Battle of the Paracel Islands

Battle of the Paracel Islands

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Hoang Sa (Vietnamese)
Battle of Xisha (Chinese:中越西沙海战)
Battle of Paracel Islands
date=January 19, 1974
place=Paracel Islands
result=* Chinese victory
*PRC control over the Paracel Islands and surrounding waters
*Continued dispute between China and Vietnam
commander2=Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc
strength1= 4 Corvettes
2 Hainan Class Submarine Chasers
marine battalions
unknown number of militia
strength2= 3 Frigates
1 Corvette
commando platoon
demolition team
militia platoon
casualties1= 4 Corvettes damaged.
18 killed
casualties2= 1 Corvette sunk
1 Frigate heavily damaged
2 Frigates lightly damaged
53 killed
16 injured
48 captured|

The Battle of the Paracel Islands was fought between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) in the Paracel Islands on January 19, 1974.

Historical Background

The tiny, uninhabited Paracel Islands, called Hoàng Sa in Vietnamese and Xisha in Chinese, lie in the South China Sea roughly 200 miles from the nearest Asian mainland shore. With no native population, the archipelago's ownership has been in dispute frequently throughout history.

After an era of French colonial rule (c.1887-1954), the Geneva accord of 1954 gave administrative control of the islands to the new Republic of Vietnam in the South. This arrangement was immediately contested by the fledgling People's Republic of China, which had not been party to the accord, and which voiced a longstanding Chinese claim to the islands. Despite persistent diplomatic brinkmanship, the situation remained unchanged for another two decades.

By 1973, after years of debilitating struggle in the Second Indochina War (the Vietnam War), the ARVN military presence on the Paracels was reduced to a single platoon of soldiers, as most forces had been withdrawn to the mainland for defence. In an effort to strengthen its position, South Vietnam announced plans to build an airbase on the islands, one that could support the crucial C-7 Caribou transport planes. Lest its claim to the islands be forever lost, China vigorously renewed its call for recognition. In January, 1974, South Vietnamese naval vessels were dispatched to protect the airbase surveying project, and China responded in kind.

The Battle

Order of Battle

Four warships of the Republic of Vietnam participated in the battle: three frigates, the Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5),ref|HQ5 the Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16),ref|HQ16 and the Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4), ref|HQ4 and one corvette, the Nhật Tảo (HQ-10).ref|HQ10 In addition, a platoon of South Vietnamese naval commandos, an underwater demolition team, and a regular ARVN platoon were stationed on the islands.

The People's Republic of China had four warships for most parts of the battle, (PLAN corvettes # 271, #274, # 389 and # 396). This force was then reinforced by two more Hainan-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 landed on the islands.


On January 16, 1974, the Lý Thường Kiệt (HQ-16) witnessed a small band of Chinese militia on one of the islands (called Robert Island by international navigators, Cam Tuyen by the Vietnamese). The militia set up a flag and stelae representing Chinese sovereignty over the Paracels; they were supported by Chinese warships (# 389, # 396) and minesweepers (# 402, # 407).

Frigate HQ-16 signaled the Chinese squadron to withdraw, but received the same orders in return. Overnight the two forces remained shadowing each other but did not engage.

On January 17, some 30 Vietnamese commandos waded ashore to Robert Island and, unopposed, removed the Chinese flag. Soon reinforcements arrived: the frigate Trần Khánh Dư (HQ-4) joined HQ-16, while two PLAN corvettes (# 274 and # 271) joined the Chinese.

On January 18, 1974, the frigate Trần Bình Trọng (HQ-5) arrived at the scene carrying the commander of the South Vietnamese fleet, Colonel Hà Văn Ngạc. The corvette Nhật Tảo (HQ-10) also took its place, moving in cautiously because she had only one functioning engine at the time.

The Battle

In the early morning of January 19, 1974, Vietnamese troops from HQ-5 landed on Duncan Island (Quang Hòa in Vietnamese) and came under fire from Chinese troops. Three Vietnamese soldiers were killed and two others were injured. Outnumbered, the Vietnamese ground forces withdrew by landing craft, but their small fleet itself did not: instead, they drew up close to the Chinese ships in a tense standoff.

At 10:24 a.m., all four Vietnamese ships opened fire. The ensuing sea battle lasted for about 40 minutes, with numerous vessels on both sides sustaining damage. The Vietnamese, trained and equipped only for coastal and river combat, were outgunned and despite a spirited effort were forced to disengage. The Nhật Tảo (HQ-10) could not retreat because her last working engine was disabled in the battle: the ship's crew was ordered to evacuate, but her captain, Major Ngụy Văn Thà, remained under fire and went down with his ship. The rest of the force retreated northward and westward to the vicinity of Pattle, Robert, and Money Islands.

The next day, Chinese jet fighters and ground-attack aircraft from Hainan bombed the three islands, and were followed up with an amphibious landing force. The South Vietnamese Marine garrison was captured, and the naval force retreated to Đà Nẵng.

While the battle was going on, the Vietnamese fleet detected two Chinese reinforcing warships rushing to the area; China later acknowledged that these were the Hainan-Class submarine chasers #281 and #282. Despite reports that at least one Vietnamese craft had been struck by a missile, China insisted that no missile-bearing ships were involved in the battle. In addition, the South Vietnamese fleet also received warnings from the United States that their naval radar had detected additional Chinese guided missile frigates and MIG jet fighters on their way from nearby Hainan. South Vietnam requested assistance from the US Seventh Fleet, but the request was rejected.


