Situating the Battle of the Paracel Islands in Modern Vietnam-China Relations

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Situating the Battle of the Paracel Islands in Modern Vietnam-China Relations

Good relations with China have necessitated the downplaying of past conflicts by both countries.

Situating the Battle of the Paracel Islands in Modern Vietnam-China Relations

The Museum of the Paracel Islands, which was established in Danang, Vietnam, in August 2017.

Credit: Danang FantastiCity

January 19 marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Paracel Islands, the first naval battle between China and Vietnam in the 20th century and a key conflict in the quest to control the South China Sea. This is also an occasion of reckoning on how the current Vietnamese government treats the history, legacy, and agency of the former Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), which controlled the Paracel Islands before 1974 and was the main combatant in that year’s battle.

Even more important, Hanoi’s contemporary claims over the Paracel Islands rest on it being the rightful heir to pre-1975 Republic of Vietnam’s sovereignty. Although the Vietnamese government released a statement of protest against Chinese occupation of the Paracel Islands on the occasion, many writers saw Hanoi’s absence of official commemorations this year as well as its attempt to control and sometimes prevent unofficial ones held by the civil society in the past as an example of Hanoi’s abhorrence of the former South Vietnamese government and its subservience to China at the expense of Vietnam’s national sovereignty. Some of them did not shy away from condemning the Communist Party of Vietnam as cowards.

There are two major problems with this argument. First, it exaggerates Hanoi’s “mistreatment” of South Vietnamese contributions to Vietnamese maritime sovereignty claims and underemphasizes Hanoi’s own efforts to assert those claims against China. Second, it ignores how history and foreign policy interact in the making of contemporary Vietnam-China relations. When Vietnam and China normalized ties in 1991 after more than a decade of conflict, it was the policy of both governments to downplay past wars to build a more constructive relationship in the post-Cold War period. It is neither Hanoi’s mistreatment of South Vietnam’s legacy nor its subservience to China that explains why Hanoi has been reluctant to allow public-wide commemoration of the 1974 battle.

To understand Hanoi’s thinking, it is important to dissect North Vietnam’s priorities in the Vietnam War after the 1973 Paris Peace Accords. After the United States withdrew from South Vietnam in January 1973, Hanoi was determined to eliminate the most significant threat that it faced on land – the Saigon government. Consequently, North Vietnam did not see the Paracel and Spratly Islands as vital to its survival. This was all the more so given that the two island chains were under Saigon’s control, lying below the 17th parallel per the 1954 Geneva Accords partitioning Vietnam.

North Vietnam’s prioritization reflects the general tendency of land powers to treat land threats as more serious than maritime threats, and not because of any ideological bonding with China. Hanoi’s silence, but not endorsement, when China defeated South Vietnam at the Paracel Islands in 1974 was a strategic move to (1) not distract itself from the main objective of national unification and (2) not antagonize China at a time when Hanoi needed Chinese backing for the liberation of the South.

But once Hanoi perceived that South Vietnam’s collapse was inevitable, it launched the East Sea Campaign on April 9, 1975, to capture South Vietnam-controlled islands in the South China Sea to avoid a vacuum of sovereignty that would allow China or the Philippines to occupy them. Hanoi’s East Sea Campaign was a success, as it secured all of the remaining South Vietnam-controlled islands when Saigon fell on April 30. Although the East Sea Campaign is not as well commemorated as the 1974 naval battle, it laid the groundwork for Vietnam’s existing control of the largest number of islands in the Spratly Islands. The claim that Hanoi did not take Vietnam’s maritime sovereignty seriously because of its comradeship with China does not take Hanoi’s different strategic priorities in 1974 and 1975 into consideration.

Hanoi did not mistreat South Vietnamese historical contributions to modern Vietnam’s maritime claims either. Although it does not give South Vietnamese soldiers of the 1974 battle the official title of martyrs compared to its fallen soldiers, for they are still soldiers of an enemy state, it has commemorated their efforts by building the Hoang Sa (Paracel Islands) Museum in Danang city and formally refers to South Vietnam as the Republic of Vietnam at the memorial. Such a treatment is different from most other occasions as Hanoi still calls the former Saigon government a “stooge” of U.S. imperialism when discussing the Vietnam War. And contrary to the claim that Hanoi does not allow for official commemoration because of its abhorrence of the former Saigon government, Hanoi has long formally recognized the legal existence of the Republic of Vietnam to demonstrate that successive Vietnamese governments have never abandoned its claims over the Paracel and Spratly islands. In May 2014 amid the HD-981 crisis, Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam remarked that “the Paracel islands belong to Vietnam. China took them by force and we will certainly reclaim them back.”

A better explanation for Vietnam’s reluctance to talk about the 1974 conflict should consider the role of history in the making of contemporary Vietnam-China relations. The 1974 battle is one of many battles that Vietnam, along with China, has intentionally downplayed in order to maintain a friendly bilateral relationship since the end of the Cold War. Similar to the 1974 battle, Vietnam is generally reluctant to commemorate the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, the 1984 Battle of Laoshan, and the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish, during which it suffered total casualties of more than 50,000, per some estimates. Importantly, Vietnam’s decision to downplay battles fought against China by both Hanoi and Saigon, despite Hanoi suffering far more casualties than Saigon, demonstrates that the legitimacy of the Republic of Vietnam is not a deciding factor over which battles to commemorate.

Likewise, China does not allow for the public commemoration of the 1979 war to avoid stoking sensitive issues in Vietnam-China relations. In November 1991, Chinese General Secretary Jiang Zemin at the normalization meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart Do Muoi said, “This meeting closes the past, opens up the future, and shows that the two countries have normalized relations.” In 2000, Vietnam and China officially endorsed the 16-word guideline to describe their relationship, again emphasizing the importance of looking to the future (面向未来, or Hướng tới tương lai). Were Vietnam subservient to China and unilaterally downplayed the 1979 war as a result, China would have widely celebrated its self-claimed “victory” in the 1979 war as a big power, successfully teaching a small power a lesson to drive home the message.

From the Vietnamese perspective, not talking about its anti-China battles in the past is one of many ways to assure China of its peaceful intentions and to prevent China from punishing Vietnam as it did in the 1970s and 1980s. From the Chinese perspective, downplaying the 1979 war against Vietnam is a way to demonstrate to Hanoi that it understands and appreciates Vietnam’s respect for Chinese power and influence. Whether Vietnam-China relations remain peaceful depends on both sides’ acceptance of, not challenge against, the asymmetric nature of the relationship. And despite differences at sea, both countries have more to reap from a friendly relationship than a hostile one.

Hanoi has never displayed cowardice when it comes to guarding its sovereignty. The 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War demonstrates that when necessary and as a very last resort, Hanoi will put up a fight against its bigger neighbor regardless of ideological comradeship. This spirit is codified in the “One Depend” principle in its 2019 Defense White Paper, that “depending on circumstances and specific conditions, Viet Nam will consider developing necessary, appropriate defense and military relations with other countries on the basis of respecting each other’s independence, sovereignty, territorial unity, and integrity.”

To this day, Vietnam continues defending its maritime claims by fortifying and expanding its outposts in the Spratlys in the face of Chinese harassment at sea, and it is cultivating ties with extra-regional powers in case its policy of assurance with China fails. Thus, the paradox over the commemoration of the 1974 naval battle is not about the legitimacy of the Republic of Vietnam but about how to commemorate the past without damaging the future of Vietnam-China relations.