Author: Toshi Yoshihara – Naval War College Review Spring 2016, Vol. 69, No. 2
On 19 January 1974, the Chinese and South Vietnamese navies clashed near the disputed Paracel Islands. The short but intense battle left China in control of seemingly unremarkable spits of land and surrounding waters in the South China Sea. The skirmish involved small, secondhand combatants armed with outdated weaponry. The fighting lasted for several hours, producing modest casualties in ships and men. The incident merited little public attention, especially when compared with past titanic struggles at sea, such as those of the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, the battle remains an understudied, if not forgotten, episode in naval history.
But its obscurity is undeserved. Newly available Chinese-language sources reveal a far more complex naval operation than is commonly depicted in Western scholarship. Hitherto-unknown details of the battle illustrate how Chinese strategists tailored their tactics so as to coerce, deter, and defeat a rival claimant in the South China Sea. Notably, China employed a mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives. Such hybrid methods not only were common in Chinese naval history, but also foreshadowed the kinds of combined maritime warfare China has employed recently against its neighbors in maritime Asia, including Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Indeed, Chinese operations in the Paracels represent an archetype that could be employed again in the future. It thus behooves policymakers to pay attention to China’s naval past.
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