Vietnam’s Paradox: Commemorating the Battle of the Paracels

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Vietnam’s Paradox: Commemorating the Battle of the Paracels

The clash is a milestone for Hanoi’s South China Sea claims – but marking its 50th anniversary requires discussing the government of South Vietnam. 

Vietnam’s Paradox: Commemorating the Battle of the Paracels

A Vietnamese protester holds a poster with an image of the late captain Nguy Van Tha, who was killed in the battle of the Paracel Islands, during a march at the King Ly Thai To garden to mark the 40th anniversary of the deadly naval battle between China and South Vietnam, in Hanoi, Vietnam, Jan. 19, 2014. The poster reads, in part, “Forever grateful to the hero Nguy Van Tha and his fellows.”

Credit: AP Photo/Na Son Nguyen

In every war, 
whichever side wins, 
after all
It’s the people who lose.
– Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Duy.

Tang Guoqiang, known in Vietnamese as Đường Quốc Cường, is among the most renowned mainland Chinese actors in Vietnam. Tang is particularly known for playing prominent historical figures in period dramas, which were staples on Vietnamese TV in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mostly for his role as military advisor Zhu Geliang of the Chinese classic novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” also a symbol of ancient wisdom in popular Vietnamese culture.

Little do Vietnamese viewers know that his debut acting role was in a movie in 1976. “Storm Over The South China Sea” (南海风云), produced by the only military film production studio in China, depicted the 1974 Battle of the Paracel Islands between mainland China and South Vietnam. 

Tang starred as an optimistic and hardworking fisherman in the resource-rich Paracels, known in Chinese as “Xisha” and in Vietnamese as “Hoàng Sa.” Tang’s character sees his livelihood and family miserably impacted by the repeated harassment of the South Vietnamese army in the South China Sea. Determined for revenge, he becomes a leader in the Chinese navy. The resolute and resilient fishermen, tempered by the spirit of the Cultural Revolution and inspired by Mao Zedong’s leadership, later contributes to the Chinese victory over the “imperialist” troops sent by the corrupt and cowardly South Vietnamese president Nguyễn Văn Thiệu.

The movie’s script is in line with the official Chinese version on the conflict, which occurred on January 19-20, 1974, though skirmishes took place a few days earlier, to determine control over the then-uninhabited archipelago. In Chinese, the brief battle is known as the “Self-Defense War of Xisha” (西沙自卫反击战), as opposed to Vietnamese name, the Naval Battle of Hoàng Sa (Hải chiến Hoàng Sa).

For years, Vietnam has remained silent about the war and has even suppressed large-scale efforts to commemorate the lost troops, who fought on behalf of South Vietnam. Now, the Communist Party of Vietnam (CPV) has no choice but to commemorate the long-forgotten Paracel Maritime Battle in 1974, albeit cautiously and selectively. 

On one hand, Hanoi needs historical evidence of China’s encroachment to assert its territorial claim in the increasingly tense South China Sea today. A unified Vietnam led by the CPV inherited the territorial claims of South Vietnam (also known as the Republic of Vietnam) over the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. On the other hand, it faces a dilemma recognizing the South Vietnamese government, which was its enemy during and even beyond the Vietnam War.

History of Battles, Battle of Histories 

According to Chen Meifang’s 2009 book, “Defending Xisha: PLA’s Self-Defense Counterattack Operations in Xisha Islands,” the octogenarian Mao made his final war decision with a stroke of his pen and two characters, writing “同意” (agree) on Zhou Enlai’s report accusing South Vietnam of “hegemony and expansion” in Chinese territorial waters. Mao put Ye Jianying and Deng Xiaoping, following his rehabilitation during the Cultural Revolution, in charge. 

In the ensuing battle, China swiftly defeated the South Vietnamese army, which by then had been largely abandoned by its previous allies. Over 100 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed or wounded, while 48 soldiers from the Republic of Vietnam and one American liaison officer were captured, compared to 18 Chinese soldiers killed and 67 others wounded. China took pride in winning its first maritime battle.

Chinese nationals have occupied the islands ever since. The largest, Woody Island, now has a permanent population of 1,000 people. It now hosts the capital for Sansha City, the administrative unit under which China claims control of all the maritime features in the South China Sea. 

Dr. George J. Veith, a historian and author of the 2021 book “Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams,” said that while the Saigon government was eager to maintain control over the area, the islands were difficult to defend, despite South Vietnam’s years-long attempts to claim sovereignty over the Paracels. At the time of the conflict, South Vietnam had installed a small garrison on one island and maintained naval patrols in the area.

“The Vietnamese Navy ships were old WWII boats given to them by the U.S., the island was hard to resupply, and fighter coverage from the Danang airfields was near the limits of the fuel range of the F-5s. So while Saigon wanted to control the islands and attempted to do so, it was difficult for them,” said Veith via email. 

