Rumpus in the South China Sea


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

(Published in the October issue of DSA available on their site

Keywords and phrases: Paracels sea battle, Domino Theory, Saigon Military Mission, Pacification and development of Vietnam, Shanghai communique, China control of Paracels, century of humiliation.

The Battle for the Paracel Islands: Setting the precedence

In January of 1974 during America’s war in Vietnam, an obscure naval battle was fought in the South China Sea involving an intense clash between the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and South Vietnamese navies near the disputed Paracel Islands. The short but fierce battle left China in control of seemingly unremarkable spits of land and surrounding waters. The incident merited little global attention, especially when compared with past titanic struggles at sea, such as those of the two world wars. Unsurprisingly, the battle remains an obscure, if not forgotten, episode. However in naval history it defined China’s early steps to arrogate the South China Sea. It is, therefore, important that we examine this naval battle keeping in perspective the backdrop of the larger war being waged on the Indo-China Peninsula and the US geo-political moves to open-up the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In response to the stunning victory by North Vietnamese communist forces in June 1954, bringing to an end nearly a century of French colonial rule in Indochina, America, feared the strategic collapse of western influence against the surge of Communism in South East Asia. It contrived a foreign policy that came to be known as the “Domino Theory”. Subsequent events however suggest that the concept was ill-advised and today stands discredited; the view was that the fall of Indochina to communism would lead rapidly to the collapse of other nations in Southeast Asia (including Laos, Cambodia and Thailand) and elsewhere (Japan, Philippines, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and even India). US President Eisenhower, in 1954 declared, “The possible consequences of the loss “are just incalculable to the free world.”

 American answer was the Saigon Military Mission, a covert operation to conduct psychological warfare and paramilitary activities in Vietnam to prop up the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in South Vietnam. It marks the beginning of the American war in Vietnam. The Geneva Accords of 1954 effectively divided Vietnam in two at the 17th parallel. By 1967 a wily programme for the ‘pacification and development of Vietnam’ was initiated that was primarily a US military coercive effort to compel security and stability of South Vietnam’s rural population. US troops were surged to approximately 485,000. The casualties bore grim testimony to the utter failure of the scheme, by 1968 over 20,000 US troops had had been killed.

It wasn’t till 27 January, 1973 that President Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accords, ending ‘direct’ U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. It may be recalled that Nixon opened the doors to China in February 1972, during which he met Chairman Mao and signed the Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai. The communiqué set the stage for improved Sino-US relations both economic and political. Normalization of relations and the accession of China into the global marketplace was the end purpose. Clearly there was no intention to initiate any action that might jeopardise Nixon’s grand scheme.

Harking back to the Battle for the Paracel Islands. The archipelago lies in the South China Sea approximately equidistant from the coastlines of the PRC and Vietnam. With no indigenous population, ownership has been in dispute since the early 20th century. Between 1932 and 1956 the Islands exchanged hands contentiously between the French, Japanese, Republic of China (Taiwan) and South Vietnam. By 1956 France and Japan abdicated their claims which left China and South Vietnam with small garrisons on Yongxing and Shanu Islands. The Paracel Islands are located 300 kilometres south of Hainan Island, and 370 kilometres east of Da Nang. The archipelago is composed of coral islands, reefs, and banks divided into two island groups. To the northeast is the Amphitrite Group, in which Woody Island is the largest feature. To the southwest is the Crescent Group, consisting of Pattle , Money and Robert Islands on the western side and Drummond  Duncan  and Palm Islands on the eastern side. About eighty kilometers of water separate the Amphitrite and Crescent Groups (see Chart 1)

Chart 1  PARACEL ARCHIPELAGO                                                          (source‘

On 16 January, 1974, two Chinese Kronshtadt-class submarine chasers and two minesweepers along with a force of maritime militia were ordered to protect fisherman operating off the Paracel Islands. It was also a part of a force build-up in the eastern part of the archipelago. Beijing had decided to solve the Paracel Islands territorial dispute by force if the opportunity presented itself. Saigon in the meantime despatched a Frigate with South Vietnamese Army officers and an American observer to the Paracels on a surveillance mission to investigate reported Chinese activities in the area (the role of the American officer on the frigate was never clear). They discovered two Chinese “armoured fishing trawlers” off Drummond Island in support of a detachment of troops who had occupied the island. Chinese soldiers were also observed on nearby Duncan Island, with a landing ship and two additional Kronstadt class submarine chasers in the vicinity. This was reported to Saigon who despatched two more frigates and one corvette to confront the Chinese ships in the area and evict their troops on the islands. By 18 January the Vietnamese force concentrated off the Islands. In the meantime the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) had also landed two battalions of marines supported by a large number of irregular militia.

