Read more about the 5 flashpoints of the South China sea here.
Beguiled by undersea oil and gas deposits and the weakness of fellow claimants to the Paracel Islands, China launched a naval offensive to seize the disputed archipelago. To justify its actions, Beijing pointed to history -- notably Ming Dynasty Adm. Zheng He's visits to the islands in the 15th century -- while touting its "indisputable sovereignty" over most of the South China Sea.
Chinese vessels carrying amphibious troops and operating under fighter cover from nearby Hainan Island engaged a South Vietnamese flotilla bereft of air support. One Vietnamese destroyer escort lay at the bottom of the South China Sea following the daylong battle. China's flag fluttered over the islands.
The skirmish was real -- and the date was Jan. 17, 1974.
History may not repeat itself exactly, but it sure rhymes. Back then, China exploited South Vietnamese weakness to seize the Paracels. Now, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has announced plans to station a military garrison at Sansha, a newly founded city on the 0.8 square-mile Woody Island in the Paracels. Formally established on July 24, Sansha will act as China's administrative center for the Paracel and Spratly islands and adjoining waters.
This is the latest move in China's campaign to consolidate its claim to all waters and islands within a "nine-dashed line" that encloses most of the South China Sea, including large swaths of Southeast Asian countries' exclusive economic zones (EEZs). This month, a Chinese frigate ran aground in the Philippine EEZ after reportedly shooing away Filipino fishermen. That incident came on the heels of a late June announcement that PLA Navy units would commence "combat-ready patrols" of contested waters.
Beijing is reaching for its weapons once again. Unlike in 1974, however, Chinese leaders are doing so at a time when peacetime diplomacy seemingly offers them a good chance to prevail without fighting. I call it "small-stick diplomacy" -- gunboat diplomacy with no overt display of gunboats.
Chinese strategists take an extraordinarily broad view of sea power -- one that includes nonmilitary shipping. In 1974, propagandists portrayed the "Defensive War for the Paracels" (as the conflict is known in Chinese) as the triumph of a "people's navy," lavishly praising the fishermen who had acted as a naval auxiliary. Fishing fleets can go places and do things to which rivals must respond or surrender their claims by default. Unarmed ships from coast-guard-like agencies constitute the next level. And the PLA Navy fleet backed by shore-based tactical aircraft, missiles, missile-armed attack boats, and submarines represents the ultimate backstop.