The Paracel Islands have been under the control of the People's Republic of China since the end of combat. The casualties of the Republic of Vietnam were agreed on by both sides, but the casualties of the People's Republic of China were not.

Vietnamese Casualties

The South Vietnamese claim of her own casualties were agreed to by the Chinese. According to the claim, warship HQ-10 was sunk, HQ-16 was heavily damaged, HQ-5 and HQ-4 were both lightly damaged. Fifty-three (53) Vietnamese soldiers including Captain Ngụy Văn Thà of HQ-10 were killed, 16 others were injured. On January 20, 1974, the Dutch tanker "Kopionella" rescued 23 survivors of HQ-10. On 29 January, 1974, Vietnamese fishermen found a group of 15 Vietnamese soldiers near Mũi Yến (Qui Nhơn), who had participated in the combat on Quang Hòa island, and escaped on lifeboats.ref|be-vuot

After their amphibious assault on January 20, the Chinese held 48 war prisoners, including 1 American advisorref|tu-binh. They were all later released in Hong Kong through the Red Cross.

Chinese Casualties

According to South Vietnam, corvette #271 of China sank, #396 ran aground, and #274 and #389 were both heavily damaged. The Western press also reported at least one Chinese vessel had been sunk.

According to China, however, although all Chinese ships were hit numerous times, none of the vessels sank. China said warships # 271 and # 389 suffered speed-reducing engine damage, but they returned to port safely and were rapidly repaired. Warship #274 was damaged more extensively and had to stop at Yongxing Island for emergency repair, returning to Hainan under its own power the next day. Warship #396 was damaged the most, with an engine room explosion: with the help of the minesweepers, it managed to run aground and put out the fire, and was towed back to its base. The Chinese confirmed 18 deaths among their various forces; Vietnamese estimates were markedly higher.

Because the Vietnamese force was not a high-seas fleet, their radar and surveillance equipment was perhaps inadequate for assessing actual combat damage. According to the Chinese, the heavy smoke reported around #271 and others was not the result of damage but a deliberately laid smokescreen, although this explanation has been viewed skeptically. The reluctance of the Chinese military to release further details or evidence has left the issue clouded. In any case, the Chinese squadron left pursuit of the Vietnamese to their reinforcements (ships #281 and #282, among others), giving the impression that they were unable to continue.


As a result of the battle, the People's Republic of China established control over all of the Paracel Islands, which it calls the Xisha Islands. South Vietnam protested bitterly to the United Nations, but was unable to achieve any action nor even public consideration: China, with veto power on the UN Security Council, blocked all efforts to bring up the matter. By January 25th, the President of the Security Council, Gonzalo Facio Segreda, publicly advised South Vietnam to give up, because they simply "could not muster the votes." (NYT, 1/26/74.)

China's motivations for the seizure remains speculative. Although the remote islands held little value militarily, geological surveys had indicated the potential for significant petroleum deposits in the surrounding waters: after a year of worldwide fuel crises, this alone may have been sufficient motivation. Diplomatically, the projection of power was certainly beneficial to China during a time of regional turmoil; it also proved humbling to the older superpowers, who pointedly took no sides in the matter from the very beginning. (NYT, 1/19/74, 1/21/74.)

North Vietnam gave a glimpse at its worsening relationship with China by conspicuously not congratulating their erstwhile allies: official statements mentioned only a desire for "a peaceful solution". Indeed, after the reunification of Vietnam in 1976, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam publicly renewed their claim to the Paracels, and this dispute continues to the present day.

A potential diplomatic crisis was averted when China quietly released an American prisoner taken during the battle. Gerald Emil Kosh, 27, was a former US Army captain captured with the Vietnamese on Pattle Island. He was described as a "regional liaison officer" for the US embassy, on assignment with the South Vietnamese Navy. China released from him custody on January 31st without comment.


# "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
# "Nhân Dân" No. 1653, 22 September 1958 []
# Dyadic Militarized Interstate Disputes Data (DyMID), version 2.0 tabulations
# "Hải Chiến Hoàng Sa," Bão biển Đệ Nhị Hải Sư, Australia, 1989, page 101
# 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.
# 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.
# This warship is formerly USS Forster (DE-334), loaned to South Vietnam on 25 September 1971 and renamed Tran Khanh Du (HQ-4). Captured by North Vietnamese after the fall of Saigon and was renamed Dai Ky (HQ-03).
# This warship is formerly USS Serene (AM-300), and was transferred to South Vietnam 24 January 1964. It was re-designated as RVNS Nhut Tao (Nhật Tảo).
# "Counterpart, A South Vietnamese Naval Officer's War" Kiem Do and Julie Kane, Naval Institute, Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 1998, chương 10.
# "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.
# 西沙海战――痛击南越海军, Xinhua, 20 January 2003, [ online]
#西沙海战详解 [图] , [ online] .


*"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.

See also

* Naval history of China

External links

* [ Overview of the battle by an Vietnamese officer]
* [ The Official Document of The Republic Of Vietnam's Armed Forces about the Paracels Naval Battle in 1974]
* [ Paracels Islands Dispute]

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