The combined Vietnamese force of three frigates and one corvette vastly outgunned (5 inch and 3 inch guns) the PLAN force of two minesweepers, two Kronshtadt class submarine chasers (Soviet origin, main armament 85 mm and 37 mm guns) and the landing ship. In the run up to the battle, South Vietnamese troops attempting to establish a bridgehead on Duncan Island were beaten back by Chinese marines and irregulars.

On the morning of 19 January the Battle was joined when a gun duel broke out between the two forces.  The lighter and faster Chinese flotilla manoeuvred close in to the South Vietnamese force; their agility permitted them to close the larger South Vietnamese warships to within their gun range. The Vietnamese could not bring their heavier guns to bear. All the while the Chinese maritime militia on board their armed and armoured trawlers were deployed close-in to ensure a very confused picture. Tactically, once range was closed to half-mile, the Chinese vessels’ rapid-firing light weapons and speed gave them a decisive advantage. The PLAN had within 40 minutes bested the South Vietnamese fleet. By late evening 20 January, all of the Paracel Archipelago was under Chinese control.

China’s Grand Strategy Unfolds

China employed a mix of conventional and irregular forces to meet its operational objectives. Such hybrid methods foreshadowed the kinds of combined maritime warfare China would consistently employ in its grand strategy to annex the South China Sea. Indeed, operations in 1974 in the Paracels represent an archetype that could be employed again in the future. The battle was the first step in China’s effort to control and usurp the South China Sea as it territorial sea.

Using similar tactics, in 1988, China seized six reefs and atolls of the Spratly Islands after another skirmish with the Vietnamese at Johnson South Reef. In late 1994, they built structures on Philippines-claimed Mischief Reef, leaving a weak Manila no choice but to accept the fait accompli. In 2012, China compelled the Philippines to yield control of Scarborough Shoal after a standoff at sea over fishing rights in the area. Beginning in late 2013, China embarked on a massive land reclamation project in the Spratlys, building up artificial islands that added up to thousands of acres of land. Some of the man-made islands feature military-grade runways, deep-draft piers and facilities to accommodate warships.

China has laid claim to all the waters of the South China Sea based on a demarcation they call the ‘Nine-Dash’ line. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that the origin of the entitlement is bereft of legitimacy and could not be used by Beijing to make historic claims to the South China Sea. The line, first inscribed on a Chinese map in 1947, has “no legal basis” for maritime claims, deemed the Court.

Chart 2.  The Nine Dash Line

In brazen dismissal of the Tribunal’s ruling, China persists in its sweeping claims of sovereignty over the sea, its resources and de-facto control over the   trade plying across it amounting to US $5.3 trillion annually.

Satellite imagery has shown China’s efforts to militarize the  Woody Island while constructing artificial Islands and setting up military bases, rejecting competing claims of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Most of the world along with claimant countries demand the rights assured under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In  sum,  China’s  strategy  for  managing  its  claims  in  the  South China  Sea  has  emphasized  delaying  settlement  of disputes. And in time with swelling military capability, occupation of contested features, building artificial Islands and locating military bases for control of the waters within the nine-dash line. In the face of these aggressive moves the other claimant states are left in awe as they are handed down a grim reality.

To Untangle Beijing’s Behaviour

China’s century of Humiliation (1839-1949) coincided with the start of the First Opium War and ceding of Hong Kong to Britain. The conflict provided other colonial powers, a blueprint for usurping territories from the crumbling Qing dynasty. So, northern China was seized by the Czar, Formosa was taken by Japan; while Germany, France and Austria carved out coveted real estate through ‘loaded treaties’.

The period remains etched in Chinese institutional memory of a rapacious international system over which it had little influence. It has today shaped China’s geo-political thrust for controlling status in the very same system. More importantly, it provides a rallying point internally and a persistent reminder to its people of why the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, Premier Xi Jinping’s declaration of 2017 that “…the world is not peaceful” is turning out to be an “engineered” self-fulfilling prophecy. When put on a strategic template the delaying actions to resolve simmering discords effected only to exasperate, Janus faced policies that serve to deceive and subvert alliances, coercive manoeuvres, lease-for-debt economic deals and flouting of international norms bear a bizarre semblance to the words of Sun Tzu: ‘The master conqueror frustrated his enemy’s plans and broke up his alliances. He created cleavages…He gathered information, sowed dissension and nurtured subversion. The enemy was isolated, divided and demoralized; his will to resist broken.” (Griffith, p 39).

