China's deep intentions in the forced seizure of the Paracels in 1974

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Revisiting the battle of 1974 at the Paracel Islands, it could be seen that China’s action had a deep calculation. Although forced seizure does not create a title of sovereignty over Paracel Islands because it is contrary to international law, China still decided to take action to serve its long-term strategy of becoming a regional power.

45 years ago, on January 19, 1974, China launched an invasion on the Paracel Islands of Vietnam. The Chinese Navy attacked Vietnamese naval forces guarding Duncan Island in the western part of the Paracels, and since then the entire Paracel Islands has fallen into Chinese hands.

An absence of the title of sovereignty

Despite its occupation of the entire Paracel Islands, China did not have official sovereignty over the Paracels as per the provisions of effective international laws at that time...

First, China's action was an invasion of Vietnam's territory. Vietnam's sovereignty over the Paracels has been established since the time of Nguyen dynasty in the 17th century, when the Paracels was a terra nullius. Vietnam then peacefully exercised its sovereignty over and continuously and effectively administered the archipelago. During the colonial period, France as a protector and controller of Indochina (including Vietnam) continued to exercise sovereignty over the Paracels. In 1954, in enforcing the Geneva Agreement, France transferred all its rights over Paracels to the Republic of Vietnam. In 1975, after the unification of the country’s two regions, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam took over the rights of administration of the Paracels.

Second, China's actions violated Article 02 of the Charter of the United Nations prohibiting all nations from the use of force against the territorial integrity of any state. This is the basic principle of international law that regulates the behavior of nations, and China must comply the principle since it has ratified and signed the Charter. The principle of not using force is also concretized in the Resolution 2625 adopted by the General Assembly on October 24, 1970: “Every State has the duty to refrain from the threat or use of force to violate the existing international boundaries of another State or as a means of solving international disputes, including territorial disputes and problems concerning frontiers of States”.

Third, China's action did not constitute legal evidence to assert its sovereignty over Paracel Islands. UN Resolution 2625 also states: "The territory of a country cannot be subject to a military occupation due to the use of force contrary to the provisions of the UN Charter. The territory of a country cannot be subject to a possession by another country after using force or threatening to use force. Any acquisition of territory obtained by threats or use of force will not be recognized as legal.”

The covert intentions

Despite the fact of not getting official sovereignty over the Paracels, China still decided to seize the islands to serve its strategic calculations.

Firstly, China took advantage of the turbulent international situation to gain and expand its territory. At the time the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was focusing on and about to win the battle against the United States, China attempted to occupy the Paracels prior to Vietnam’s victory to avoid a scenario that the Democratic Republic of Vietnam sent its forces to take over the Paracels from the Republic of Vietnam. China calculated that once the Democratic Republic of Vietnam took over the Paracel Islands, it would be difficult for China to expand its territory to the South China Sea because at that time, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was backed by the Soviet Union, whom China considered as a rival after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict. China feared that if the Pacific Fleet of the Soviet could enter the South China Sea and be present in the Paracels, China would have lied in the grip of the Soviet Union (China shares its northern border with the Soviet Union). Therefore, immediately after conquering the Paracels, China quickly mobilized and installed military equipment, radar stations, piers, seaports, warehouses,... on the islands to prepare for later invasion of the southern part of the South China Sea, especially Truong Sa.

Second, China got control of resources around the Paracels, especially oil and gas. Information about oil and gas resources in the South China Sea spread in the 1960s drew Chinese attention. Controlling of resources around Paracel Islands and oil and gas not only brings direct revenue to national budget but also fuels economic reforms, particularly, the development of manufacturing industries serving goods export.

Third, the Paracels has a geostrategic value on controlling the South China Sea space. From the Paracel Islands, China can control neighboring waters and the transport routes from Northeast Asia to the South China Sea, to Southeast Asian countries and to the Indian Ocean. This is the major maritime shipping route for China, Japan and South Korea. Controlling this sea route helps increase China's strength in competition with Japan and South Korea in Northeast Asia.

Fourth, by seizing the Paracels China tested the reaction of the big countries to China's ambition to become a great power. In the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were the two superpowers leading the two blocs. Therefore, China paid much attention to the reaction of these two countries. The United States and the Soviet Union understood China's intentions, but the two countries had their own difficulties. The United States had just resumed harmonious relations with China (President Nixon visited China in 1972), lost in the battle and was withdrawing troops from Vietnam. Therefore, they were unable to react strongly to China’s attack taking over the Paracel Islands from the Republic Vietnam. The Soviet Union was not on the side of the Republic of Vietnam (the administrating party of the Paracel Islands), thus it could not protest China. Once there were no act of protest or prevention from the United States and the Soviet Union, China would continued to encroach on the position of celestial dominance.

Looking back at history, the battle of the Paracel Islands in 1974 has shown that China’s action was carefully calculated. Although forced seizure does not create official sovereignty over Paracel Islands because it is contrary to international law, China still decided to take action to serve its long-term strategic intentions of becoming the regional power.