Happy New Year to Thieu
The South Vietnamese enter into the Year of the Tiger having lost a weekend gunboat war with China but with President Thieu more entrenched than ever. Tim Hardinge,the writer and broadcaster on military affairs, has travelled extensively in Indochina, and here assesses evens in South Vietnam at the beginning of this Lunar New Year.
The Chinese Navy is. neither the biggest nor the best but that can't be much of a consola tion to the South Vietnamese this Tet. They've just been unceremoniously pushed out of a string of coral islands whose main inhabitants are neither Chinese nor South Vietnamese but sea birds.
Just over a week before the Lunar New Year, on January 11, China restated her claim to sovereignty over several groups of islands in the South China sea. Among those she claims are two groups — the Paracels and the Spratleys — that Saigon maintains belong to South Vietnam.
The naval fracas was restricted to the northern group, the Paracels, which lie just over 200 miles from the Chinese eastern seaboard and roughly the same distance from the big Chinese island of Hainan. But the dispute finds its more recent roots among the Spratleys, which are roughly midway between South Vietnam, Borneo and the Philippines. In September last year the South Vietnamese blandly announced that they had incorporated the Spratleys with the administration of Phuoc Tuy province. This move was linked to the fact that Saigon had been selling oil concessions off the South Vietnamese coast. So far, none of these stretch further out to sea than a hundred miles or so and the Spratleys are more than twice that distance offshore. But clearly, oil companies were likely to be encouraged in the buying of concessions if they knew that, yet further out to sea, lay islands and waters still owned by South Vietnam. However, in addition to China's claim, both Taiwan and the Philippines have in the past stated claims of their own.
The antiquity of the Chinese claim certainly makes it sound the most impressive. In Chinese, the Paracels and the Spratleys are known as the Hsisha and Nansha groups — the western and southern sands. These, together with two other groups — the northern and eastern sands, or reefs, are all located in the South China sea and are mentioned in Chinese annals of the Han dynasty nearly 2,000 years ago. By comparison, the Vietnamese claim is far more recent. They say that in 1802 the Annamite emperor, Gia Long, set up a company to exploit the guano deposits in the Paracel archipelago which lies right in the path of the seasonal typhoons. In 1816, they add, the emperor went to the pains of personally planting a flag on one of the islands. The English names were given to the islands by a British naval squadron on the China station bent on clearing pirates that operated in the South China sea.
The Paracels are little more than coral havens for the sea birds that deposit the guano. The biggest of them, Duncan island, is only about three hundred yards square. The group is subdivided into the Crescent and Amphitrite groups. In past years American reconnaisance planes reported the establishment in the eastern or Amphitrite group at a small Chinese naval base. But if one reads Chinese reports it would seem more likely that these vessels supported the parties sent by the Chinese to exploit the phosphates and the kelp fishing. The Chinese say that these parties established themselves on a permanent basis under arduous conditions with no fresh water immediately available. In their turn, the South Vietnamese say that they set up a weather station in the western or Crescent group as early as the nineteen-thirties. This was supplemented in recent years by a small garrison. Whether the Chinese or the South Vietnamese had in fact established these habitations on a year round basis is not completely clear although Chinese reports would certainly point to their having done so.
It took four months for the Chinese foreign
Spectator February 2, 1974 ministry to react to Saigon's announcement concerning the Spratleys last September, but the Chinese naval build-up that followed wa,a, swift. The island-hopping of January 18 and 17 resulted in the South Vietnamese finding themselves heavily outgunned. The re,.al menace — the weapon that sank the south Vietnamese patrol vessel 1-IQ10 — were the Soviet-built 'Styx' missiles fired from Kornai class patrol boats.
The whole action — costly in lives With
roughly 100 killed on each side — smacked& the gunboat actions of the nineteenth cen' tury. At one stage it seems that there must have been at least 200 Chinese and South Vietnamese troops on Duncan island alone The South Vietnamese marines and militia' finding themselves suddenly outnumbered, re-embarked and then stood off the island and bombarded the Chinese, probably inflicting heavy casualties. The South Vietnamese' having sunk one Chinese gunboat in the confused naval action, pulled out of Or Paracels after Chinese MiG fighters roared la to support the missile-firing gunboats. Despite official South Vietnamese report; I claiming that the Chinese harassed and fir,e first, sources in the South Vietnamese NaL say that it was President Thieu himself wit: gave the orders to open fire and start thi: shooting war. Whoever actually fired first it; hard to dismiss the South Vietnamese aLli gument that it is a straight case of a Vila,. nation being bullied by a superpoviej, President Thieu must know that despite present diplomatic offensive to regain tPrii islands he is unlikely to get them back fivir the Chinese who clearly regard them as their own and are now well entrenched. But ed some ways the island dispute may have serit,e Thieu well enough. It came at a time when.."„ was engaged in clearing the way for his 10`f, election for a third and extended term of lice. re While events in the South China sea gripping the headlines in the few days net. Tet, some factors of greater domestic. sot% nificance were almost overlooked. Thle,S,ing government now shows every sign of las' pO considerably longer than was previously. .,01 sible under South Vietnamese constitutot law. Up till January 19, the day the gun 05e war broke out, no South Vietnandl`cot President was allowed by law to stan for President than one re-election with the maxirri,,r5. double term of office set at eight Yer'for Nguyen Van Thieu has already serveor,'ip over six years, having first been electecLrit 1967 in a straight fight with former Prestatift I Nguyen Cao Ky. But before his re-electionaoi 1971 he managed to pass a decree I, to stipulating that presidential candidates °,41 muster a large number of nominations Lio'rp the fragmented National Assembly or litioo other locally elected bodies. The elec.nted turned into a one-horse race which in the then American ambassador, Ellssait)itsend, Bunker, as the other two main contefil General Duong Vail 'Big' Minh and All Marshal Ky dropped out of the running disgust. 204 Helped by American ground troons bombers, Thieu had already weathereliti t