Challenge of China

Of all the uncertainties, it is China, a stated revisionist autocratic power that will impact regional stability; particularly so, in the maritime domain. The planner must in the circumstance examine in some detail the challenge of China. Of significance is the shift in global balance to the Indo-Pacific intricately linked to the stunning growth of China as a contender for regional dominance. Its ascendancy is backed by military forces that are developed to the point where they expect to challenge any adversary that may attempt to deny its interests.

China’s latest defence white paper of July 2019 describes “Taiwan, Tibet, and Turkistan as separatists that threaten national unity. While drumming the theme of “people’s security” it persists with its re-education camps in Xinjiang. It hammers home the brutal repression of Muslim ethnic minorities, mainly Uighurs, and their mass incarceration. The paper warns of the dangers of territorial conflicts erupting in the South China Sea and hazards of strategic competition for resources and control of the seaways.”

Paradox of China’s Actions: A Conclusion-An Unintended War

The consequences of China enabling its Anti-Access and Area Denial strategy and enabling its Coast Guard Law (January 2021) are moves to establish proprietary control, sources of raw materials, domination of sea lines of communication euphemistically called the “maritime silk route” and working to realise the String of Pearls (currently a patchy network of Chinese military and commercial facilities along its maritime silk route). These manoeuvres in the Indian Ocean and Pacific Region evoke increasing anxieties and resistance by players in the same strategic settings. Debt traps that have been set by China to inveigle some of the hapless littorals of the Indian Ocean of their maritime facilities are symptomatic of a new form of colonial venture. The paradoxical effects of China’s actions are to undermine its own strategic standing, hasten counter balancing alignments such as the QUAD and urge a global logic of cooperative politics over imperial strategies.

Through all this, China remains quite oblivious to the legality of their discordant Air Defence Identification Zone, the 9-Dash line delineating their claim over most of the South China Sea, China’s Coast Guard Laws, contravention of the UNCLOS and breaching international law by constructing and militarising artificial islands. China appears to be challenging not just today’s economic orthodoxy, but the world’s political and security framework as well.

              We are not in Sun Tzu times neither are strategies so opaque nor are Xi’s people willing to tolerate an autocratic ruler indefinitely. Yet China would do well to heed Sun Tzu’s sage words of avoiding a reckless path to an unintended war.

Origin of a New Cold War


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS Web Journal in my column the Strategist. Available at  http://wwAvailable

Keywords: Containment, defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere, NATO Summit June 2021, growing speculation, the New Cold War.

George. F. Keenan, an American Foreign Service officer, in 1947 formulated the policy of “containment.” The continuity that this policy represented may be appreciated by its longevity; it remained at the foundation of the US strategy for fighting the Cold War (1947–1989) with the Soviet Union and the keystone of their foreign policy. “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies and protection of global industrial centres.” To that end, he called for countering “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world” through the “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy.” Such a policy, Kennan predicted, would “promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” He tailed off with the statement that “In the context of the present polarization of power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.”

It is an awkward strategic irony that Keenan’s words should find an improbable echo 84 years later, in 2021, at summit declarations of the G7 and NATO. With the difference that it is China’s territorial ambition, cyber manipulation of global centres of industries, commerce and financial institutions, violation of human rights and disregard of established international norms that has become the object of antipathy. The NATO summit of June 2021 in its concluding declaration underscored that China’s “stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order.” China’s repression of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and its “frequent lack of transparency and use of disinformation” has piqued the international community. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) leaders, earlier in their first summit also weighed in when they agreed to “meet challenges to the rules-based maritime order in the East and South China seas”.

 In summary China poses a ‘fourfold threat’ to the world; economic, ideological, geopolitically and an aggressive revisionism. China’s subjugation of Uighurs, its crackdown in Hong Kong, territorial excesses in the South and East China Sea and Ladakh region have drawn condemnation from the larger majority of the world community. Its massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has prompted concerns about Beijing’s unscrupulous influence over some European and developing countries along the route. Seeking to create a counterweight of democratic values and nations in response to Beijing’s growing economic, military and revisionist activities the G7, NATO and the Quad emphasised that they will “continue to respond to the deteriorating security environment by enhancing deterrence and defence posture.”