“The Chinese, on the other hand, could mass ships close to the islands. After various provocations by the Chinese, the short naval battle resulted in a defeat for South Vietnam.”

The soon-to-collapse South Vietnam was left to its own devices. In 1972, U.S. President Richard Nixon had traveled to Beijing and started the process of normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). A similar move was made by Japan, though Tokyo continued to support Saigon until its doomsday in 1975. France recognized the PRC and pushed the U.S. to withdraw its troops from Vietnam. 

After the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, numerous Western countries began engaging with the government of North Vietnam. Taiwan, an ally of the South, did not specify its stance on the Paracel Islands, though various mainland Chinese sources said that Chiang Kai-shek’s government tacitly collaborated with the PRC. At the time, Taipei clung to the wild dream of retaking the mainland, and a PLA victory thus would have been seen as beneficial for eventual Republic of China control over the Paracels.

President Thiệu’s repeated requests for U.S. military funding were in vain. South Vietnamese troops, meanwhile, were both economically and mentally distressed. Vũ Văn Lộc, a former colonel in the Southern government in charge of logistics for taking control of the war after the U.S. withdrawal, said that the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) was not well prepared for the battle at the time. 

Dr. Sean Fear from Leeds University agreed, saying via an email: “I am skeptical that the morale of ARVN soldiers engaged in this episode would have been high, mostly based on my impressions of events elsewhere around the same time.”

In the last-ditch effort, South Vietnam protested to the United Nations, but China, having veto power on the U.N. Security Council – where Beijing had replaced Taiwan since 1971 – blocked any efforts to bring it up.  According to Associate Professor Nguyễn Thị Hạnh at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, in her 2018 book “Les Conflits Frontaliers Sino-Vietnamiens,” the U.N. refused to intervene in the conflict between China and the Republic of Vietnam regarding the sovereignty dispute over the Paracel Islands in January 1974.

North Vietnam did not join the effort, which came during a period of tension with China. CPV Chief Lê Duẩn’s initiative to discuss the Paracel and Spratly issues with then-Chinese Deputy Prime Minister Deng Xiaoping upon his visit to Beijing in September 1975, after the fall of Saigon, was dismissed. Deng said that the stance of each country “had already been clear.” 

In 1977, the Vietnamese government issued a “Statement on the Territorial Sea, the Contiguous Zone, the Exclusive Economic Zone, and the Continental Shelf,” in which it asserted that the Spratly and Paracel Islands were an inseparable part of Vietnamese territory.

Heroes or Enemies?

The defeat in the Battle of the Paracel Islands contradicts the official narrative of Vietnam emerging victorious in different battles, mostly against China. It was Vietnam that suffered the loss – but not unified Vietnam as it exists today.

Hanoi-centric national textbooks hide from Vietnamese youths the fact that, until the fall of Saigon, the government of North Vietnam was only recognized by a few other nations, mostly from the Communist bloc. North Vietnam was not an official member of the U.N. By contrast, the southern regime was recognized by the U.N. and almost 90 countries. 

This complicates official remembrance, as it was South Vietnam that spearheaded the efforts to maintain sovereignty over the Paracel Islands. That involved cooperation with numerous countries. Thiệu asked France to provide full documentation of territorial sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. In October 1973, just a few months prior to the Paracel battle, the National Liberation Front of the South, known in Western media as the “Viet Cong,” announced its intention to liberate areas “illegally occupied by the enemy.” 

The enemy here refers to the southern government led by Thiệu. In response, Thiệu stated, “It is we who must save ourselves” and ordered his troops to fight tooth and nail. He even went to Danang to oversee his forces responsible for the Paracels’ defense, but the effort was in vain. 

The CPV’s stance changed once it was leading a unified Vietnamese government. Now the CPV itself had to address China’s growing aggression in the South China Sea and provide historical evidence of Vietnam’s territorial claims. In these instances, the former southern regime was referred to as the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) instead of “the puppet regime.” 

For instance, at the Hoàng Sa Memorial in Danang city, built in 2016, the South Vietnamese government is referred to as the RVN, yet in other historical museums of the same city, it is still referred to as the puppet regime. 

Yet the troops that fought on South Vietnam’s behalf, including at the Battle of the Paracels, did not receive any thanks from the CPV. Quite the contrary. 

After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, Southern regime civilian and military officials were sent to reeducation centers modeled upon those of China. They were also denied certain vocational and educational opportunities in the new socialist society. Historian Vũ Minh Hoàng described this as “unnecessary and wasteful” in his book chapter “Recycling Violence: The Theory and Practice of Reeducation Camps in Postwar Vietnam.” 

