Vietnam War, China had already occupied part of the Paracels including the biggest feature – Woody Island – when the Saigon government sent soldiers on four warships in order to repel Chinese forces. 

The clash ended with the South Vietnamese navy’s defeat; 75 Vietnamese soldiers lost their lives and China has fully occupied the archipelago ever since.

In a rare strongly-worded statement over the weekend, a Vietnamese spokeswoman said, “Every act of threatening or using force in international relations, especially the use of force to resolve territorial disputes between states, is in complete contravention of the fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter, and in serious violation of international law.”

Pham Thu Hang was responding to a reporter’s query on Vietnam's position concerning what Vietnam’s state news agency calls “China's invasion of the Hoang Sa Islands in 1974,” using the Vietnamese name for the islands.

“Such an act neither establishes any territorial title of sovereignty, nor changes the truth that sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands belongs to Vietnam,” Hang said.

“As it has been clearly affirmed many times, Vietnam's sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands has been established since at least the 17th century in accordance with international law, and exercised in a peaceful, continuous, and public manner by successive Vietnamese states,” the spokeswoman said.

The archipelago is now occupied and controlled by China, with Woody Island extensively developed.

China has carried out land reclamations and substantial upgrades of its military infrastructure there, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

‘Not much change’

Right after the Battle of the Paracels, North Vietnam did not react, according to the U.S. government archive.

Chinese soldiers Woody.JPG
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Woody Island, in the Paracel Archipelago, which is known in China as the Xisha Islands, Jan. 29, 2016. (REUTERS/Stringer)

At a Special Actions Group Meeting on Indochina in Washington, chaired by the then-Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger on Jan. 25, 1974, the then-Director of the CIA William Colby told the participants that Hanoi ignored it,said it’s below the 17th Parallel and thus doesn’t affect them.”

“In general, they didn’t take a position, didn’t come out on either side,” Colby said.

For a long time, the government in North Vietnam stayed silent as the confrontation was considered to be between China and the “puppet Saigon regime,” but after the end of the Vietnam War, Hanoi slowly moved towards recognizing the deaths of South Vietnamese soldiers and denouncing China’s occupation.

Yet the current Vietnamese government has always been careful not to be seen as overly critical of Beijing, its traditional ally and one of the main comprehensive strategic partners. Neither does it want to discuss the legacy of the Republic of Vietnam.

However, Hanoi knows it needs to deal with the public’s anti-China sentiment, seen rising at every commemoration of past confrontations with China, according to Song Phan, a Vietnamese researcher on South China Sea.

“They have to make strong statements to reduce the public pressure and it may offend the ‘big neighbor’ a little,” he said.

“But I don’t think they can do anything in practice. They still listen fully to Beijing therefore there’s not much change in the [bilateral] relationship,” the researcher added.

It was agreed at the Washington meeting on Jan. 25, 1974, that “the CIA would prepare a paper on the current status of the Paracel and Spratly Islands and an assessment of Chinese intention in the area,” according to the meeting’s minutes. 

U.S. involvement seemed to stop there but the successive Vietnamese government have continued to dispute China’s claims over the Paracels.

Edited by Mike Firn and Malcolm Foster.

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