Are we witnessing the genesis of another Cold War? The first Cold War was marked by actions taken to face down the Soviet Union and its Communist allies whenever and wherever they posed a perceived risk of gaining influence. In fact, Kennan advocated defending above all else the world’s major centres of industrial power against Soviet expansion. The Cold War was characterised by three factors:

  • The threat of nuclear war and the ensuing arms race
  • Ideological quest for world domination
  • Victory through influence and proxy wars

  Today, this would develop into vigorous opposition to any belligerent geopolitical action initiated by China. On the ground, China’s every move is designed more to further its own rapacious designs than for any altruistic purpose. A master plan has been articulated in their July 2019 white paper on national defence titled “China’s National Defence in the New Era.” The paper offers insights into how Chinese leadership conceives a world order characterized by greater control over what it perceives to be a “community of common destiny (CCD).”  The paper, significantly, re-emphasises China’s intentions to revise the current global order to create a future more favourable for its interests. China makes a grand assumption that countries in the region are “increasingly aware of being members of the CCD” and then deduces that they are therefore in harmony with Beijing’s ideological make-up. While the questionable nature of the ‘grand assumption’ throws up a flawed deduction, what comes next is disquieting. It is the illusory context of the document linking China’s defence directly to the notion of a “CCD for humanity” that provides a dangerous strategic underpinning.

The Covid-19 virus, originating in Wuhan, set into motion a pandemic of a scale and scope whose economic impact on the world has beggared belief; the statistics speak for themselves, total deaths: 3.94 million, number of cases: 182.07 million. The strange fact is that China, where the virus originated, has been left largely untouched; its economy is showing growth of a nature that is implausible while the health of its population remains robust. The curtain of opacity that China has shrouded itself in as to origins of the virus has only reinforced the growing speculation that the virus was man-made and its release, deliberate.

The pandemic has provided a springboard for China to plunge into the act of creating the “New Era.” This ambitious scheme comes unglued as control over civil society diminishes and the Chinese Communist Party loses appreciation of human nature that craves for what it does not have which, in the case, is democratic freedoms. Democracy in China is restricted to the local level in small cohesive communities. Leadership is chosen and ordained at this level to rise to the top echelons of authority with neither popular support nor with their feet on the ground. The flaws in China’s political system are obvious. The media is heavily censored and the Internet manipulated and periodically blocked. Leaders are unimpeded by the rule of law. More disquieting is the despotic trend that Xi Jinping has set in motion, suggesting that the regime is increasingly worried about its legitimacy. Despite economic growth being at the heart of political stability, incidents such as the crackdown on Jack Ma’s (the richest man in China, creator of Alibaba – China’s largest tech company – and The Ant Group, the largest Financial technology company in the world) assets, which have been stripped, shorn, chopped and distributed amongst incompetents, have been making international headlines. Reasons for this embargo are inexplicable since Ma’s enterprises had over the years contributed in good measure to China’s growth. Other leading entrepreneurs today are on thin ice.

Through the ages, human progression has been inspired by increasing empowerment of individuals and communities rather than a collective enslavement to abstract causes. Resentment of years of humiliation, as China’s leadership never fail to remind its people, can only lead to a society that is drawn to toxic authoritarianism. This has happened, and therefore our perplexity at civil society in China drawn to a ‘New Era’ must not come as a surprise. Uncomfortably, the era coincides with the start of a new cold war.

Filling a Punctured Power Vacuum


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

Published in the IPCS web journal in my column ‘The Strategist,’ appears titled “Afghanistan : the consequences of US withdrawal”. Available at the following site


President Biden announced on 14 April 2021 the end of, what is described as, America’s ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan; the announcement came nearly two decades after invasion. A decade earlier, the US proclaimed that they had accomplished their war aims with the ouster of the Taliban and the disposal of Osama bin Laden.  What followed was ten years of a rudderless war that made a futile attempt to transform Afghan society and foist a Western style democracy on its people.

Under the Doha Agreement of February 2020, between the US and Taliban, American forces were to fully withdraw by 01 May 2021 in exchange for Taliban commitment to prevent Afghan soil from being used by terrorists and agreeing to intra-Afghan talks. Even before Biden’s announcement the Taliban had declared they would not participate in any further talks and threatened “consequences” if the withdrawal deadline was shifted. The matter of terrorist use of Afghan territory remains undetermined, while they have reneged on any further intra-Afghan talks. In its twelfth report on 01 June, the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN, has observed: “The Taliban’s intent appears to be to continue to strengthen its military position as leverage… the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties”. The report also highlights the issue of narcotics in Afghanistan which continues to remain the Taliban’s largest single source of income. Sure enough since 01 May the Taliban have struck at Kabul, Zabul, Logar, Herat, Helmand and Ghor causing over 136 casualties this included a car bombing of a school in the capital resulting in over 85 casualties.  Extrapolating these incidents one can picture the scope, spread and ferocity of the Taliban assault post-withdrawal as they make their inexorable bid to seize unconditional power.