Dr. Cù Huy Hà Vũ served in the Vietnamese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for 30 years and then became a dissident, now living in the United States. His father was the famous poet and Minister Cù Huy Cận, who, along with Ho Chi Minh, signed Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence on September 2, 1945. 

Dr. Cù conducted extensive research, including interviews with the family members of several incarcerated military officers from the former South Vietnamese regime, which were subsequently documented and shared through international media channels. In August 2010, he submitted a recommendation to the Vietnamese National Assembly, advocating for the amnesty of military and civilian officers who had served under the South Vietnamese regime (1954-1975).

“Ironically, the leadership of the now unified Vietnam, after 30 years of war, not only failed to learn from Hồ Chí Minh’s example of national reconciliation but, on the contrary, deepened the wounds of the nation by focusing on ‘rehabilitation’ for hundreds of thousands of military personnel and officials of the Republic of Vietnam for many years,” wrote Cù in the recommendation, which he disseminated widely online.

The CPV used this document to charge Cù with creating and circulating anti-state propaganda, leading to his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for seven years a few months later. 

“As far as I know, there are no more imprisoned military personnel from the South of Vietnam,” said Cù in an email. 

The Dead and Defeated 

Despite the 1974 defeat, returning soldiers were still welcomed as heroes in South Vietnam, prior to the fall of Saigon. A street in Saigon was named after Commander Nguỵ Văn Thà, who died in action in the Paracels. After the North Vietnamese Communists overran South Vietnam in 1975, the street named after that hero no longer existed

In his 2022 book, “Nothing is Impossible: America’s Reconciliation With Vietnam,” former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius shared his personal account of visiting the abandoned and strictly controlled Biên Hoà cemetery near Saigon, which stands as the sole remaining burial site for soldiers of the former South Vietnam regime. He also detailed the diplomatic efforts he made to engage with Vietnamese officials,  requesting permission for simple activities, such as digging ditches and cutting tree roots, within the cemetery. Osius viewed the cemetery as a “pivot point” for reconciliation between the north and south of Vietnam.

According to Associate Professor Ngô Thị Thanh Tâm of the Amsterdam-based NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies, the fallen soldiers of the Republic of South Vietnam are referred to as “tử sĩ,” whose dead bodies are categorized as “dead enemies.” Their burial grounds are often considered “dead zones,” which are even shunned by the living, since the enemies’ lives are deemed “ungrievable.” 

In contrast to tử sĩ, the 1.2 million soldiers of the Northern Liberation Army who died fighting for the establishment and preservation of the CPV are memorialized as martyrs (liệt sĩ), whose death exemplifies sacred and selfless sacrifice. In the official formulation, liệt sĩ deserve to be eternally remembered, and their remains are to be taken good care of.

“The term ‘tử sĩ’ since then has been used for soldiers who died in war circumstances, but their death is not recognized by the state authority as contributing to the national interest or sometimes [is] even [seen as] against the national interests. This is the reason why the term is used for fallen ARVN,” said Ngô via email.

Since 2014, state media outlets have listed the names of those soldiers in the Paracels battle as tử sĩ, instead of liệt sĩ. Their mothers cannot earn the title of “heroic mothers,” and their children are not eligible to benefit from the preferential treatment reserved for the nearest and dearest of the state-recognized martyrs. Those injured during the 1974 bloody clash are not recognized as war invalids.

On China’s side, the Xisha Naval Battle Martyrs Cemetery was built in 1975 in Sanya, on Hainan Island. The cemetery was designated as a municipal-level cultural relic protection unit by the Sanya Municipal People’s Government in 1990 and renovated in 2016.  

CPV-Controlled Commemoration 

In Vietnam, the CPV decides who is a hero and who is part of “hostile forces,” as well as which events are worthy of commemoration. Deviation from official views lead to different types of punishment, including imprisonment. Article 18 of the 2018 Cybersecurity Law forbids distortion of the CPV-approved historiography and denial of revolutionary achievements even in the virtual sphere. 

For the CPV, the neighbor to the north is both a model and menace, such that any commemoration of the 1974 conflict in the South China Sea might put the country at risk. Due to a top-down order, the commemoration in 2014 in Đà Nẵng on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the battle was cancelled at the last minute for reasons that remain unclear. Protesters in 2014 who insisted on commemorating the death of fallen Vietnamese soldiers were dispersed by the police. 

Yet self-organized commemoration events have still been taking place. Former colonel-turned-refugee Vũ Văn Lộc, now living in California, said that “diasporic communities still organize the events to commemorate the bloody battle.” 

According to anthropologist Edyta Roszko, within Vietnam even local remembrance events are far from free. “Although the anniversary celebration of the Paracel and Spratly soldiers was included in commemorative projects, the state preferred to maintain a low profile for these ceremonies, as the whole issue of contested archipelagos was highly politicized,” wrote Roszko in her 2020 book “Fishers, Monks and Cadres: Navigating State, Religion, and the South China Sea in Central Vietnam,” based on her field research in the Lý Sơn Islands near the Paracels in 2007-2008. 

