Views from Marwyn S. Samuels:
Conclusion for "Battle for the Paracels"
Though the on-going feud between China and Vietnam remains the most serious source of conflict in the region, it is not the only dispute that involves the status of the islands of the South China Sea. On 16 June 1976, for example, the PRC issued a stern warning to Manila that Philippines sponsored oil exploration activity in the Reed Bank area of the Spratly Islands constituted 'an impermissible encroachment on China's territorial integrity and sovereignty'. 64 Similarly, Hanoi and Manila have also exchanged differences of opinion as to their own respective interests in the Spratly Islands. 65 Furthermore, the continued presence of a large ROC garrison force on Itu Aba Island (T'ai-p'ing tao) complicates an already muddled legal and military situation in the Spratlys. If nothing else, the garrison provides an incentive for the PRC to move into the archipelago.
Be that as it may, there are still many outstanding questions as to the immediate and long-term interests of the PRC in the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. To be sure, the seriousness of those interests were adequately demonstrated by the events of January 1974 in the Paracels. Yet, even then the reasons for China's actions remained open to question. For that matter, the question has yet to be fully addressed.
If one accepts the Chinese version of events, January 1974 was almost an exact replay of February and March 1959 - save for the fact that this time Peking chose vigorously to defend its interests in the Paracels. By this account, as it were, Saigon had simply (if grossly) miscalculated the extent to which China was now willing to protect its position in the archipelago. In any case, Saigon was clearly caught off-guard by the ferocity of the Chinese response. Indeed, so too were most western diplomats, journalists and China-watchers. As it appeared to be thoroughly at odds with the basic tenor of PRC foreign policy since 1972, the Chinese attack was very much Unanticipated. As one Newsweek writer complained: 66
Despite such assessments, however, there were many 'pragmatic' incentives for Peking's tigerish handling of the Paracels question' in 1974. Not the least of these - and perhaps the most decisive - was the fact that, unlike the situation in 1958-9, there was little or no likelihood of American intervention. By 1974, of course, most American troops had been withdrawn from Vietnam and the chances for some new Tonkin Gulf-type resolution over the Paracel Islands were hardly good. Moreover, to use the most appropriate precedent, if only because of the new circumstances in Sino-American detente since 1972, a repeat of the 1958 Quemoy- Matsu offshore islands crisis was simply out of the question.
The fact that 'things' had drastically changed in the region was perhaps nowhere more clearly revealed than in the role of the US Seventh fleet as the fighting between China and South Vietnam ensued. Though it closely monitored all PRC air and naval traffic, the fleet had orders to observe strict neutrality. 67 At the most, it was permitted to help evacuate RVN troops from the Paracels. Moreover, at the height of the fighting, all American personnel aboard RVN vessels and aircraft operating in the vicinity of the Paracels and Spratlys were ordered to withdraw from their posts. This was intended to avoid repetition of an embarrassing incident when, on 20 January 1974, an American civilian employee of the RVN navy was captured by Chinese forces in the Paracels.68 In short, despite the fact that South Vietnam was still an ally, the United States played the role of an interested bystander. Ironically, the American position allowed (and perhaps even encouraged) China to exercise its will in the South China Sea.
This is not to say, of course, that there were no constraints on China's actions. On the contrary, in addition to various political constraints, many tactical disincentives operated to dissuade the PRC from further actions in the South China Sea. For one thing, the advantage of surprise was no longer feasible, and any preparations for a PRC strike into the Spratly Archipelago could not have gone undetected. Similarly, the need to maintain supply lines across more than 500 miles of open sea would have constituted a logistical nightmare for the PRC navy - a nightmare made all the more serious in view of the possibility that South Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines might unite forces against any PRC strike to the south. 69 In addition, Sino-American detente was not itself so indelibly fixed as to permit any Chinese action in the region. There was always the chance that a wider war in the South China Sea, disrupting the shipping lanes from Japan to the Persian Gulf and involving Taiwan as well as the Philippines, would have necessitated a major change in US policies toward China.
In short, many factors conspired to determine the timing and the geographical extent of China's actions in 1974. However, none of these factors alone suffices to explain why the PRC was (and is) so obviously concerned to acquire and control these relatively obscure coral outcroppings on and beyond its southern maritime frontier. After all, there are many other outstanding and vital territorial disputes between China and its neighbors. Given the alternatives, why would the PRC choose to emphasize its claims to the island-atolls of the South China Sea?
For many contemporary observers, the chief incentive to China's actions in the Paracels was the prospect for offshore oil. Yet, in 1974 there were many other more obvious and more easily accessible sources of crude oil in China than those only presumed to exist in the vicinity of the Paracel and Spratly archipelagos. After all, in 1974 the area around Hainan and the Paracels had yet to undergo detailed seismic surveys, let alone serious exploration drilling. For that matter, the area became subject to intense exploration only in the summer of 1979, and the results of the latter have yet to be confirmed. 70
By this reckoning, the prospects for offshore oil could only have been a highly tentative motivation for China's actions in 1974 and remain a somewhat dubious inducement even today. Hence, simple irredentism and the scramble for offshore oil will not themselves explain China's special interest in the islands of the South China Sea. To what, then, can one attribute that interest?
There are, no doubt, many equally plausible explanations for China's continued interest in the islands of the South China Sea. Yet, among the alternatives, one context stands out for special consideration. From the vantage of hindsight, the central and most pressing context for that interest has to do with China's changing role as a great power in Asia. In particular, it has to do with China's peculiar status and position as a coastal state and maritime power in Asia - a position shaped by China's historic ambivalence as a sea power, but also re-shaped in the early 1970s by the emergence of a new and broadly assertive Chinese ocean policy. Intended not only to protect but also to extend China's maritime frontier, that new ocean policy provided the central rationale for China's claims to the islands of the South China Sea, Indeed, as we will see, the modern contest for the islands is itself but one act in the larger drama of a new and more powerful Chinese presence at sea.
(Contest for the South China Sea, Marwyn S. Samuels, Mathuen & Co, New York & London, 1982: 110-117.)