So what of the power vacuum in Afghanistan? While much has been made of the potential of the region to harness its role as the “Heart of Asia” to integrate and stimulate commerce between and outward of the five central Asian states; the reality is the warring nature of polity within and the intrusive external interests that seek to manipulate and control. For Pakistan it is the expansion and consolidation of exclusive Taliban power that would facilitate their bizarre concept of “strategic depth”; China seeks a free hand in the exploitation of Afghan resources irrespective of the dispensation in power; while Iran has been wary of an exclusively pro-Saudi and pro-Pakistani Taliban in Afghanistan and may be willing to queer he pitch by introducing Shia fighters (ex-Syria) to keep the Afghan cauldron in a state of boil.

In retrospect very little has changed over the last two decades, in fact the period of bloody turmoil has continued for four decades since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Prior to the US invasion of 2001 the fundamentalist Taliban from 1996 until 2001, provided refuge to al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. After being ousted by the US invasion, the Taliban regrouped across the border in Pakistan and has led an insurgency against the government in Kabul for more than nineteen years.  

The question before us: Is the Afghanistan of 2021 indistinguishable from when the Taliban was ousted in 2001? Is it the same ultra-conservative, misogynist, religious and political society that not only ruled but also provided sanctuary to extremist Islamic groups such as the Al-Qaeda and resuscitated terrorists like the militant Islamic State? It would be naïve to believe that two decades later religious zealots would control life, bring about a return to oppression of women, massacre of ethnic and religious minorities and a ban on TV and music. Reason being that an entire generation of Afghans have come of age with some advantages of technology. Admittedly this may be more applicable to the urban areas. However, regional anxieties over the looming power vacuum in Afghanistan in the wake of a pull out are fuelled by the already bleak prospects of reconciliation between warring Afghan groups.

There is a school of thought that believes that U S strategic aims which changed from counter terrorism to the fallacious idea that they could rebuild the nation in a democratic mould, was the belief that became a source of insecurity, instability and Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan and indeed the failure of US war aims. The absence of a social system based upon a scientific and irreligious slant to life, a modern structure of justice, and a social contract that would draw inspiration from the need for both rights and duties and respect for civilizational traditions, has opened the doors to chaos, violent extremism and insecurity.  Was it then a convincing proposition to build a democratic state where the social, cultural and religio-political foundations militated against it?

Recent military history will suggest that no interventionary force has left the host in a condition of stability that could take over the reins of governance. The examples of the last century ranging from Algeria, Vietnam, Afghanistan (Soviet invasion), the Levant, Iraq, Libya and indeed Afghanistan of today do not seem to contradict the aphorism. In all cases it was clearly the tragic friction between the objectives of the intruder and the very foundations of the indigenous society that presaged disaster.

The regional impact of the impending festering situation is more than likely to be a civil war between the Taliban and forces loyal to Kabul. Already the former control over 30% of the land area while fierce fighting for control is going on in 26 of the 34 provinces. The nature of this war is agitated by Pakistan that vigorously advocates the Taliban cause; such a scenario makes a spill over of extremism into neighbouring spaces inevitable. The Americans in the meantime have assured Kabul that they would remain in the region and deploy in a ‘monitor and strike role’. Intriguing what this means operationally, particularly so after two decades of being in Afghanistan with forces that surged to 83,000 troops + 32,000 (NATO) they were unable to fulfil the very same role.

Afghanistan has been invaded since the first millennium BCE by the Mauryans, Greeks, the Caliphate, Mongols, Timurids, Mughals, Sikhs, British, Soviets and the Americans; the invading armies never quite understood the nature of war they were engaged in. While conquest of territory in Afghanistan and to emerge victorious in tactical engagements was more than probable; it was virtually impossible to hold the patchwork of tribal principalities down to a centralised government. Imposition of Western norms without turning to indigenous cultural models of governance and organization was destined for failure.

 History serves as a fertile classroom for structuring civilizational insights. In the absence of such a nuanced approach, no surprise that Afghanistan remains and will continue to be a ‘Graveyard of Empires.’