In 2014, well-known journalist Huy Đức and his colleagues organized a fund-raising project, titled “Hoàng Sa bridge,” to support families of the fallen 1974 soldiers. A campaign was also launched to build houses for the widows of South Vietnamese fighters killed in the Paracels battle.

In January 2014, Vietnam’s state media for the first time marked the event. The public mention of the long-forgotten war drew the ire of Vietnam’s giant neighbor and largest trading partner. In May 2014, China placed an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, triggering unprecedented anti-China protests across Vietnam. 

Sensitivity Beyond the Seashore

Despite all the feel-good stories featured in state media before, during, and after Xi Jinping’s trip to Vietnam in December 2023, the South China Sea disputes remain a sticking point between the two communist countries and cooperative comprehensive partners. 

Overseas Vietnamese groups and dissidents that have commemorated the Battle of the Paracel Islands has viewed the CPV’s silence over armed conflicts with China as evidence of its subservience to Beijing. 

But if the CPV had any reason to criticize the “puppet regime” for failing to protect the Paracel Islands, Hanoi did not do much better.  

At first, in 1976, the CPV attempted to persuade Beijing to recognize Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratly Islands in exchange for Hanoi’s recognition of China’s claim over the Paracel Islands. Only after that effort failed did Vietnam’s government, now under CPV control, assert its claim over both archipelagos.

In 1988, the CPV suffered its own rout in the South China Sea. The People’s Army of Vietnam could not even return fire when the Chinese troops defeated them, this time in the Spratly Islands. Over 60 Vietnamese soldiers were killed and three naval vessels were sunk in the battle, which took place near Johnson South Reef.

At the ensuing negotiations, China accused Vietnam not only of having illegally invaded the islands to begin with, but also of being ungrateful for China’s war-time aid and unreliable due to the latter reneging on their words.

Compulsory education about the sea and islands (giáo dục biển đảo) at all levels of education, including nursery schools, which has been proliferating over the past decade, focuses on teaching students what the CPV wants them to know. Omitted from the curriculum is the fact that the entire Paracel Island group has been under continuous occupation and utilization by China since the battle of 1974.

Still, Hanoi continues to press its claim, 50 years – and one new government – later. A decree in 2020 stipulated that publishing any print or online materials that feature Vietnamese maps without including the Paracel and Spratly islands would be subject to heavy fines. Furthermore, any entities violating this regulation would be publicly shamed on state media.

The CPV also encourages Vietnamese fishermen to operate in the disputed area, even though it cannot defend them. China’s Coast Guard has sunk many Vietnamese ships and arrested fishermen in the contested waters. Despite Hanoi’s public condemnation of Chinese vessels that encroached upon Vietnam’s claimed territorial waters and endangered the lives and properties of Vietnamese fishermen, little has been done in reality to protect them. 

André Menras is an 80-year-old independent filmmaker who worked as a teacher in southern Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. Due to his anti-war activities and support for the National Liberation Front, he was expelled by the South Vietnamese government before the Paris Peace Accords.

In 2011, the same year when he was officially granted Vietnamese citizenship, Menras obtained permission to produce the film “Hoang Sa Vietnam: La Meurtrissure” (“Hoang Sa Vietnam: Painful Loss”) as a journalistic product in Ho Chi Minh City. The film highlights multiple challenges faced by Vietnamese fishermen in the Paracel Islands due to Chinese military vessels. 

However, in November 2011, the film was banned from screening in Ho Chi Minh City, despite its prior compliance with Vietnamese media law. According to Menras, his film, featuring long-suffering Vietnamese fishermen, was criticized for not sufficiently highlighting the party spirit and for not complimenting the CPV’s contribution enough. 

In addition, screening of his film also faced challenges in France. The venue of its screening was withdrawn at the last minute by the municipality of Montpellier in 2012. By way of explanation, he was told by the city leader that “the film addresses violence and conflicts between two cultures.”

“My film is not meant to be consensual because reality itself is not consensual,” said Menras via an email. There are authentic documentaries, devoid of any staging, and they depict injustice, oppression, and pain as experienced by ordinary people. They also expose the cowardice of those who fail to protect them. Therefore, the film can be both hurtful and provocative. This is true for both political and commercial reasons, as they might make those involved in commercial relations with Beijing uncomfortable, fearing potential reprisals.”

But censorship in Vietnam, France, and elsewhere in the world will not stop him from pursuing and exposing the inconvenient truths.

“I did not fear the truths at the age of 20, and I don’t see why I would fear them at 80,” said Menras.