massive Vietcong uprising of Tet 1968. year after his re-election the North v-,5 namese poured thousands of regular trlire, and tanks across the Demilitarised et970°,/iiseot Thieu's soldiers — the mainstay of base in the country — fought the Cominun'et to a standstill aided by American air s But, before the January cease-fire, to turned his attention to bring full weigPict'yol bear on the lesser political parties — opposition' — that proliferatedin --7—:-tha There were about forty to fifty of theinaajoval time. Few, if any, could claim truly roan followings. They tended to revolve 3.-cor. leading Saigon political celebrities wh° ;roll tinuallv shifted their alliance in their se
_for political power, influence and privilege. 'Neu explained that this was no way to face a monolithic Communist movement in the country and, while invested with special Powers during a proclaimed state of emergency, passed stringent new laws forcing them to prove that they could muster national
PPort or stand down. Nearly all the parties te11 short of the law.
With the immediate prospect of a straight Political battle with the Communists drawing Closer, Thieu busied himself in creating his °Nyn party out of members of the administration and the Army. Anyone keen on retaining his government post subscribed with Understandable, if perhaps superficial, enthusiasm. His Dan Chu party gained further sAaPPort in the two houses of the National Tsembly by those who recognised the reality his power in the country and decided to 'low with the tide. lb the next in his series of logical moves to CU re complete power Thieu then turned on ;ae Senate or Upper House. This constitutional body had on several occasions proved a „aalsance by attempting to block his legislation By the time of the cease-fire the situation IZas greatly complicated by the text of the raris agreement. It stated explicitly that there existed in South Vietnam two administrafos, two zones of control and three political rees in the country. It called for the setting f,,,I1P of a National Council of Reconciliation and ere in which all three political forces were to participate with a view to general `lections which should include the Cornlunists trs,14_,aving signed the agreement, Thieu then " his countrymen that no Third Force ':isted in South Vietnam. His party laws had r, eadY thrown the opposition in the National Co 'sembly into disarray. In the face of strong rmnunist objections, Thieu then ruled out cc Possibility of elections including the reeraMunists while North Vietnamese troops tbrilained in South Vietnam and declared that ale constitutional Senate elections were to go read in mid-1973. Half of the Senate stood re-election. But, once again, Thieu had cut ground from underneath the opposition. the succeeded in passing a law which required :se standing for the Senate to receive party tricking and nomination. His previous resstions on political parties meant that many b`allators were now without proper party re2c,tirlg. A great number of his opponents, th:"sidg that the odds were strongly against fill`="1, opted out of the contest. The senate ore:7.1 With Thieu's nominees — the candidates
Dan Chu party.
"e 1973 Senate elections were a major
for Thieu and at the time his critics ,edicted that he would use his new absolute 'tiLtalority in both houses to amend the constvalttion in his favour. And this is exactly what hpIs haPpening just before the gunboat war kke u out. out 140 Thieu supporters from both (toettses of the National Assembly signed a the UMent calling for certain amendments to ill; constitution. The most important allowed terea to stand for a third and extended term Pr2v,e Years. Other amendments included the lossisldent's right to appoint local officials, ead of them being elected locally. There still some fifty-five opposition members both Houses who have formed together, stos„P,i,te the constitutional amendment, who the""Y proclaim that they do indeed represent Thi elusive Third Force in South Vietnam. But tvithell Can now stand for re-election in 1975 l9C. Prospects of remaining in power until tha i_So strong does he consider his position, 4h:flit's to the continued backing of his Army I the administration, that he has even offered Govriro-Communist Provisional Revolutionary ktrA eroment elections this year. Noting the 41;113' the political wind is blowing, the PRG the offer down.
"leu's brush with the Chinese Navy could well work further in his favour. It certainly diverted a great deal of public attention from his latest and most sweeping political move. It could help to galvanise South Vietnamese popular opinion and act as a rallying call for Vietnamese nationalism in the face of supposed Chinese aggression. Moreover, it also puts the North Vietnamese in a sticky position as allies of the Chinese. All they can say at the moment is that such things should be settled amicably — phrases that are hardly likely to assuage bruised Vietnamese national pride.
Nevertheless, no one likes to receive a public' beating and even if the Vietnamese Navy appears to have conducted itself well in the face of superior firepower, Thieu is likely to be left with a number of aggrieved naval commanders — if indeed it was he who ordered them to open fire first. His control of Saigon politics is now so strong that the only threat to his continued power — short of a straight Communist military victory — may be a gradual decline of military support for his cause. But for the moment, the broad interests of the military and the President remain identical.